Musicians have one of those two-sentence bits of wisdom that goes, “The amateur practices until it is always right. The professional practices until it is never wrong.”
There is a puzzling, zen-like quality to this kind of wisdom, of course. The difference between always right and never wrong can seem a little too cryptic even for those who have seen “The Karate Kid” 11 times.
There is a difference, though, and it is an important one for business managers.
For the amateur, always right means that you get it right under the conditions you practice in. For the professional, never wrong means that you get it right even when other things have gone wrong.
Customer service provides a good example. A recent survey of corporate CEOs, for example, found that they were near unanimous in their opinion that customer service was the critical factor in their companies’ success. Their focus and emphasis on this factor has created a business environment where customers have higher service expectations than in the past.
For smaller companies, delivering that level of service is equally important if not more so. Smaller companies are usually better positioned to deliver service that is as good as or even better than the big guys. Unfortunately, smaller companies are also far more likely to encounter less-than-ideal circumstances when they are trying to deliver on their customer service goals.
Customer expectations have been subtly shaped by their online ordering and purchasing experiences. The first and most obvious way, of course, is that virtually all businesses now exist in a sleepless 24/7 world.
Customers also expect all support systems to be efficient and largely invisible. They expect your computer systems to be running, the lights to be on, the inventory system accessible and accurate, etc. They are increasingly uninterested in your story of why “the computers are down” or “the phones aren’t working right.”
Lastly, the online environment has shaped consumer expectations by making them much more aware of competitive markets. This, in turn, has made customer service mistakes by businesses much more expensive. And because smaller businesses generally face more direct competition, and their mistakes are more visible, the cost to them is disproportionally high.
That is all the more reason to get it so that it is never wrong.
Three basic areas where things go wrong and mess up customer service are: people, systems and suppliers. External events like weather disasters can also cause problems, but disaster recovery plans deserve separate treatment. Each has its distinct features but as anyone with business experience would tell you, there is considerable overlap as well.
In a smaller business, continuity of service is highly dependent on individual, key people. Dedication to customer service, then, means thinking about and planning for employee changes — because people change.
Most of us do not like to consider that people change, but they do, and for all sorts of reasons that have little or nothing to do with business. They may simply get older, want to pursue their education, marry or divorce, or want to live closer to an ailing relative. They also can be injured, get sick or develop destructive habits.
While these factors are not directly related to their jobs, they often cause or require small or large changes in their work life — and yours. You should consider the possibilities and outline a plan to cope with each. Unless you have an unshared, personal safe at work, though, keep this plan at home or in your head.
Systems issues these days most often feature computer-based information and communications systems — physical, cloud, and mobile — and the key phrase for a business is “back up.” And backing up your data isn’t enough. You will also need a way to support all dimensions of customer service even when the main system is inoperative. If you do not feel technically comfortable developing this kind of backup plan, get some help but get it done. You will not regret it.
Suppliers are another source of surprises. They go bankrupt, merge with another company or drop product lines that you had developed a market for. When a product is dropped suddenly, even though it is not your fault, your customers, consciously or not, will still blame you. It is up to you to prepare for that, offer some attractive options and choices for them, ensure that they realize that you have been thinking about them and considering their needs, and make the price attractive to sweeten the unexpected change.
For the business manager, the difference between always right and never wrong is usually straightforward. Always right means it is a good business. Never wrong means that it is a great business … and you can sleep at night.
James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and small-business consultant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.