Trucking had better wake up to new customer service realities

To paraphrase country music star Barbara Mandrell, trucking was customer service before customer service was cool.

No other industry lives so directly in front of the customer as does trucking. Trucking was founded on the premise of solving a problem: getting goods and services delivered at the right time, at the right price, at the right location, in the right condition, with the right attitude, and in a safe manner.

You get the picture. You have to do the "right" things to get more business and keep the business you have. The question is: Are you doing enough of the right things?

According to a Harvard Business Review article by Thomas Jones and W. Earl Sasser, "Why Satisfied Customers Defect," published a couple of years ago, the answer is "no." When customer satisfaction was ranked on a scale from 1 to 5, with 5 being completely satisfied, Jones and Sasser found that those customers ranking service a "4" were six times more likely to defect than those ranking service a "5."

How can that be? Most of us would agree that a "4" rating should be good enough. But, clearly, "good enough" is not enough.

Incremental improvements in customer satisfaction don't translate into incremental gains in customer retention. Fickle customers grudgingly will reward good service. But in highly competitive markets such as trucking, where there is little perceived difference in service, customers are all too likely to move on to the next best deal. Unless and until you - and everyone in your organization - make the financial, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual commitment to treat the customer as you would want to be treated. In other words, you must earn and deserve their loyalty.

Even as the bar is rising, the state of service in America is declining, according to United Parcel Service (UPS) vice-chairman John Alden. Proof comes from the University of Michigan's American Customer Satisfaction Index, which has shown a steady decline for the past three years. In addition, the Conference Board found 42% of consumers rate the companies they deal with as "fair" or "poor" at meeting their needs. Only 8% rated companies as "excellent."

Such poor performance can be turned around if companies institutionalize customer service, says Alden.

First, you must build a customer-centric culture, maintaining continuous dialogue and feedback with the customer. UPS tracks such things as opinions of UPS products, package pickup and delivery performance, tracking capabilities, claims handling, pricing, and other features. The index also measures perceptions about the company's image and broader market issues.

The second leg is employee satisfaction. UPS regularly conducts employee surveys to gauge attitudes about fairness, self-esteem, and communication - issues that management can directly influence. The voluntary survey is completed by 80% of the company's work force.

The third leg of the UPS initiative is service recovery. This refers to the ability to correct a mistake quickly. UPS delivers 12-million packages a day, so some slip-ups are bound to occur. "Unless we have a recovery plan in place, we won't be able to rebound quickly and regain the customers' trust," Alden said.

It takes hard work to attract customers. Harder work still to earn their loyalty.