What do customers prefer–strongly prefer–to having to ask your company for help, or for information, and then having to wait for an answer? They like it if your company gets to them first with what they need as customers before they have to ask for anything themselves.
So, if you want to become irreplaceable to your customers, it’s time to develop a mindset–a companywide customer service policy, in fact–of “getting to them first”: providing customers with the information or assistance they’re going to need before they have to reach out to you to ask for it, before, in fact, they even know that they need it.
Depending on the scale of your business, you will likely be doing this using modern communications technology and automation.
Anticipatory Customer Service Messaging
Like much else involved in creating great customer service and a superior customer experience, this requires a masterful touch, far removed from the hamfistedness of a spammer. Applied properly, the principle of ‘‘getting to them first’’ is a powerful way to make customers feel remembered, cared for, and, ultimately and paradoxically, left alone and unbothered, since they can now relax knowing you will, for example:
• Notify passengers if flights have been delayed or gates change, and if the worst happens (a cancellation) rebook them and alert them to the new arrangements, without any work on the passengers’ part.
• Reach out to customers if there’s a delay in shipping the item you’d promised to deliver before the holidays, so they can make alternative plans
• Remind customers of something they ‘‘should’’ be keeping track of themselves, but that you, in your quest to become their irreplaceable vendor, are happy to put on your own shoulders. For example, you can remind them, before they ask, when their mortgage payments are due or when a medication needs to be refilled.
Along these lines, you've perhaps noticed that your credit card company has cozied up to you by taking what should be your responsibility—posting my payments on time—off your shoulders and put it on the company’s. Now, as a result, I’ll bet you're a lot less frequently late on your credit card payments these days, and think a lot less about the idea of switching companies anymore, thanks to that simple automated alert sent to your inbox:
Alert: Your Payment Is Due in 10 Days to X Card Services
Your payment to us will be due in 10 days, for your account that ends in 1111.
Leave ways for them to reach a (fabulous) human being
But you can't do everything with automation. The effect of being cared for effortlessly (or at least with no effort on the part of the customer) that you've started electronically is enhanced by making sure that every automated addition to your repertoire is accompanied by an option for the recipient to easily reach a human being.
Remember, your marketing department would spill its blood to reach a live customer one on one, so talking with customers isn’t an overhead expense. It’s an opportunity. So strive to offer customers a chance to talk with a human, if that’s their preference, even when you’re reaching out to them through automation.
Where to find opportunities to "get to them first":
With anything you think about more than/more frequently than your customers do. If your business is a mail-order pharmacy, it means you work all day on the intricacies of injectable medications. These are expensive and involved medications used for managing multiple sclerosis and other chronic illnesses, requiring pre-approvals from insurance agencies, typically shipped to the customer every ninety days. Your customer, on the other hand, has a life. She’s doing everything other than thinking about her medication supply in the eighty-nine-day span between reorders. So, you set up the ultimate in bulletproof reminder systems, check for her that insurance and physician verifications have remained up to date, etc., and handle everything for her as transparently as possible, thus becoming her indispensable dispensary.
Any time your customers would otherwise be waiting in the dark. Projects and products built or shipped in stages, from insurance applications and disaster relief efforts to cross-country relocations and event planning, are important opportunities to get to your customers first. ‘‘No news is good news’’ isn’t something customers assume or should assume. Regular updates should be your mode of operation.
With anything that customers need to know about, if you’re aware of it before they are. This could be protection from a new software virus; many stitches are saved when electronic patches are provided to customers before they need them. Or, let’s look at an application from the fine-arts world: Don’t make your patrons find out for themselves that a sporting event has closed off the normal route to the ballet. Courteously and cannily, the ticketing service used by the Philadelphia Ballet makes sure to send an automated call to ticketholders' phones to alert them to leave extra time so as not to miss the opening curtain. It also couples the phone call—just for safety—with an email, for example, as follows:
An important message regarding your performance on Saturday at 12 p.m. The International Dragon Boat Festival and the U.S. Pro Bike Race will take place Saturday. Throughout the day Kelly Drive will be partially closed and MLK Drive will be completely closed. Please allow extra time to arrive at the Academy of Music for your 12 p.m. performance.
Sure, the ballet could rationalize to itself that the ballet patrons have already bought their nonrefundable tickets. Which is literally true this time–but the way to have them buy tickets repeatedly, and perhaps become that legacy donor you’ve been looking for is to avoid permitting them to encounter an aggravating experience that leaves a poor taste in their mouths.