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What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate!

A great line from a great movie, "Cool Hand Luke" that is, often, the essence of what causes negative customer relationships. And it's not just with the obvious direct communication with the customer, but, as likely, with the internal communication (or lack thereof) within a company, that affects that customer. Big consumer services companies like cable TV operators are the poster children for this situation. Not only is the left hand not aware of what the right hand is doing, but they are not even aware they are part of the same body. What results is a schizophrenic relationship with the customer and a boatload of bad examples for entrepreneurs to avoid. Let me recount a recent set of experiences to emphasize my point.

Within a three week period, I was sent a notice that, free of charge, my cable operator was going to upgrade my modem so I could better achieve the dazzling speeds promised. Then, during a customer service call (to get someone out to fix my service) I was upgraded to a new multi-room DVR service that would reduce my monthly bill. Finally, I was informed, by letter, that I they had been billing me incorrectly for multiple months and that my bill was going to be going up by about 25%.

And then?

The modem they sent me only had 2 phone jacks, I have 3 lines. I come to find that they don't yet provide a 4 line box (they only come in 2 or 4). The DVR service they sold me was not yet available in my area. Lastly, the charge increase had to do with the new service they sold me, but the letter they sent me was incorrect. I was actually being overbilled and my bill would be REDUCED by 20% (they, at least, got this one sort of right, but for the wrong reasons).

I'm sure many of you have had similar experiences. Each of these issues could have been avoided before they ever became problems for me. Primarily, there were caused by a breakdown in communications between departments. In a big company, with its bureaucracy and its fiefdoms, communication, often, gets short-circuited by "silo thinking," that is, each department solely focused on what they are doing, independent of how or whether it affects other departments...or the customer.

There isn't just "a lesson," here, but a host of them for entrepreneurs and small business owners when it comes to communication and how it affects your customer relationships. While, hopefully, you don't have the bureaucracy or fiefdoms inside your company, you still have people. And people, just being focused on trying to do their job the best they can, have a habit of creating "silos," be they individual or group. And this can happen whether you have a company of 2 people or 202 people. It's just human nature.

So, how do you, as the business owner, break down the "silos," avoid this "failure to communicate" and the attendant negative impact on your customer relationships, and keep your company customer-focused?Here's some guidance that has worked for me both in companies I've managed and advised:

Schedule periodic "all hands" meetings.
This creates an environment where, as much as possible, "everybody knows everything" that is happening in the company, good and bad. Even if you have a virtual company, technology like Skype, GoToMeeting, etc., affords you a visual or, at least, audio connection between and among your staff, no matter they're located. Keep it to an hour, maximum, if possible. The more frequent (no less than monthly), the more current the information. They have to be scheduled ahead of time and they cannot be missed, unless somebody's on vacation or ill. Have an agenda. Review current projects, current issues/problems (especially where they affect the customer) and current sales/financial status (everybody should be aware of the numbers). This isn't a "pizza lunch," cheerleading session or group therapy. It's information exchange. The more folks know, the more connected they feel, the more they communicate with each other.

Encourage face-to-face communication, wherever possible.
Email is now our primary vehicle for communication, but it is emotionless (sure, you can scream with all caps, but it's not the same) and has become more like texting. It takes more time to create than the thought it communicates. A five minute, face-to-face, conversation often eliminates 25 or 30 emails. It also allows for more personal interaction and that leads to better communication. At worst case, if they can't meet for five minutes, encourage them talk on the phone.

"How will what I am doing affect our customer?"
Make this a question everybody asks themselves every single day. Post it around. And if they're not sure, encourage them to come and ask you, or talk to somebody in customer support or sales. This not only further fosters communication, it keeps everybody focused on what's (or actually who's) most important. This, especially, includes folks in finance and administration who often implement, what they feel are, minor policy or procedure changes that become a major irritants to customers (and customer support and sales).

Have every employee spend one day a quarter in customer support.
There is nothing better for developing a sensitivity to customers and their questions about or issues with your products or services. It also provides further perspective to other functions about how what they do might affect that customer.

Review every customer-facing function, at least once per quarter.
Anything that touches the customer from obvious things like your website or how you're using social media to billing and collections to customer service policies to how you answer the phone should be reviewed no less than quarterly for how they communicate with your customer base. This keeps things fresh and assists in getting consistent messages out to customers. Plus, the very act of review will further ensure that your staff will be sensitive to how they are affecting customers and continue to develop a customer-centric mindset.

Good communication is at the foundation of building and maintaining extraordinary customer relationships. It's more than just how you communicate with customers, but how you communicate with each other within the company that affects those customers.

"The Entrepreneur's Yoda" knows these things. He's been there. May success be with you!

How does your company encourage communication and how has it helped your customer relationships? Include how it worked out for you in your comments. It will help other entrepreneurs!

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