By Ben Henry

The first and highest priority in customer service work is to build good relationships with your customers for a number of reasons. In the first place, if your customers don't like you, it is highly likely they are not going to like your service. Secondly, problems are a lot easier to solve when your customers like you. Thirdly, customers will forgive the little mistakes you make if they like you. Finally, if the relationship doesn't go well, it not only complicates the basic problem, but also creates new headaches.

When a prospective customer comes into your business place, he doesn't know anyone. So the energy that it takes for the service provider to start the relationship off on the right foot is a very wise investment. Starting a good relationship begins with a fine greeting. It diffuses any fear or inhibitions he/she may have. One writer is of the view that it is much easier to build a good relationship than to struggle with a bad one.

The three phases of a customer's experience are: delivering a fine greeting; serving the customer; and delivering a fine farewell.

In delivering a fine greeting over the phone, the service provider should smile before picking up the phone; answer the phone by the third ring; answer the phone as per the standard of his/her organization; use a positive voice tone; and maintain a smile on his/her face. In a face-to-face interaction, the service provider should welcome the customer with a smile, make eye contact, introduce him/herself, offer a firm, brief handshake, when appropriate, and respect the customer's personal space (18 - 24 inches away from the customer). It is critically important that the service provider make the open move in this first phase. He/she should be the first to reach out. By seizing the initiative enables the service provider to wield early influence over the customer's behaviour. A proactive approach will give the service provider the opportunity to "shape" the customer's attitude and behaviours in the desired direction.

Personal appearance will also determine the customer's behaviour towards the service provider. It's human nature to judge a book by its cover. Therefore, the first impression is so crucial that you must project that professional look. The service provider must be careful of the type of handshake he/she extends to the customer. The only one that is acceptable is the professional handshake (firm and brief). The cold, limp fish handshake (fingers to fingers) communicates to the customer that the service provider is unsure of him/herself. The male service provider should absolutely avoid giving the female customer the intimate handshake which tells the customer that the service provider is interested in more than service.

In serving the customer over the phone, the service provider should practice active listening; make notes of what the customer is saying; continue to maintain a positive voice tone; use the customer's name because the sweetest thing to anybody's ears is the sound of his own name; smile; and if the customer has a complaint or concern, the service provider will handle these to the customer's satisfaction. In a face-to-face interaction, the service provider should listen to the customer; smile and keep eye contact; serve the customer; use the customer's name; continue to respect the customer's personal space; help the customer to choose; and handle any complaints or concerns of the customer to the customer's satisfaction.

In providing a fine farewell to the customer, either over-the-phone or face-to-face, the service provider should thank the customer for the business, wish the customer a nice day, and offer the customer further assistance.

The service provider's behaviour throughout the three phases of the customer's experience in an organization is up to him/her. He/she will decide how to behave. There are three options open to the service provider. He/she can be positive (upbeat, affirming, personable, approachable, friendly, interested, helpful, efficient, respectful, and considerate). He/she can be neutral (indifferent, bland, flat, matter-of-fact, or distant). He/she can be negative (unhelpful, inefficient, grouchy, discourteous, short-tempered, unfriendly, unpleasant, mean, angry, rude, defensive).

Of course, only a positive attitude embraced by service providers that will produce this result ... a customer walking out of the business with a smile on his/her face at the end of the three phases.