The Lab Manager's Role in Developing a First-Rate Technical Service Staff
Effective customer service builds customer loyalty. It makes it easier to sell current products, additional products and new products to firms that are already your employer’s customers. This results in higher profit margins even if your prices are no higher than your competitors’. It also enhances your firm’s reputation in your customers’ industries, making it easier to win new customers. While new-product and process development programs may have a higher profile in your company, they usually rely on effective technical service to be successfully introduced into the marketplace. It is sales from existing products that fund development of these new products and processes. An effective customer service process is usually required to sustain these revenues.
The best single way for lab managers to promote outstanding effective technical service is to take care of the lab people who take care of customers. When the people who work for you feel valued, they will make your firm’s customers feel valued. This builds customer loyalty. So don’t make technical service specialists feel like secondclass citizens compared with researchers. The two types of jobs require somewhat different skills, but that doesn’t make research superior to technical service.
The right people
Effective technical service begins with having the right people in technical service positions. This in turn requires hiring people with the technical skills and personality to do well in customer service positions. Technical service positions often don’t require the deep knowledge of a science or engineering discipline that research positions do. This means that advanced technical degrees are less essential to customer service positions. Lab managers should keep this in mind when considering job candidates.
Instead, the need is for individuals eager and willing to learn the technologies practiced in the industries that include your firm’s customers. Typically, the technical service specialists in your group or department will need to master at least the basics— and usually more—of how customers use your products or processes in their businesses. Depending on the size of your customer service group and the range of different applications for your group’s products, a technical service specialist commonly focuses on one or two industries. However, technical service specialists may need to master the basics of more industries than this.
These requirements mean that being a fast learner and being enthusiastic are important qualities to look for in a job candidate. So are a reasonably outgoing personality and the ability to work well with others. Indeed, the best technical service candidates enjoy becoming knowledgeable in their customers’ industries and working with others. Since customer service representatives will often present technical information to customers, sometimes in the form of formal oral presentations, oral presentation skills are important, as are written communication skills. These qualities, especially for new graduates, are harder to assess by reading résumés. Observing candidates’ behavior during interviews and discussing these various attributes with their references assumes increased importance.
Once you’ve hired good candidates, you need to integrate them into your company’s culture, particularly its customer service culture. This means providing training in key areas required for them to deliver outstanding effective service. This often means strengthening the skills mentioned in the previous paragraph. For example, when I first joined Shell Development Company in the mid-1980s, all new employees took two three-day courses. The first was effective listening and the second, delivering effective oral presentations. The first was particularly useful since I had never studied anything similar to this course. During this course, I learned skills I have attempted to practice ever since. By listening carefully to customers and asking an effective mixture of open-ended and closed-ended questions, customer service specialists can gain a better understanding of customers’ needs and concerns.
Delivering effective customer service may mean taking one or more short courses in the customers’ technologies if such courses are available. They are often offered by professional societies.
Once the customer service specialist learns the key skills required to provide exceptional customer service, the lab manager must see that these skills are reinforced with ongoing coaching and feedback. Often the best way to do this is to ensure that the staff member works closely with sales representatives who should have the needed interpersonal skills and a deeper relationship with the customer. (Sales representatives often visit with customers more frequently than do customer service specialists.)
Lab managers should evaluate the performance of their customer service specialists on at least an annual basis. They should consult with sales representatives with whom their staff members work. They may wish to talk directly to customers’ personnel to see how customer technical service could be improved. This needs to be done with care, as you don’t want to give the customer the impression you have doubts about your staff members.
There should be provisions for providing recognition of outstanding technical service. These can be both monetary and nonmonetary rewards such as a plaque or framed certificate.
Effective strategies and tactics
One needs more than excellent technical service representatives. One also needs effective technical service
strategies and tactics. Companies often have broadly implemented strategies for developing and maintaining relationships with customers and prospective customers. Called “customer relationship management” (CRM), they usually depend on computer-based technology to organize, automate and coordinate sales and technical support activities. It is important not to let CRM overly automate and dehumanize the personal interactions also necessary to promote customer loyalty.
One way to promote these personal interactions is to have tech service staff members periodically visit the customer’s plant or lab facility with sales representatives. The tech service specialist describes new products and services under development that may interest the customer. The specialist can go into the lab to demonstrate new projects or test procedures the customer may want to adopt. He or she can learn firsthand the customer’s problems and concerns and can better understand the customer’s technology through discussions and through plant and laboratory tours.
