Nine ways to gain the competitive edgeNancy Friedmancustomer service, keeping customers satisfied, beating competition Tight economy! Reduced staff! Demanding customers! These days, it's extra challenging to satisfy and keep customers. But, it's even more important than ever, because customer loyalty is generally considered the primary engine to retain sales levels and gain an advantage over the competition in today's marketplace. It's been this way for a long time; it's just getting more attention now. There are hundreds of ways to do better. Here are nine ideas that I particularly like: 1. Know your products and services ... inside and out. Uninformed company reps are frustrating to customers, and uneducated employees are semi-useless. Job knowledge is key in any position. If, for any reason, your company doesn't offer job knowledge training, make it your own priority to find out as much as you can. Job knowledge is a key ingredient to serving customers. 2. Believe in your products and services 150 percent. We know of a customer service rep that has never had any formal sales training. However, based on a belief in the products and services, as well as contagious enthusiasm, this person is a top seller. People love to buy from those who get excited about their product. Customer service reps are sales people, too! 3. Walk the walk and talk the talk. Practice what you preach. A Ford dealer would not drive a GM car. Employees need to support their company's products or services before they can expect their customers to have confidence in them. 4. Keep your word. Companies spend thousands sometimes millions of dollars advertising their products and services. They tell the customer they are the best, the only, the number one, touting, "We guarantee our work!" But this isn't enough. Customers need to know that you'll do what your advertising says you will. If you claim to provide the "best" of anything, make sure you keep your word. One of the worst credibility-busters is when you tell a customer that something will arrive in seven working days, and it doesn't show up. 5. Return all calls and e-mails. It boggles my mind when a call or e-mail isn't returned. There's no reason in the world for that to happen. Sure, some of us get way too many calls and aren't able to return them in a timely manner. Well, then have the call returned on your behalf! Not returning an e-mail? How much work does that take? 6. Don't ever forget "who brought you to the dance." In other words, there are always customers who were with you from the start. They helped make your business a success. They believed in you. A nice, simple note once in a while is an ego booster to them and you'll feel good about it, too. 7. Make "no-ulterior-motive" calls or notes. Every once in a while, drop a note or make a phone call to customers (and prospective customers), without trying to sell them something. Telephone Doctor labels these "no-ulterior-motive" calls. They're "just because" calls ... and very welcomed. When was the last time you heard from a salesperson who just wanted to say "hi"? (See what I mean?) 8. Be in a good mood. All the time! When a customer leaves or hangs up the phone, be the person who thinks to himself, "That was a great visit/call." Not in a good mood? Learn how to be. Remember one of my Telephone Doctor mottos: A phony smile is better than a real frown. Do you really think the first runner-up of the Miss America pageant is as "thrilled for the winner" as she says she is? Talk about a great, big, phony smile! 9. Participate in customer service training programs at your company. Sure, you know how to be a good customer service rep. But, everyone could use a refresher and if there are no programs in place on customer service, ask for them. At best, you'll be ahead of the competition; at worst, at least you'll be even with them. Customer service is not a department, it is a philosophy and it's for the entire company. Everyone needs to embrace it, or it doesn't work. Nancy Friedman is president of Telephone Doctor Customer Service Training in St. Louis, Mo. For more information, call (314) 291-1012 or visit www.telephonedoctor.com.