Dealing with customers

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Anyone can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way; this is not easy.” –Aristotle

To my mind, at least, one of the toughest things facing the trucking industry right now is the attitude of customers. Most are struggling with dire economic issues, such as evaporating profits and desperate cost control measures, as everyone is right now – including yours truly. That tends to make people pretty thin skinned and rough around the edges – or, if those traits already existed in good times, amplifies them to new and unholy levels.

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But you gotta deal with it – in fact, not only must you deal with it, you’ve still got to find ways to build up your customer base and get more of the “green stuff” from them so your business can survive the downturn.

That’s a constant theme of my good friend and work compatriot Tim Brady, no matter what business subject is being discussed. For without customers, you’ve got no business – you’ve got nothing for your truck or trucks to haul.

“It becomes of the utmost importance to have long-term customers in place during times like these – and keeping the quality customers we currently have,” Brady told me recently.

As the business editor for American Trucker magazine (of which I’m the editor – and trust me; that title plus a nickel doesn’t even buy me a cold cup of coffee, let me tell you) Brady knows all about how customers impacts truckers. He hauled household goods for well over two decades and dealt with all sorts of customers face-to-face, in all sorts of situations.

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“Knowing what your customer wants and what your customer needs is the first step in customer retention efforts,” he explained. “Typically, the one common denominator which every customer desires is value. It stands to reason as you develop your customer retention strategy, value becomes your customer’s number one concern. What is the best method to find what your clientele wants and needs? The simple solution is: ask them.”

[Brady and I discuss this topic in more detail in our latest “Trucking Business Insights” podcast on American Rig Radio. Click here to listen to it.]

Keep in mind, however, that as your customer’s economy changes, so does the market he or she serves, stressed Brady. “Your job is to stay on top of how those changes will affect the services you provide specifically to each shipper, thus creating the needed value to keep him or her on board,” he said.

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Establishing the value of your service is the most critical step in establishing your rates – a philosophy that forms the backbone of Brady’s “Seven Secrets of a Successful Trucking Company.” That’s also the title of a seven-part webcast we’re putting on to help carriers large and small (down to the one-truck owner, mind you) learn to make their trucking business profitable – period.

Our first webinar in this series is “Setting Profitable Hauling Rates in a Recession” on May 19 at 1 p.m. eastern. You can get more information about it (and register, too) by clicking here.

But “customer service” as a concept doesn’t just encompass establishing value and rates – a lot of emotions are involved and not always pleasant emotions, either.

That’s one reason Professor Jerry Osteryoung from the college of business at Florida State University warns business owners – and that includes truckers – that you can make so many cuts in your business, but once you start affecting customer service in any way, you directly impact the viability of your business.

“There is no question in my mind that customer service has gone down over time, and that is what studies after study have shown. I think the reason is that management has not recognized how important customer service is to the bottom line,” he said recently. “I believe ignoring proper customer service has caused ‘customer rage’ to increase. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, you can get a pretty good idea of customer rage – warranted and unwarranted - by watching the various TV series that focus on customer service at airlines and airports.”

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He pointed to a survey completed at the end of 2008 by Arizona State University (ASU) that defined “customer rage” as an issue that made the customer feel “extremely” or “very” upset. According to that study, 70 percent of the respondents had experienced customer rage in the last year.

“The scary thing is that of these customers, 15 percent said they wanted revenge for their mistreatment,” Osteryoung noted. “Only one percent shared that they were able to get it, but thankfully, the details of their revenge were not requested.”

More importantly, though, he said ASU’s study found 84 percent of the respondents with “customer rage” shared their story with many others, with 50 percent of the respondents noting they would not do business with the offending company.

Without exception, the majority of customers surveyed said that all they wanted was an apology; yet, only 25 percent got one. Another thing that upset customers want to hear is an explanation as to why the problem occurred. The ASU study showed that 75 percent of the customers wanted one; yet only 18 percent got this basic information.

“The bottom line is that letting poor customer service migrate to ‘rage’ is very costly to businesses,” Osteryoung stressed. “You need to make sure that each customer that has a problem with your company is treated with respect and empathy.”

That’s oh-so-important as these tough economic times have made customers more unsettled than usual.

What's Trucks at Work?

Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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