I am writing this at 35,000 feet, winging my way over Nebraska headed west for a meeting. I travel about 40 weeks a year around the country. Other than generating a bazillion frequent flier, hotel, and rental car miles, the only thing I really get out of the travel is the chance to sit up front in the first-class cabin quite frequently. I like the space afforded to first-class customers, as well as the ability to board early, have a place for my carry-on baggage, etc.

As a frequent traveler I have grown accustomed to a certain level of service provided by those suppliers with whom I choose to do business. The airline representatives at my airport know me by name (heck, even the TSA agent at the gate knows I show up with a cup of coffee in the mornings!), the hotels recognize me as a return guest, rental car agencies always upgrade my choice to a nicer car, and, as previously mentioned, I normally ride in the front of the plane. I've grown used to “above average service” on a normal basis.

Illustration: Gordon Studer However, on this particular trip, I'm in coach. I can hear you now: “Oh poor baby, having to sit in coach with the common folk.” This was a last-minute trip, booked quickly when the flights were already full.

What does this have to do with you and business? Service expectations.

Look closely at your customers. In all likelihood, you offer some a higher level of service. We'll call them your “partners” or “advocates.” When they come into the store your employees defer to them, recognize them by name, and offer coffee and conversation. You always have extra time to give them, and generally you place them above your other clients.

Like my travel expectations, these customers have grown accustomed to that higher level/better quality of service. And, like me, if they don't receive that level they wonder why. It may be you've got a truck out for service, one of your drivers is on vacation, a particular salesperson is gone, or your sales assistant is out. Regardless, your customers begin to wonder, What caused this particular delivery to be late? Why is the load short? What caused the load to be assembled incorrectly? Why is my salesperson not returning my calls? What went wrong so that I didn't get the takeoff when promised? These and many other questions can and do take over from the rational side of the situation.

And the really bad news is that if your competitors happen to be calling on this builder at this particular time, your customer may be more willing to hear them out. Someone who promises the moon and the stars—realistic or not—can take this customer because he's now dissatisfied with the service he's receiving. And service expectations are everything.

If you find yourself in one of these situations (truck failure, driver no-show, salesperson out, etc.), a bit of damage control is in order. On a rational level, your customers understand that problems happen. But communication is key. If the partner-customer can understand the changes, he can deal with them, but if you don't openly communicate, the emotional side takes over.

Immediately contact any and all customers who could have been affected by the problem. Meet with them personally and explain the situation, ensure that their business has not been severely affected by the lapse in customer service, and assure them that appropriate steps have been taken to remedy the situation. Collect the information and control the outcome. You're in charge and the customer needs to know that.

Mike Butts There is an old sales adage that says, “We justify our purchases rationally, but in actuality we make the decision to buy, or not to buy, based on emotion.” Don't make your customers ride in coach; they like first class much better.

–Mike Butts is president of LBM Solutions, a DeWitt, Mich.–based LBM supply consulting and training firm. 517.668.0585. E-mail: mike@lbmsolutions.biz