Customer Service: Finding the Key

Someone said customer service is not a department, it’s an attitude.  International research tells us that the quality of a customer’s experience has a direct bearing on sales, profit and overall market position. Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, put it more colourfully, “There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company simply by spending his money somewhere else.”

Cleary, everyone in an organisation should be concerned about customer care.  Whether in Accounts or Human Resources, every employee should constantly worry about how well the sales and customer care departments are handling customers—and should do everything he or she can to help them.

What is the key to superior customer care?  Why do some companies get it right and some so spectacularly wrong?  What can your business do differently?  I asked a few companies in Pietermaritzburg that are known for their service, and whose care for their customers keeps me coming back, “What is your secret?”

Sue Malherbe from Coffeeberry Café was clear, “Look after your staff.  We try to focus on making our staff happy, because, if your staff are happy, they will pass it on to your customers.  You also end up with lower staff turnover, which makes for better relationships with customers.”  That was confirmed for me as one of the waiters brought a cappuccino to a customer who had just arrived with a friend.  The customer was very embarrassed because she was not staying for coffee this time, but she was clearly very pleased to be known and remembered.  International trend watchers agree with Sue.  They tell us that the shift is away from putting focus on the customer, to putting it on the employee who delivers the customer experience.

Warwick Hulbert from Moffatt Optical said, “Think about what you want when you walk into a business, and make sure you give it to your customers.  Make the customer happy whatever the cost.”  That’s a scary idea, but it pays for itself over and over in customer loyalty.  Warwick reminds us that no one has ever won an argument with a customer, because customer service is not what we do, but what our customers experience.   As someone said, “Everyone makes mistakes; it’s what happens next that matters.”

Donovan Reddiar from the MTN outlet in the Cascades Centre recognises the difficulties his customers face, and tries to make it easy for them to do business with MTN.  “Understand where your customers are coming from.  They won’t follow all your rules and regulations (such as keeping warranty forms for 12 months).  How can you make it easier for them?”  How easy is it to do business with your company?  Have you checked your website lately?  Do all the links work?  Are all the telephone numbers and email addresses correct?  Do the receptionists know where to direct customers, even those with unusual requests? 

Although Sandra Gjersoe from CBM Training is based in Johannesburg; her comments were so refreshing that I had to include them.  And we did at least have our conversation in a Pietermaritzburg coffee shop.  Sandra told me about an unusual training request she had received.  When the potential customer asked doubtfully whether CBM could cater for his unusual needs, she responded, “But that’s all we ever do.”  What a refreshing response, and how different from the more common, “If it’s not on the menu, you can’t have it.”

Customer service (good or bad) is what your customers talk about.  How far will you go for your next customer?  Who in your organisation need to be reminded of their role in the customer experience?  Add your comments below.

(This post appeared in The Witness on 11 December 2012)

Ian Webster

From Methodist minister to Customer Relations manager in a computer bureau to HR Manager in a newspaper printing and publishing company. Now focussing on training and developing people and HR & people-management consulting.


  1. John Bertram on 14 February 2013 at 9:24 am

    Great article, Ian. All too true. I’ve often been amazed at the number of contractors who will spend their time and money (on travel) coming to do a quote for repairs/maintenance, and then don’t send their quote …. do they have so much work that they can’t be bothered to send their quote??

    • Ian Webster on 9 March 2013 at 5:21 pm

      Hi Galen, thanks for the comment–too true. Sorry, I’m not getting emails when comments are made, so I missed this.

      • Ian Webster on 10 March 2013 at 3:50 pm

        Sorry John, I’m on another planet. I called you Galen!

  2. Donna on 12 January 2013 at 4:08 am

    Hi Ian
    Have just managed to get round to readying this EXCELLENT article. Well done. Loved the picture……it would seem that the customer is being more innovative than the supplier in getting their message across! Well done.

    • Ian Webster on 20 January 2013 at 9:50 am

      Thanks Donna,
      Much appreciated. Yes, looks like they had lots of time to be creative–not a good idea!

  3. Ian Webster on 11 December 2012 at 12:37 pm

    Thanks Galen,
    Good to hear from you. And you’re absolutely right. Jeff Bezos of Amazon said, “If you make customers unhappy in the physical world, they might each tell 6 friends. If you make customers unhappy on the Internet, they can each tell 6,000.” How scary is that.

  4. Galen Schultz (@GalenSchultz) on 11 December 2012 at 9:17 am

    Businesses have to be more careful than ever about what customers say about them thanks to social media as well as websites such as Hello Peter. One ill-treated customer can have a ripple effect these days! It’s becoming less “buyer beware” and more “businesses beware”

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