Genuinely putting customers first is a great idea in theory, but there can be unintended practical implications or challenges of doing so – as these business owners point out.
Upsetting your industry peers
Natasha Chadwick, founder of aged care service provider Synovum Care, says putting customers first can have the unintended outcome of upsetting others in your industry.
“Aged care is very traditional. It's operated in the same way for many, many years … we continue to build really large institutional environments. You know, they might be beautiful. They're aged care hotels, if you like. But they still don't meet the needs of the individual resident,” she explains.
“If you're living with dementia or a complex care need … you need a normal environment. And yet, somebody who's living with dementia is then admitted to a really large institutional environment, and you know, they lose themselves. And in many cases they get sicker or might die faster than they normally would have if they'd stayed at home, if they could have been supported in their home.”
Her customer-centric business model revolves around constructing a more traditional village, with houses for the residents around a small town centre. Residents can also come and go as they please, rather than having to sign out.
“We identified what we call small-scale living. So instead of building large institutional aged care buildings, that might house a 120 people, we build a house and that houses seven residents who live together. And then we have also, you know, instead of having carers, who are specifically trained just to provide care to a resident, we have a multi-disciplined role that essentially does the budgeting for the household.”
Natasha admits that while her unique approach has won many keen followers, others within the industry are not so happy.
“There's a lot of people kind of looking at us, and watching us. Some of them, I think, want to see us succeed, and are really interested in the model itself, and we're being asked to partner with a lot of people. But there's also just as many that I think are waiting to see us fail,” she says.
“Because it's easier to say, ‘nothing can be done: we have to continue to operate the way we've always operated’.”
Convincing stakeholders of your concept
Truly putting customers first can sometimes mean reducing your profitability in the short term for the longer-term benefits of a solid reputation. However, this can be a challenging concept to convey to investors and fellow directors as well as banks.
“For us, it's really important that we can demonstrate to our industry that this is possible and that it can be done, financially viably,” explains Natasha.
“We've had to demonstrate to valuers, to the banks, to industry leaders, through consultants and so forth that this model is financially viable.”
Sometimes, as Natasha’s experience shows, doing so may require proving the concept through a pilot program rather than relying on a theoretical set of numbers.
“We've been able to demonstrate through our pilot that it is achievable.”
Going the extra mile
We are all familiar with the term ‘going the extra mile’, but when it comes to customer service, what does that truly mean?
For Irwandy Tan of breathalyser manufacturer Andatech – winner of the Customer Experience of the Year at the Optus My Business Awards 2016 – going the extra mile means satisfying the needs of everyone your business has contact with, not just those actively engaged in a transaction.
“In our customer service team, even if somebody calls in and asks where the pizza shop is, we won’t be hesitant to … go to Google Maps and search for it,” Irwandy says.
That philosophy is also not just ingrained into customer-facing employees, but in every single staff member across his business.
“We have our core values mainly to nurture our customers, to continue to bring innovations into the business, and also to provide the excellent quality of service and product.
“From there, that’s applied to our marketing team, our sales team, our product team and we apply the same core values across [the business].”
It’s a philosophy that some business owners believe can help you stand out in any business, regardless of the product or service you offer. This is especially true for the retail sector, says Philip Bartholomew – owner of My Pet Warehouse and former Petbarn CEO.
His approach has always been about getting customers to leave feeling totally positive about their experience inside one of his stores – and has been known to even pay customers' parking fines incurred while they were shopping in his store.
“If we don’t have something in stock, no problems – why don’t you pay for it now, and we’ll have it shipped to your house free of charge the minute it turns up; no more store transfers. I’m not sending someone to another store to risk losing a sale,” he says.
Be honest and open to manage customer expectations
Nobody likes to be disappointed, or worse, left in the lurch. Which is why businesses that are recognised for having great customer service take a very proactive approach in communicating changes with their customers.
A great example is logistics businesses, which are subject to great variability of traffic conditions and weather in meeting delivery commitments.
“Communication is the key. I think that most people understand that things can happen, but it’s got to be communicated early and it’s got to be communicated effectively,” says Walter Scremin of Ontime Group.
“The drivers and everyone associated with that business needs to be trained up to know what they’re doing – it’s not just a delivery, it’s a client waiting for something.”
Adam Zuchetti is the editor of My Business, and has steered the publication’s editorial direction since early 2016.