Crisis shouldn’t be the spur, but better late than never.

In article in the June 7 Wall Street Journal caught my eye. Titled “Customer Service as a Growth Engine,” the article described efforts by large organizations such as Walgreens, Comcast, American Express and others to pay “more attention to customer service in an effort to increase sales and gain market share in the economic recovery.” The newspaper cited a recent survey of more than 1,400 companies that found more than a quarter saying customer service would be the prime target of increased funding once the economy improved.

To which I silently responded, Duh!

I wonder if it occurred to executives at all of those companies surveyed, as it did to me, that had they invested more money in - or not scraped it away from - customer service activities when the downturn hit, they might already be enjoying increased sales and market share. It’s a real simple concept. People like to do business with companies that make it likeable to do business with them.

Companies of all kinds can get so wrapped up in trying to generate revenue-producing business that they neglect customer service. It’s easy to do, especially since many activities that fall into the customer service category may end up costing money, and in hard times everyone is looking to trim overhead. In the end this is shortsighted, because anything that detracts from customer service is bound to impact sales volume in a negative way over time. Also, for the most part, customer service is not expensive.

Running a business can get pretty complicated, but customer service is not. You don’t need an MBA to master it, and it costs little to nothing to implement. It’s a matter of attitude and simply applying the Golden Rule to your policies and procedures that relate to customer interactions.

Here are three initial steps to take to establish a customer service culture in your company:

1. Make customer service the highest priority. Ever walk into a retail store and stand around waiting while some clerk avoids eye contact while finishing up paperwork or some other chore? That’s a good example of anti-customer service.

A better way is to make it an explicit company policy that employees ought to drop whatever they may be doing at any given moment in order to respond to a customer request. Some important tasks might get delayed, but this rule states loudly and clearly that nothing is more important to your business than your customers.

2. Create measurable customer service goals. These might be metrics such as reduction in number of complaints, or an increase in repeat business, or a contest to reward employees who attract the greatest number of customer testimonials.

3. Value customer service as much as sales by creating incentives to provide excellent customer service, such as restaurant certificates or bonuses to employees who generate the most customer testimonials.

 Years ago, I interviewed Angie Hicks, founder of the “Angie’s List” consumer referral service for home repairs. One of the things she told me ought to be burnished on the walls of every trade business.

As you might expect, plumbing companies are among the most prevalent on Angie’s List. I asked her what were the most common complaints she sees about plumbing service firms.

Specifically I asked about price, and she said that while price is one of the categories graded by Angie’s List members, plumbing contractors generally don’t get hammered in this area. “It’s the little things,” she said.

“Getting people to return phone calls, showing up for appointments - that’s what our list members mostly complain about. The little things make a big difference. It’s especially bad this time of year (late May) when remodelers and other trade firms are getting busy,” Angie said.

Those “little things” are absolutely within your control. Nothing can prevent you from returning calls, showing up on time, being polite, telling everyone in your organization to wear a smile when dealing with customers and treating them with respect. Nothing can prevent you from drumming it into all your employees that their livelihood depends on doing these things just as much as it does their talent. Customer care can overcome the glitches that inevitably arise mechanically and logistically in the course of running your business.

If you read my column from last month, you’ll understand that in the Internet age of instant and widespread communications, customer care is more important than ever.

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