Reach for the Stars - Achieving & Maintaining Stellar Customer Service

By Julie Bos
The issue of customer satisfaction is something that every laboratory wrestles with—and for good reason. After all, when competition is fierce, stellar customer service often gives labs the edge they need to outperform their peers, which is key for independent labs trying to gain (or keep) market share.

“In this day and age, pricing and products are often very similar, so what causes a customer to select one business over another is the level of service they receive,” says Valerie Manso, industry consultant. “It’s one of the major things that set a company apart.”

But how, exactly, can your lab achieve and maintain a stellar level of customer service? Consider the following best practices that are in use by some of today’s leading labs, and plan to put them to work for you.

Learn to (Really!) Communicate with Customers

There’s nothing that can make or break a customers’ opinion of your lab like proactive communication—or lack thereof. “If your lab runs into an issue with a job—say, a broken lens during edging or an item on backorder—advise your customer of the delay immediately,” explains Manso. “A quick phone call gives your customer the opportunity to call the patient and pass along the news. It makes you look like a hero, instead of part of the problem by failing to tell the customer the job was running behind.”

While you’re at it, present the customer with a few alternatives. Most customers aren’t aware of all the product options available, and the most successful labs are the ones that serve as expert advisors, not just order fillers.

Conduct Regular Reviews

Think about it. Your employees get annual appraisals on their job performance, so why shouldn’t your lab get similar feedback from your customers?

In fact, regular “check-ups” can give you critical information about what your lab is doing well, what you could do better, and what products customers are currently buying elsewhere because you don’t offer them.

Boost Value with Real-Time Reports Another strategy is to provide business reports that your customers may not be producing on their own.

For example, track customers’ current sales versus prior year, as well as growth patterns and individual sales categories (e.g., percentage of anti-reflective treatments, photochromics and progressive lenses).

“This service provides a lot of value because not every independent practice is computerized, or savvy enough to dissect their business this way,” says Manso. “By providing that kind of input, your lab becomes a business resource and not just a product supplier.”

Peggy Conway, director of marketing at Homer Optical in Silver Spring, Maryland, wholeheartedly agrees. “Our sales reps regularly meet with customers to analyze their business—where their sales are up and where they’re down,” she says. “Then we try to figure out how we can help them grow through training, promotions and rewards. Many of our customers don’t take the time to run these reports themselves, so we’re really supplying a value-added service.”

In addition to business reporting, there’s also job reporting—a mechanism that keeps customers informed about current status. Walman Optical in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is one lab that relies on this tool.

“At the end of each day, we send out daily reports to our customers—either via e-mail or fax—that show the status of every order in our lab,” says Matt Cummins, regional manager. “Each day, our customers know which jobs they’ll have the next morning, and if something is delayed, it will be on the list, which helps keep jobs from getting lost in the cracks.”

Take Advantage of Vendor Training

With new optical products being introduced continually, it takes a good deal of effort to stay ahead of the curve. “We try to maximize our vendor training to be sure that our employees are aware of new products and line extensions, how to differentiate them, and how to answer customer questions when they come in,” says Conway. “We also need our staff to be knowledgeable enough to notice a prescription that doesn’t look quite right, so they can clarify it right away. That requires a good bit of training.” But don’t limit your laboratory to in-office trainings; you could be selling your team short.

“Sure, we rely on vendors to come in and give our staff information on new products that are available, but we also encourage our employees to attend vendor-based seminars that are available in our local and regional areas, as well as Web-based training,” says Cummins. “Often times, we even encourage and require training courses that are outside our industry that focus on general topics, like customer service skills.”

Put the Power of Technology in Your Hands

As you strategize your customer service practices, don’t overlook the power of today’s technology. J. Larry Enright, general manager of PerferX Optical in Pittsfield, Mass., believes that one communication technology—instant messaging—can offer a huge customer service advantage.

“Using instant messaging to follow-up on order details helps us eliminate a lot of phone tag, and lets us gather information from customers quickly and easily,” he says.

“It really expedites the whole process.” Another technology that can help is Voice over IP (VoIP), a digital replacement to standard PBX telephone service. Soderberg Ophthalmic Services likes it so much it’s upgrading all of its 13 labs to the new communications platform.

With VoIP phones and Unified Messaging software, your phone system can automatically communicate an employee’s availability or alternate contact information—even transferring the calls to a different number, such as a cell phone or home office phone, in an effort to eliminate phone tag and service callers’ needs.

“We encourage customers to call us directly if there’s anything they need, and VoIP technology helps us become more responsive to their needs,” says Craig Giles, vice president and general manager.

Recognize Good Employee Behavior

As your customer service strategies take hold in your laboratory, devise a plan to acknowledge your people personally when they treat customers well.

“When we get positive employee feedback from a customer, we recognize and reward employees with random drawings for gifts and perks,” says Giles. “This program is our way of thanking employees for their customer service efforts and encouraging them to keep up the good work.”

Soderberg Ophthalmic Services is also implementing a customer service champion training program, in which key people from each branch share their best practices for customer service, enabling people in the other branch labs to learn from them—and put them to work.

Don’t Forget to Say Thanks

Remember, customers—like most people—want to feel appreciated. “If a customer is giving you a lot of business, don’t forget to call them up once in a while and say ‘thanks,’” says Manso. “I recommend doing this no less than once a year, preferably when you’re sitting down for a performance review, negotiating discounts or planning out changes.”

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Labtalk May/June 2018