Bucking the Recession with Exceptional Customer Service

By Jessica Davis

You hear the stories all the time. Stories of unsatisfied customers. Stories of unbelievably poor customer service.

Case in point: A business needs to upgrade its bandwidth with its ISP but gets routed to a call center in the Philippines (or insert your favorite outsourcing location) and the person on the line can’t tell them who their local sales rep is because the information in the file is incomplete. When the local rep is finally identified and dispatched to the customer office, the problems don’t end there. Thirty days later, the bandwidth still hasn’t been upgraded, and the business customer has lost his last shred of patience.

This is the kind of customer service that drives business customers—or any kind of customer—into the arms of competitors. You’ve probably done it yourself—abandoned a company you did business with because they were unresponsive to your needs.

And yet stories like the one about that business looking to upgrade ISP service—a true one—still happen every day. Is your company the kind of company that can provide brilliant customer service, or do your customers end up frustrated and annoyed? Have the economic realities of the recession tempted you to cut back on customer service resources or outsource them?

Experts say that a commitment to customer service can give any company an advantage, even during a recession.

"The level of customer service that IT service providers offer makes a difference," says Kendra Lee, president and founder of The KLA Group, a sales consulting and training company specializing in IT service providers.

And VARs and MSPs who have made a commitment to customer service say it has helped them to weather this last year of deep economic recession. Some who have made customer service their No. 1 focus have even reported growth during 2009 as competitors' customers have come looking for a better experience.

Five Nines
Five Nines Technology Group of Lincoln, Neb., is one such example. Co-founder and CEO Nick Bock says his company doesn’t use a call center model or multiple tiers of technicians. Instead, everybody is the most advanced tier of technician. Every customer is assigned to a single senior technician who understands not only their infrastructure but also the vertical applications that may be unique to their particular line of business. When they call for help, they get their senior level technician.

And in a year when everyone else was saying, "Flat is the new up," Five Nines was on track to grow by 33 percent for 2009 to $4 million.

That’s because the relationship with the customers is the first priority at Five Nines, which began its life just over three years ago as many managed service providers were looking to add help desks to their businesses.

"We looked at that, and in the end we decided we weren’t willing to embrace a pure help desk model for our customers," Bock says. "We wanted to build the relationships.

"If we have a customer that has a problem that we traditionally would call the help desk for, we want them to call the primary engineer," says Bock. "He’s the one who knows when there’s an issue with this application; he knows what is going on with that."

The goal is for the primary engineer to handle 80 percent of the work from each of their assigned clients. If that primary engineer is not available for any reason, the customer talks to another engineer on the primary engineer’s service team who also must be familiar with that customer and account.  

Another difference: Bock believes that doing too much work remotely means technicians don’t spend enough time onsite, where they are able to provide more intelligent advice to customers, so technicians do more work with customers onsite than they do at some other managed service provider companies.

Because of this approach to technical support and customer service, Bock’s company spends more on labor than most, but he thinks it’s worth it, and his revenue growth numbers certainly back that up.

"Our service delivery model has been a huge part of what’s created our growth," Bock says. "It creates customers who go out of their way to say, 'You should use Five Nines because they are awesome. We never thought we could get this out of an IT company. We just thought that an IT company was someone to be annoyed with or didn’t call us back or made us stay on the phone with them for 5 hours or couldn’t fix our problems.’"

Five Nines now employs 13 engineers but only one sales development person. Most business comes from referrals, says Bock.

The I.T. Pros

Doug Ford, president of The I.T. Pros, says it was never a temptation to cut back on customer service or technical support during the recession, even though his business has stayed flat in 2009.

"In a world of technology, engineers sometimes forget that it’s not about the technology," he says. "It’s about making sure customers are satisfied." And that’s been more important in 2009 than ever before. Ford says he’s seen a pickup in the competition as more unemployed engineers look to start up their own MSP practices using the MSP-offerings-in-a-box available from some Master MSPs and distributors.

That’s made it even more important to differentiate The I.T. Pros as a company that can provide a more professional and available level of service than competitors.

The I.T. Pros does use a help desk model but requires that customers are talking to a technician within 30 seconds. His help desk is divided into three tiers, and customers are automatically escalated to Tier 2 if their issue is not resolved in 30 minutes (unless there’s a clear path to remediation in the next 20 minutes).

Tier 3 engineers spend their time in the field working with clients, says Ford.

And the moment anyone decides a problem cannot be resolved remotely, it is routed to a site visit.

"This is the only way you are going to retain customers," says Ford, talking about his commitment to customer service. That’s why his company has made "Raving Fan" by Ken Blanchard required reading.

That’s helped Ford make a shift in revenues from less product sales to more services sales.

"We strive to emulate that book and how service is rendered," he says. After each encounter, customers are rated in terms of how much of a fan they are on a scale of 1 to 10. Ford says they are tracked on a monthly, quarterly and annual basis, and the company also uses the Help Desk Institute Survey to help gauge customer service satisfaction levels.

"Clients tell us that we are more like employees or staff members than we are like another vendor they do business with," says Chris Boyle, CEO of MyITPros in Austin, Texas. "That’s exactly what we are trying to do."

Boyle describes his company as an IT service provider, which derives a little over 50 percent of its revenues in managed services, and hasn’t been too fast in adopting that as a business model.

"We knew we wanted to do a lot of things remotely, but our business has always been a long-term relationship business," says Boyle. "We wanted to be sure that if our field engineers were in front of customers less and less that we didn’t lose those relationships."

So each customer is assigned to a lead engineer so a relationship can develop. They meet with customers at least once a month, and the engineer reviews trends and reports with customers as well as listens to customer concerns.

And that’s paid off for Boyle’s company, which achieved 30 percent growth in 2009.

"Customer service would be the last thing we would cut back on in tough times," says Boyle. "We want our clients to say 'no thanks’ when our competitors walk in their doors because they are so satisfied with us."

Part of that commitment to exceptional customer service comes from personal experience—the service that Boyle receives as a customer.

"I’m extremely sensitive to bad customer service," he says. "It’s easy to lose my business."

And he knows that translates to his own company as well.

"Managed services have become more commoditized," he says. "If our customer service ever became bad, there are a number of very good managed service providers in Austin, Texas, customers could turn to." Plus, he says, customer service is a way of life in Austin.

"Clients really get to love their guy or gal."

This article was originally published on 2010-01-12