Good, better and best concept

Master: Print Audit

Key Indicator: Client-retention rate of more than 80%

John MacInnes was so tired of dealing with software-support centres that were anything but supportive that he imagined how nice it would be to do business with a firm utterly committed to customer service. Then he set out to build one.

When he founded Calgary-based Print Audit, which develops software to track and reduce printing costs, he adopted a simple policy that would become the foundation of his customer-service model. “At every other software company in the business,” says MacInnes, “you’re not going to get someone live on the phone.” At Print Audit, callers always do.

MacInnes, while not stinting on R&D, sales and marketing, saw his true opportunity for a competitive advantage in offering a level of customer service foreign to the software sector. To that end, visitors to Print Audit’s offices may notice a stack of thank-you cards at each employee’s desk bearing that person’s photo. MacInnes encourages staff to send them to clients when they buy software—or simply pay their bills on time.

All 58 employees also have access to a flower and gift account to send thank-yous to customers, as well as gifts to mark key events in a client’s life, such as a birth or death. The firm’s flower bill is $10,000 per year, but that brings in “millions in business,” says MacInnes, who puts Print Audit’s revenue in “the high seven figures.”

His customer-service strategy is about more than sending beautiful bouquets. MacInnes realized early on that speedy troubleshooting could give his firm a big edge, so employees meet every day to report on software glitches that need fixing. And the customer-service staff try to nip problems in the bud by collecting, and then passing on to the company’s software developers, clients’ suggestions for improving everything from functionality to the help files.

MacInnes’ staff are not merely empowered, but also required, to do their utmost to solve product problems—even if that means putting the issue on his desk. If the customer is still unsatisfied, they get a refund, no questions asked. To avoid this, the firm surveys clients within 15 days of buying software and again within the next 15 days, to ensure they’re using their purchase effectively. And it follows up every year after to ask how to modify the software to meet clients’ evolving needs.

MacInnes says this customer-first approach has been decisive in achieving annual growth of 45% over the past five years and a customer-retention rate that tops 80%.

Joe Wheeler, executive director of the Service Profit Chain Institute, a Hingham, Mass.-based business-performance consultancy, says strong customer service offers multiple rewards. “There’s example after example of companies that have spent less on sales and marketing, and more on service. And it’s a three-for-one,” he says. “The customers can’t stop talking to other customers about [the service], so the firm grows organically through referrals. No. 2, the cost of sales is a lot less. And No. 3, in terms of customer retention, if there’s any kind of lifetime value before a customer turns profitable, you have to deliver a service experience that retains them as long as possible.”

A 2007 study by Toronto-based research firm Ipsos Reid shows how easy it is to miss out on the chance for repeat business: 84% of Canadians said they’ll stop buying from a company after just one negative customer-service experience.

It takes hard work to avert this danger. At Print Audit, this starts with recruitment. The firm does multiple interviews, at least one of them devoted to thoroughly assessing a candidate’s fit with its service- oriented culture. Print Audit’s skill at this is one reason its staff-retention rate typically hovers around 100%.

“The biggest hurdle is making sure that the people working here share the same values,” MacInnes says. “If they have that, then [good customer service] is ingrained. Unless it’s already in them, you can’t convince people to want to make people feel good about themselves.”

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