By Diane M. Calabrese / Published April 2023
In business, everyone has a customer. The straightest paths to business success are growth in customer base and growth in customer purchases. Take retention of customers as a given.
How to keep customers so happy they will not go elsewhere is a timeless question in business. (Better still is if their satisfaction leads to a word-of-mouth recommendation.)
Technology helps a lot. True, the technology serves as a tool—no different really than a pressure washer. A tool that must be used correctly to get optimal results. But in 2023, technology is in the “toolbox” everyone uses to optimally serve customers.
Frank Hall is the owner of Jetstream Pressure Washing/Roof Cleaning in Bonita Springs, FL. He, like many contractors in our industry, embraces technology to the fullest extent possible.
“Most of my correspondence nowadays with potential and existing customers is by text,” says Hall. “My voicemail directs customers to ‘text me for fastest response and correspondence.’ My trailer signs encourage potential customers to text with pictures for an estimate.”
How does it work out? Texting with images carries the day. “I’ve had numerous new customers I’ve never talked to prior to doing the work,” says Hall. “It’s much easier, and most customers love not having to pick up the phone at work to answer a call.”
Ease of flow of information between customer and vendor can start, maintain, and expand a relationship. Technology also gives a boost to all interactions with customers in the sphere of manufacturers (and the sphere of distributors).
“Today almost everything is digital, and providing our customers with sales and marketing materials in this format through our portal has made it easier for them to access materials anywhere and anytime directly on their phones, tablets, or laptops,” says Sarah DeMarte, marketing manager at Mi-T-M Corporation in Peosta, IA.
The anywhere and anytime mean a lot to distributors and end users who might want to browse new machines or ancillaries outside their busy hours or across time zones. There’s no question that today’s customers want access to the information they need 24/7.
Technology also alleviates what was in the past referred to lightheartedly as phone tag—voice mail recordings as part of the relay. “A majority of our customer communications are via email, which is quick and efficient without the lag time of regular mail,” says DeMarte.
To be sure, the benefit must be realized on both sides of the interaction. “Sometimes our customers prefer print over digital, which is okay, so we make sure to provide both formats,” says DeMarte.
One of the criticisms of technology has long been that it takes away the level of person-to-person interaction that so many value. Yet beginning with the spring of 2020, the idea that everything had to be done within a real-word venue got a hard shaking.
Today, digital interaction with video is considered as down-to-earth as one in a storefront, shop, or office space. Moreover, younger people who have grown up using digital communication do not see a strong dividing line between virtual and real worlds. So capitalizing on interactions in both places is a strategy that succeeds.
“Technology has given us a great opportunity to connect with our customers on a more personal level,” says James Baltz, general manager at Whisper Wash® in St. Petersburg, FL. “It gives us the opportunity to talk with our customers by live streaming and video chatting with them directly.”
Moreover, using digital links can speed resolution of issues. “Even a quick photo or video can be sent to us instantly through our website or social media platforms,” says Baltz. “Our technicians are able to diagnose and identify the issue immediately as if the customer brought it in physically for us to service.”
With that kind of speed, a part can already be ordered by the time a machine gets to a service center. Anything that shortens the time to a repair draws the positive attention of a customer.
Baltz views technology from all angles. And he cautions that many customers are still building expertise of their own in how to best use it. He suggests helping them.
“I believe technology can impede the experience for some who struggle with it,” explains Baltz. “New technology can be difficult to understand at first, but honestly, it does open up a unique opportunity to connect with the customers.”
Finding a way to improve the customer experience for those still on a new technology learning curve benefits vendor and customer. “We work with those who struggle and focus on providing the best customer experience possible,” says Baltz. “I believe that’s one of many reasons why we have such a loyal customer base.”
Count the ways. That might be the best descriptor of the many possibilities for using technology to better serve customers.
Brody Feldmann, e-commerce marketing specialist at Chappell Supply and Equipment in Oklahoma City, OK, looks at the future of a digital world in a matter-of-fact way. “In a technological world, businesses are always having to evolve and enhance their technology.”
That constant change is in full evidence at his company. “Here we use technology on a daily basis in the warehouse and in the field with our salesmen,” explains Feldmann. “In our trucks we have GPS that allows us to sit down in advance and map out the route for the day to be more efficient in seeing each customer in the area.”
Information transits with the team over individual devices. “Each sales representative carries an iPad with him daily to have our inventory and access to any program he might need at his fingertips no matter where he is at any time,” says Feldmann.
Changes already recorded are foundational. And more changes will come. Businesses must keep adapting.
“As we evolve as a business in this technological world, so do the programs and applications that we use,” says Feldmann. “In the field we are able to close out a sale for the convenience of our customers.”
Knowing the customer well enough to make suggestions about best fits for their businesses is important. Technology helps there, too, even on a sales route or in the field.
“We can look at the customer’s purchase and service history on the iPads, which helps in making sure the customer is getting exactly what he or she needs and gives us the knowledge of what parts we could need in the event the machines need to be serviced,” explains Feldmann.
Naturally, Feldmann’s company also fully uses technology available throughout operations. “In our warehouse, as our applications upgrade, our capabilities and potential expands. With the help of our transportation management system, Freightview, our warehouse can quote each shipment via all carriers at once to find the best deal for the customer.”
Feldmann, who was referred to us by company CEO, Roy G. Chappell, exhibits an enthusiasm for technology that matches Chappell’s enthusiasm for our entire industry. With that enthusiasm, though, he offers one bit of caution.
“Just as technology helps us, it can also impede our customer service,” says Feldmann. “Just as our sales reps have iPads and iPhones in their hands, so does the customer, which means they have the prices of our competitors at their fingertips. With that comes the misinformed customer.”
Using technology to benefit serving customers can mean providing customers with corrected information. Vendors must make certain it’s an apples-to-apples comparison.
Give prospective customers the context they require to appreciate liabilities inherent in online purchase without support from a knowledgeable vendor. “Now in this crazy world of shipping nightmares, a customer can be misinformed and purchase a product online and not see the product for weeks or even months, while a sales rep can put the product in hand in a much faster manner,” says Feldmann.
Two other cautions: One, Feldmann advises that not maintaining technology can cause problems akin to those spawned by ignoring routine maintenance on equipment. “In the same way that applications expand our capabilities and potential, they can also be harmful when they become outdated and haven’t been upgraded for quite some time.”
Two, don’t overdo it. “In a warehouse setting too much technology can slow down your response time with a customer as more technology calls for more processes to be put in place, causing longer wait times for the
customers in store,” says Feldmann.
Too much of a good thing is an aphorism that applies even in the digital world. Go for just the right amount.
“Does the technology benefit the customer?” is the second question. The first question: “Does the technology benefit the business?”