Order management and customer service in the middle market has evolved slowly over the past 20 years. While most order management functions have transitioned from telephone order takers to receiving orders via EDI and email, many customer service representatives continue to receive calls from customers regarding problems with their orders. Customer service representatives may enlist help from Sales or manufacturing to demand that that “their customer orders” are filled and sent immediately. This process often repeats itself on a daily basis. Instead of proactively managing orders and customer expectations, customer service representatives find themselves reacting to disgruntled customers. However, if repeat customers are the lifeblood of a company, then world class customer service is a necessity.
With advancements in information technology there are now tools designed specifically to support the order management function. At FortéOne, we are able to design and implement the changes needed by middle market companies to proactively manage the customer experience.
Our FortéOne operating partners hear from Sales and Customer Service managers that “all of our customers are important” and “we strive to give all customers excellent customers service.” When pressed as to whether they provide all customers excellent service, the answer is usually that a select group of customers receive excellent service. In most cases, these are the largest customers, while others receive (at best) okay customer service.
So why do middle market companies not formally prioritize their customer base and drive customer service responses based upon an agreed to prioritization list? The answer is simple. Middle market companies find this difficult to implement. Sales and Customer Service management believe that customers are so hard to acquire that admitting all customers are not equal is tantamount to saying that a parent loves one child more than their other children. At FortéOne, we understand the visceral emotions that accompany the customer profiling exercise. We use a multi-variate analysis approach to identify how to prioritize the customer base most effectively. Using the output from this analysis, we work with key stakeholder (Sales, Customer Service, Operations, and Finance) to reach consensus on the prioritizations. Once we reach consensus, we assist in the creation of customer service policies and key performance metrics (KPIs) to facilitate the ongoing management of the customer profile. We also create education and training material for sales and customer service representatives and deliver the education and training as part of the change management process.
Using the customer prioritization, we assist the Sales and Customer Service teams in determining if it is appropriate to establish, or in some cases negotiate, formal service level agreements (SLAs) between the company and the customers. Although most large customers have SLAs imbedded in their contracts, we find that Sales and Customer Service representatives are often unaware of these service expectations.
Today, most large companies have a formal Terms of Sales agreement that outlines the SLA expectation and the metrics that are used to assess supplier performance. These documents are good starting place to begin the process of understanding and/or negotiating the company and customer SLAs.
FortéOne has assisted in the creation of customer SLAs and in the customer negotiations on behalf of the sales organization for many middle market companies. We have seen that our clients (and other middle market companies) are often concerned about entering into these discussions especially when customer relations are not positive. However, our engagements have shown time and again that customers embrace the approach because it removes ambiguity between the trading partner relationship. Ultimately, the concern is not warranted because customers recognize the advantage of an agreement that benefits all parties.
With customer prioritization and SLAs in place, customer service organizations become more predictive and efficient in dealing with the customers. Time becomes available for customer service to become proactive in the management of customer orders and reporting. Customer service management and representatives can be educated and trained to review future orders and order pattern. For example, these analyses can flag if a key customer who normally orders on a predictable schedule has not placed an order. A customer representative can contact them and determine if an order should have been placed. In doing so, the company has advanced visibility into customer demand rather than being forced to react to the demand (which may now be a rush request) once the order has been placed. And usually the customer feels more valued.
At FortéOne, we have assisted many companies in improving the customer order review and reporting process. Once this becomes standard practice for the customer service organization, we often recommend that a Customer Service manager participate with Sales and Operations in the weekly demand and supply review. Customer Service participation is also valuable in the monthly Sales, Inventory, and Operation Planning (SIOP) meetings.
Order Management and customer service functions have evolved over the past 20 years, but significant improvement is possible in most middle market companies to increase the value of this important, customer-facing business function. Improvement is dependent upon each function working together to improve the customer service function. At FortéOne, we understand how to work across functional and cultural barrier to assist our clients in improving their customer service and making it a key competitive differentiator.