The customer is the reason for business, so what should companies be doing to keep them. Lyn Etherington explains

When a business offers a brand to its customers, it extends to them a promise that should be exciting, memorable and, most importantly, deliverable. Keep your promise and you can realise every aspiration that your customers have signed up for. But only as long as you continue to deliver.The promise is the benefits the customers can expect the brand to bring them. The brand's advertising and marketing will enlarge on this promise, but only the customer's real experience of the brand will deliver it. Key factors will be the brand's quality, consistency and the value for money that the customer's market perceives the brand to offer.For many brands, the quality of the associated customer service will play a major role in delivering the brand's promise. For fast-moving consumer goods the role of the customer service element in the brand is hardly significant. A chocolate bar, for example, does not come bundled with any customer service, though a box of washing-powder might do, if there is a helpline number or a website address on the box. But in complex service offerings - areas such as financial services, hospitality, the motor industry, professional services and most areas of retail - the quality of the customer experience is a vital element. Indeed, how the customer is treated is probably the decisive element of delivering on the brand's promise. The crucial question to ask is: does the level of the customer experience offered play a significant role in differentiating your product from a competitor's? If it does, then as a matter of sheer logic and commonsense you need to focus on taking every step to maximise the quality of the customer experience you deliver with your brand. Many organisations, aware of the importance of customer service offer a strategy of specific initiatives focusing on customer service. But experience suggests, and a knowledge of human psychology tends to confirm, that such initiatives may not be as effective as hoped. Initiatives, in this model, are conceived as separate, self-contained projects, and as such are vulnerable to marketing inertia - they can be discarded if trading conditions worsen. Even the idea of an organisation having a customer service department might imply that the organisation thinks it can hive off the responsibility for serving the customer to a specialised department.The organisation might be tempted to believe that it can solve customer service challenges by adopting this 'silo' mentality and approach.What really needs to happen is that all the organisation's departments must assess on a continuous basis how they impact on the customer and, if necessary, they must put changes in place. What must be avoided, above all, are conflicting priorities within departments which jeopardise the objective of consistently delivering superb service.The customer service department can certainly manage the customer service operations, but responsibility for delivering the 'competitive differentiator' cannot be diverted to it.

Holistic viewInstead, a holistic view is needed. There should be concerted effort to ensure that everyone at the organisation, and every functional department, are working in unison to deliver the same calibre and quality of service. It should be a seamless service.Today, there are two major dimensions to delivering a consistently impressive customer service experience.First, the organisation's board and senior management team need to see the customer service experience as the core of an organisation's being, and central to its business strategy. They should see customer service not merely as an 'initiative' nor the responsibility of a specialised department. Directors and senior managers must be 'on board' and 'on brand'. Together they must consistently and authentically commit themselves to implementing the customer service strategy. They need to understand the implications of that strategy at an holistic level, and to grasp its relationship with other, perhaps longer-standing, strategies and commitments.

Executive commitmentAny organisation that wishes to show that it is taking its customer service really seriously should consider the ultimate test of an organisation's commitment to its customers - and to the long-term commercial benefits this commitment brings. The test is would the organisation's senior executives be ready to link their salaries and bonuses to the positive impact their organisation has on the customer experience?Second, organisations must have the imagination and sincerity to view customer service principally from the perspective of the customer and the customer's needs rather than purely from the point of view of the organisation's own requirements. The popularity of customer relationship management (CRM) systems is proof that many - perhaps most - organisations often don't approach the customer with sincerity at all, and don't view customer service principally from the customer's point of view. In many cases, calling the system a customer relationship management system at all is intellectually a trifle dishonest, because these systems tend to be programmed not to deliver a relationship to the customer but to maximise the opportunity to sell to them. Whatever CRM systems designers claim, technology alone cannot deliver sincerity, authenticity and genuine respect to customers. Only people can do that. Worst of all, too many CRM systems are delivered as essentially stand-alone technological solutions that aren't intimately integrated with the organisation's customer service strategy and its people strategy. CRM solutions are hardly ever deployed holistically. They are, in most cases, simply a technological initiative. One potent practical measure an organisation can take to effecting a radical improvement in their customer services is to introduce 'customer-facing' teams trained to deal with, as far as possible, all customer requests. Organisations might baulk at the investment and training necessary to achieve this objective, but in practice the increased customer loyalty, and a reduction in the volume of queries arising from customers who do not feel their needs were properly dealt with first time round, are likely to justify it abundantly. IT' Lyn Etherington is a director of Cape Consulting

Six steps to excellence1. Analyse where your organisation is now in terms of excellence in delivering customer service, and where it wants to be. Look at what you are doing to impress customers 2. Directors and senior managers need to start working together to make the customer experience central to what the organisation does. The 'silo' mentality, where the organisation sees customer service as simply something handled by a specialist department that operates in strategic isolation, must be avoided3. Focus on the touchpoints between your customers and your organisation where good service is likely to make an especially strong positive impact, and conversely where bad service is likely to have an especially destructive or negative effect on the relationship 4. Make sure you have staff in place who genuinely care about customers. The giant food retail chain Asda has a saying: "Recruit for attitude, train for skills". You should recruit, assess and reward staff as much on their devotion to customers as on factors such as the sales they generate and their productivity5. Take what steps are necessary to give all appropriate people at your organisation the tools to measure the beneficial effects of adopting a comprehensive, organisation-wide focus on customers 6. Remember, you are ultimately seeking to win customers' long-term loyalty.