Restrictions on business travel may mean that these meetings should be held using videoconferences or Web conferencing
A converse approach may be to have major customers visit your laboratory. Besides seeing discussions, your customers can see tests in progress in your applications labs. They can also talk to researchers to learn about new products or services nearing commercialization. Taking customers on plant trips to show them how the products they use are manufactured and the quality assurance tests performed before products are shipped can reassure them about product quality. One or more of your technical service staff members and the sales representative who services their account can serve as your customers’ host during their plant visit.
One strategy to deal with reduced travel budgets is to hold meetings with customers during technical conferences both your staff members and customers will be attending. These can range from mealtime discussions to longer, confidential business meetings held in small, private meeting rooms. I used this strategy during paper industry conferences. These discussions would last two or three hours. Occasionally lab staff members, business managers and sales representatives not attending the conference would fly in for these private discussions.
Have your customer service representatives actively seek customer feedback and complaints. Effectively handling minor complaints can improve your chances of retaining the customer and working effectively with them when major problems arise. Work on preventing problems as well as reacting to and solving them once they occur.
Make customers aware of your value
Can you compare a customer’s sales or costs before and after they began using your product to determine how much your product increased profits? This can be difficult to do but demonstrates your firm’s value to the customer.
Work with the customer to develop case histories of the use of your product that demonstrate how it increased production, reduced operating costs or otherwise increased efficiency. Depending on circumstances, these case histories can increase your sales of a product to this customer. For example, one of your customer’s plants may be using your firm’s product but others are not. A case history demonstrating plant performance before and after the plant began using your product can persuade other plants to use the product—increasing your firm’s sales while providing increased benefits to the customer
It may be possible to present the case history to other potential customers in the same industry. One way to do so is a joint paper presented at an industry trade conference and authored by your customer service representative and customer personnel. However, this may not be possible, because the customer may not wish to be identified. In this situation, you can have your technical service representative write the paper in such a way that the customer’s identity is not disclosed and can’t be clearly deduced from the information provided in the paper. One can take the same approach in writing a technical bulletin to post on your firm’s website and distribute to potential customers. It’s best to work with your customer when doing this, to be sure that this approach does not raise concerns. It may be necessary to remove particular case histories from the drafts of conference papers or technical bulletins to avoid damaging your relationship with the customer.
Can you bring your customers business? This may mean encouraging your own firm to buy their products or services. It may mean steering a potential customer for their products or services to your customer should circumstances arise that will make this possible.
Often technical service work performed for one customer can help sales representatives and other technical support specialists better serve other customers. To accomplish this, some firms, particularly larger, global firms with multiple laboratories scattered across the globe, integrate CRM with knowledge management (KM) systems to make technical service results available to technical service specialists in widely scattered laboratories and working with different customers.
This communication is not a major challenge in small firms with a limited number of technical service specialists often working in a single laboratory. However, even in this case it may be worthwhile to have a softwarebased system integrating CRM with KM, since old results may be relevant to a different customer years later. Despite the costs of CRM/KM systems, they may be cost-effective for companies of all sizes if used consistently.
It can be very helpful to be able to retrieve knowledge given to various sales representatives and technical service specialists about problems faced by customers in a given industry or problems shared by different industries. Such information, if it is retrievable and collectible, could be used to guide new-product development programs and to generate new markets for existing products.
Co-development—working with suppliers to develop new or improved manufacturing processes and with customers to develop new products—can reduce development costs while speeding improved products to market. This benefits your own firm, suppliers and customers. Early revenue is especially important for smaller firms and start-up companies, which often have limited cash resources. If markets take too long to develop, laboratory budgets could be reduced even to the point of some staff members losing their jobs.
All these measures will improve your technical service staff members’ morale and productivity.
These principles and strategies also work with your group’s internal customers within your own company. These include production plants for which your work group is developing new manufacturing processes as well as business development managers and sales personnel for whom your group is developing new products.
These strategies enable external customers to put faces to names and make them more likely to call your staff about problems or new-product needs rather than calling your competitors. Customers will better value your staff members and the services they provide. As your staff members get to know your customers as more than voices at the other end of the telephone line or as names on e-mails, they will be more motivated to help customers solve problems. These strategies build trust between your staff and your customers.