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Business Observer Friday, Apr. 8, 2005 16 years ago

How to Become a 'Benchmark' Firm

Start with the customer 'experience.' By: Lou Lasday
by: Adam Hughes Staff Writer

How to Become a 'Benchmark' Firm

A benchmark firm is one that is so advanced in its perceived practices among its competition that it is said to win the market as the "category killer" in the segment in which it competes. It is a model that competing companies seek to emulate. It is a standard by which others are measured. This top-of-mind awareness is so engrained in its customer base that the end product delivered by the firm is almost never the reason for this top performing mental rating. Think about that!

At benchmark companies, the customer not only comes first, but is the pivotal rally point around which the whole being of the firm evolves. There is a subtle yet impelling distinction here. It's critical to the benchmark concept. Think in terms not of the customer coming into the circle of your professional service environment, but rather, of your total service environment surrounding and enveloping the customer.

Total customer satisfaction

The totality of the customer experience - delivered from all "stakeholders" - is the key to this subliminal benchmark evaluation leading not simply to customer satisfaction, but climbing the ladder to customer advocacy.

These best practices leading to advocacy represent the business fundamentals of firms that are masterful at not simply meeting, but exceeding customer expectation. Deceptively simple, yet highly effective for attracting and retaining customers, they can be applied by both service and non-service oriented firms. And, the concept is valid at global giants or Gulf Coast startups.

The common ground between all truly excellent service firms is that they know their end product or service is the creation of an extraordinary customer experience. And, any Gulf Coast enterprise - law firm, community bank, Realtor, CPA, insurance broker, builder, financial adviser, hospitality, high tech executive or other - will meaningfully benefit from applying the following most visible "best practices" of top performing firms.

Here are the five closely held secrets to becoming a benchmark firm. These are the strategic initiatives to propel customer loyalty, advocacy and retention at your soon-to-be benchmark company.

First: Think and act in terms of the total "customer experience." Depending upon your profession, you'll substitute the word "customer," with patient, client, investor or with whomever you interface. The point is, there is so much more than the product itself. Leading benchmark companies realize that every interaction with the customer can make or break the relationship. Every stakeholder must not simply be a party to this success but a full "partner" in the successful relationship. I always tell my clients to start with the front desk telephone operator and strategically work up to the chairman. They all must buy into the benchmark concept if it is to happen. They must believe and live it.

The sum of the parts

Second: Continuously improve all components of the customer experience. Start your mantra with finding out what the customer expects to be improved. A follow-up telephone interview from a responsible titled staff member may be desired. Then, more detailed billing breakdown with an item or two explained and marked "no charge." Perhaps just a simple program of handwritten personalized notes, or an interesting, pertinent newsletter. A reasonably priced mailed give-away. An invitation to "call me personally (by name)." Consider all areas of customer contact points for improvement: an advance sale for best customers, a small seminar, a national speaker, a rewarding book. Any solid opportunity to "meet and greet" brings measurable results. Focus on people, products, performance and a dramatic application of good common sense. Even small, low-cost changes based on customer feedback will produce higher levels of customer attention.

Customer involvement

Third: Empower customers to help produce their own experience. When you involve the customer, it lowers your cost and fosters a greater likelihood of customer satisfaction. It makes them part of the organization's family of service. It's hard to find fault with a physician if you don't follow his treatment plan. Certainly your unfunded revocable trust cannot be the tax attorney's fault. And if you don't do the maintenance on your new luxury motor car, you can't blame the car salesman.

Be my guest

Fourth: Treat all customers as guests in your office, in your dealership, in your boardroom or even when in you are in their own residence. Looking at a customer as a genuine guest changes everything the organization and its employees do in the relationship building cycle. Creating a personable, hospitable experience instead of merely selling a product or service is an important way to turn customers into loyal patrons - repeat guests.

Long-term profitability

In short, the benchmark service organization has a key lesson to teach companies of all types: the customer experience is the key element to consider when sharing your business practices. You must absolutely spend the time - eyeball to eyeball and heart to heart to accurately understand the totality of your customers' needs and wants. Finding cost-effective ways to address these factors will be regarded with significantly greater levels of customer retention. That's the fifth secret of the benchmark company: driving long-term profitability through life cycle advocates.

Lou Lasday, an independent marketing adviser who resides on Longboat Key, creates action-oriented strategic marketing initiatives for Gulf Coast emerging companies. He has been a senior partner of a national marketing communications firm and regional president of the American Marketing Association.

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