It’s widely accepted that customer service is probably the most important way for any business to differentiate itself in what is now a global, commoditized and hyper-competitive business world. When competitors can replicate your products or services, and undercut your pricing, about the only thing they cannot do as quickly is to reproduce the image you have already established in your customers’ minds and the loyalty it wins for you.

It’s also worth reminding yourself that in a world full of social networks, blogs, and web sites reviewing everything, providing poor customer service will be the fastest way for any business to do irreparable damage to its image, and convince people that they don’t want even to consider becoming its customers. Winning a new customer is important—but it’s also chancy, expensive and time consuming. Keeping the ones you have is essential to building any kind of stable business.

So far so good, but saying this is a lot easier than doing it. What does it take to be able to prosper in a marketplace where a single misstep in handling a customer can be all around the Web in seconds?

It takes time. Time is essential to any type of satisfactory customer service.

  • You must give people your time to deal with their issues properly, not palm off some quick fix that works (maybe) for you, but leaves them little better off.
  • You need to give your customers your time and attention to really listen to their concerns and thoughts. Just about every human being wants to be heard and have his or her existence validated by other people’s attention. Give customers this and they will love you (and forgive your mistakes too). Deny them a hearing and they’ll hate you for it, almost whatever else you do for them.
  • You must give people your time if you want to build a relationship with them that they will value. The difference between a relationship conducted on the run and a relationship that will create loyalty and long-term business is comparable to the difference between a long-term, loving relationship and a one-night stand.

How do you make the time for good customer service? The secret of making time for what matters is not in what you do, it’s in what you don’t do. Cut out all the time wasters: things like wading through pointless e-mails, jumping to respond to instant messages, attending meetings that have no real purpose, spreading gossip, and writing memos or sending messages purely to protect your butt. Pare down every purely administrative activity (record keeping, budgeting, filling in forms, discussing yet another policy on car parking allocations) to the minimum time needed.

Focus every second you can on whatever makes your business successful and nothing else. I can tell you right now that it won’t be compiling reports, or attending budget meetings, or playing office politics, or reading endless cc’d e-mails. If you want to tell someone something, pick up the phone or tell them face to face. If you want something done, don’t convene a committee; give someone the responsibility and trust them to do it. If you want time for better customer contact, stop wasting it on purely internal issues.

Above all, concentrate on creating meaning for yourself, your customers, and your colleagues and associates. When people are doing something that has a meaning and purpose they can believe in, miracles happen every day.

What does it take to create such meaning? You guessed it: time. Time to spend with the people who work with you and the people you sell to or serve; time to explain your purpose and engage them in the process of making it a reality. If you fail in this, it won’t matter how else you spend your time. It will truly be wasted.

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman and a retired business executive (in that order). He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his thoughts most days at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership; and also at The Coyote Within.

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