Monday, January 15, 2007

Customer Service: It's About Removing Obstacles

Because every business is, ultimately, a Customer Service business, regardless of the product or service that is sold, I enjoy reading books written by entrepreneurs because there's a chance I'll learn something new about Customer Service. You Call the Shots by 22-year-old Cameron Johnson fits the bill.

Johnson started 12 online businesses - each one lasting a year or so - before age 21. That alone is interesting and any teen who is remotely interested in business or frustrated with traditional schooling should read his story. It's a painless way to learn about venture capital, public speaking, public relations, surrounding yourself with mentors and finding business ideas that don't require start up money. The appendix is loaded with helpful resources as well as a link to his website where there are yet more resources.

For me, the most interesting part of the book was the chapter about his work experience at his father's Ford dealership, Magic City Ford, in Virginia . The dealership has been in his family for four generations. His favorite part of high school was his part-time job as the internet sales person at the dealership, even though he was making a ton of money from his online businesses. When he was 19-years-old the General Manager promoted him to General Sales Manager, leap frogging him over adults who had worked there longer than he was alive. Yes, he was that good. In 2004 their sales were double what they were the year before even though most other dealers in the nation had reduced sales that year.

How did he do it? He was innovative. He stopped advertising in the newspaper and used that $200K per year to create bonuses and incentives for the sales force. Most of all, he was successful because of superior customer service. "One of the most important things I've learned about selling -- no matter what you're selling, whether it's a Ford Explorer, a start-up to a VC firm, or tomatoes to your neighbor -- is something my father taught me: what you're really doing is helping people remove all their obstacles." So, if a customer said he couldn't make a decision until he talked to his wife, Johnson would offer to drive the car to her right then so she could decide. If a customer said he really wanted the car but wished it had a six-disc CD changer, Johnson would offer to install one for free. If a customer didn't want to put $500 down Johnson offered to make the down payment for him.

This applies to online bookselling, too, of course. It's likely that a buyer isn't looking at your eBay or Amazon listing because he is idly browsing. He wants to buy the book. Have you placed any obstacles in his way? I see obstacles all the time when I'm a buyer. Inflated shipping charges (oh how I hate that). "Buyer must pay in three days" or other threatening lingo. Unfair prices.

Flexibility sweeps away a lot of obstacles (do you accept multiple forms of payment and offer expedited and international shipping?). Well-written descriptions also alleviate buyer anxiety. If a seller moves past your listing it is, we hope, for reasons beyond your control.

In a few years I'll have to purchase a new mini van and will now have high expectations from the sales person. If I am unsatisfied locally, who knows, maybe I'll find myself buying online from Magic City Ford.
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