What's the key to good customer service, and how can it help you get an edge over your competitors? Ian Osborne takes a look at the best tips out there?

Keeping the customer satisfied

Let’s be honest, customer service isn’t the most exciting part of your business plan.

It’s not a revenue stream, it eats resources while offering benefits that are extremely hard to quantify, and your customers need convincing that good support is worth a few more pence at the tills. And whose job is it anyway?

Naturally, resellers and retailers must offer an aftercare service, but could the distribution end of the industry benefit from offering support services of their own?

"Professional services are growing in popularity amongst distributors, but this is not the norm," says Andy Hill, customer services manager at Interface Solutions. "We believe we’re still relatively unique.

"Our professional services now form an important part of our business which we intend to develop in line with customer demand, and to remain ahead of the competition."

Paul Chung, marketing manager at Edimax Technology, agrees. "We treat technical support and aftercare service as one of our major marketing strategies. I believe our service exceeds the channel average as we provide the local touch and lifetime technical support services with no extra fee, rather than offering overseas call centres and limited period of technical support."

Symantec’s customer support department has just been awarded the 2008 Service & Support Professionals Association (SSPA) STAR Award for ‘Best Online Support’ and named runner-up in the ‘Best Embedded Product Support – Software’ category, so Norton channel sales director Lee Sharrocks is feeling bullish.

"Our customers and partners are central to everything we do and delivering industry-best customer support has always been one of our main objectives," he insists. "Our channel partners can benefit from our prompt and professional customer and technical support and aftercare, which they can pass on to their customers with confidence."

Yet the advantages offered by customer services are difficult to quantify on a balance sheet, and when times are tough, it’s tempting to cut back to keep the prices down. Paul Chung thinks that’s a really bad idea. "I treat support and after-sales service as a sales tool," he explains.

"We can turn enquiries into a direct sales opportunity. For example, if end users seek advice in setting up a wireless router, we can recommend related products such as a wireless repeater or high-gain antenna. Therefore, cutting back is not a good solution in the current situation."

Sharrocks says Symantec won’t be cutting back any time soon either. "Customer loyalty is key to Symantec’s long-term profitability and growth," he says.

"Support is a critical differentiator and driver of loyalty for customers and partners alike, which is why we remain highly focused on delivering high-level customer service and support from the point of purchase through to installation and ongoing use."

"You cannot pull the plug on support at any stage, pre-sale or post-sale," echoes Hill. "Interface will certainly not be doing so. We’re great believers in good quality service and customers will pay a little extra to secure that."
Naturally, this is a message that must be communicated.

Again from Hill: "Customers must look at costs for outsourcing professional services versus costs for doing it in-house. If we can manage a roll-out for a customer and take that headache away, the reseller can be doing something instead.

"We’re saving time and cost and allowing them to focus on new business. The value-add we deliver allows resellers to take on more deals."

"The major issue is to determine our market segment," says Chung. "One of our customers told us they recommend our products because we have a flexible and friendly technical support team in the UK.

"Even if this increases the price a little, they still maintain a high profit margin and can buy with confidence. They would not easily take a risk on other products with a lower price, but no good service record."

And finally, does the channel invest enough in customer support, or is there room for improvement? "Most companies believe they deliver a superior customer experience, but research has shown that most customers disagree," says Sharrocks.

"The perception gap can be dramatic. And it’s no surprise that research also shows companies whose customers are happy with the customer experience have significantly better customer retention and annual sales."

"We will continue to push professional services to resellers and continue to grow this side of the business," echoes Hill. "For resellers, there’s a significant cost attached to providing this kind of service, a cost not all resellers can afford to take on. Professional services through distributors enables resellers to continue focussing on sales and bringing in business."

Chung points to pre-emptive solutions alongside customer services. "The channel has invested a lot of money in technical support," he argues.

"Networking vendors are trying to improve the ease of use of their products, as they can’t only rely on a technical support team which already has heavy workload. We’re introducing the new set-up wizard CD for which customers don’t need networking knowledge; they can use the CD and go through a few easy steps to get it up and running."

So if our channel experts are to be believed, one thing’s for certain – we reduce our commitment to customer services at our peril.

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