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Focus on “Customer” Service

As a Extension agent, you are the front-line employee who represents Colorado State University Extension. You are the “sales force” representative who reaches the customer. In many people’s eyes, you are Colorado State University.

Extension’s customers include volunteers, coworkers, other agents, other department employees, county government officials, program stakeholders, and our many public audiences. Extension was built on “service” and that is what people have come to expect from their local Extension office. Providing a high level of “service” amidst staff cuts and limited program resources always is a challenge. It is wise to decide as a staff what priority services can be continued and supported, and then make it easy for customers to understand and become informed about those “services” that can no longer be provided.

Consideration and communication are two wise strategies to keep in mind while deciding on high and low priority services. Remember that good customer service centers on treating customers the way you would like to be treated yourself.

Marketing to customers and providing good customer service involves the processes of building relationships with clientele, establishing communication, building trust, developing mutual understanding and resolving problems or conflicts. All these involve two-way communication between you and the people you do business with–the customers Extension serves. Clients will know you value them when you practice the “Cs” of customer service:

  • Consideration
  • Commitment
  • Caring
  • Communication

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Customer Service Tips

Here are a few tips to help you improve customer service:

  • Think of your Extension Office as a “small business” and treat your customers as if your business depended on them. Be sure that the office reflects a positive image of the kind of “business” you are in. Evaluate your office from a “first impressions” standpoint. If it doesn’t measure up, plan a housekeeping day when you and your staff will spiffy up the office. Be aware and diligent about “visual signals” that send the wrong messages to customers about the educational work we do. These might include dead plants around the office (not a horticultural “best management practice”), use of junk food or junk food wrappers laying around (not the best nutrition message), or cluttered, unorganized offices (“How can they find my answer in that mess?”)
  • Double-check your signage. Is your office easy to find? If we send customers on a merry goose chase, we may lose them before we have them.
  • Create parking spaces for “Extension Visitors.”
  • Give customers a lot of attention—send an e-mail or phone call to ask their opinion of a workshop, or send them a little note now and then.
  • Be timely–mail that fact sheet on the same day the customer requested it.
  • Do a follow-up call to be sure the information arrived, or, if you referred a client’s call to someone else, be sure to follow through.
  • Always return phone calls promptly. Few of our callers ask questions a week before they need the answer. When they call, you know they probably need the answer “now.” If you aren’t in, have your support staff refer callers to Ask an Expert, or assure them they will receive a prompt callback. Then follow through.
  • Be sure addresses are up-to-date so mail arrives promptly and resources are used wisely.
  • Remain problem-solvers and help find the answers–whenever possible–to clients’ questions. If we frequently defer clients’ questions to other agencies for answers, customers will think of the “other guy” as the problem solvers.
  • Ask customers what they like best about Extension and what they would like us to do differently with limited resources.
  • Keep your telephone numbers and Extension’s Web site addresses in front of customers. Encourage them to use our “self-search” resources—our Web sites and Ask an Expert.
  • When customers no longer renew “subscriptions” to our newsletters, call them or send them a brief questionnaire to ask why. This is an opportunity for us to learn something valuable, and the customers might reconsider.
  • Clip an article that might be of interest to a specific customer. It will only take a moment to tuck it into an envelope and send it…but think of the long-term results.
  • Meet occasionally with customers in loosely organized, informal groups. Listen carefully to what they say. You may learn something and clients will be made to feel important for having been asked. Meet also with people who are not traditional customers. They may begin using Extension resources and may tell their friends about us. Word of mouth is often the best marketing technique.
  • Offer customers the chance for input via a newsletter or feedback form. Provide a set of brief questions asking customers what they think of our resources. They’ll appreciate being asked. Asking them for referrals also can add to your mailing list or increase workshop participants.
  • Give customers a sharpened pencil and note card with “Colorado State University Extension” printed on it and ask them to write a note telling what they think of our educational programs. You could do this after a workshop or after an office visit, or by mail to selected customers.
  • Build trust by admitting that you don’t know an answer–if you don’t. Assure the customer that you’ll find an answer if you think you can, then get back to him or her…or refer them to other resources as appropriate.
  • Consider naming a “customer service champion” in your office. It could be an Extension agent, a support staff member or a volunteer. Such an award would signify the importance of good customer service.
  • Provide customer-targeted, streamlined lists of fact sheets, Web sites or other resources–give gardeners a top-ten list of information about gardening; provide nutrition clients with a list of ten-top topics about nutrition & food safety; prepare a list of ten resources about parenting or money management; give 4-Hers or their parents or small acreage owners a helpful list of frequently asked questions with answers; be creative in sharing resources!
  • Remember that most customers don’t complain even if they want to – so regard the complaints you get seriously. They may be the tip of the iceberg. Once you gather complaint information, use it to prevent further problems. Also remember that unhappy customers tell many others about their experience…that is a “word-of-mouth result” that should be avoided.
  • Consider that many customers are “convenience driven.” They are far more apt to use services and organizations that consider their time and convenience. Introduce them to the Extension Web site and Ask an Expert for help provided 24 hours a day, 7 days a week!
  • Use answering machines wisely. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to get a person and all you get is a machine. Also, remember that many customers can become confused and alienated by a long list of numbers to remember when trying to connect to an office or a real person.
  • Think and act like a customer–park in a customer parking spot, enter your office thinking like a customer, walk around in a customer’s shoes–think about what they would see, feel or do.
  • Spy on Extension. Find a way to contact your office (anonymously) with a request for information. Note the attitude, speed, warmth, and efficiency of the response. Then, share your information so we can solve problems that might exist.

Remember, each of us “is” the organization in a customer’s eyes. Appreciate your clientele. They do us a favor by using our educational resources. They are not interruptions in our work, but rather the reason for it–even with limited resources! In tight budget times, be creative about providing continuing customer service while letting clientele know that there might be restrictions, delays, lapses or days when the office is not open. Continue to use office-closure or after-hours messages for referrals to the Extension Web site and Ask an Expert. By providing a positive and upbeat message describing alternative services available to customers, we can continue to meet most customer expectations while balancing work and personal responsibilities.

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Customer Service Quotes

“Exceed your customers’ expectations. If you do, they’ll come back over and over. Give them what they want and a little more. Let them know you appreciate them. Make good on all your mistakes, and don’t make excuses–apologize. Stand behind everything you do. ‘Satisfaction guaranteed’ will make all the difference.”
     –Sam Walton, President, Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club

“Relationship is everything, everything is relationship.”
     –R. Buckminster Fuller

“Worry about being better…Think one customer at a time and take care of each one the best way you can.”
     –Gary Comer

“Consumers are statistics. Customers are people!”
     –Stanley Marcus

“A dissatisfied ‘customer’ tells 22 people; a satisfied ‘customer’ tells 8 people…”
      –Ford Motor Company Executive

“Excellent customer relations and excellent customer service are the hallmarks of a successful organization. Extension succeeds when it fulfills its mission of helping Coloradoans live better lives. We can best carry out our mission by putting our ‘customers’ first.”
     –Milan Rewerts, Former Director, Colorado State University Extension

“Being competitive will take a commitment, not just to meet but to exceed consumer expectations…This will take leadership, innovation and discovery.”
     –Edwin Artzt, Chairman/Chief Executive, Proctor & Gamble Company

“…always treat your employees exactly as you want them to treat your customers…treat your customers as volunteers because that is what they are. They volunteer their best parts – their hearts and their minds.”
      –Steven R. Covey, author: “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”

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