Get Better or Get Out of the Game

Published on June 10, 2009

“There is only one boss: the customer! And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down simply by spending his money elsewhere.” Sam Walton

Customers don’t care what your mission statement says. They care about how you treat them. To be successful as a salesperson in today’s environment, great customer service must be your first priority.

The cornerstone of customer service is problem-solving. As the American business world learned in the early 90s, we either get better at it or get thrown out of the game. We can all take a cue from those U.S. companies who responded quickly enough and adopted the custom that made Japanese products as high-quality and competitive as they are today: kaizen, the practice of continuous improvement. Do you remember the first Sony Walkman? It was a device the size of a paperback novel and had only AM/FM radio. Kaizen – Sony added a cassette player and made it just larger than your hand. Kaizen – suddenly it fit into your palm and the speaker quality was as good as any home stereo. Next came the waterproof sports model and the CD player. What’s next? Kaizen demands Sony make it better and innovate to keep up with market demand for changes like DVD and the like. It’s a continuous process of meeting customer wants and needs.

As a financial professional, it’s not enough that you practice kaizen and deliver great service; your entire organization has to accept it as a mission and act accordingly. Customer service is no longer a faceless department hidden away somewhere; it’s everyone’s responsibility. The primary concern of your organization must be providing exceptional service every time you come into contact with a client or potential client. Every phone call, every meeting, every civic or social event. The truth is, if you and your organization don’t offer better customer service, your competitors will.

It’s an Inside-Out Thing

To deliver great customer service externally, you must first look within the organization and design internal systems to work together for the same goal – 100% great customer service. Let’s say you know things aren’t going right somewhere; customers are complaining because they’re on hold too long before getting to talk with a live person. Congratulations, you’ve identified a customer service problem … what’s next?

The typical response is to point a finger at someone or some department. Yet great customer service organizations “fix the problem, not the blame.” Identifying the root cause of a problem is the key. Remember:

  • Problems are rarely caused by a single factor. Our organizations and relationships are complex and interrelated; so are the roots of the problem. When a football team fails to score a touchdown from the one-yard line, who’s to blame? Everyone. Plays are designed in a series of interrelated tasks. Tight end does this, guard does this, quarterback does this, running back does this and voilà! Touchdown! Every single person depends on every other single person to successfully carry out his/her task. If any one of them fails they all fail.
  • Problem solving works best when everyone involved in the process has input. What do the vice presidents of banks know about problems with customers? They may know something is wrong, say, use of the ATM is down and they’ve had to hire more tellers, thus increasing overhead. But, until a VP sits down with the front-line people, the tellers who are in touch with the customers every day and closest to the problem, he or she may never find out that customers regularly complain the ATM is in too tight a space, so they’ll walk into the bank for simple procedures like check cashing or getting an account balance.


Initially identifying a problem is a critical step, but to really solve the problem you may have to dig much deeper. The 5+/20+ method is a two-stage process that helps expand your thinking from micro to macro and get to the real root cause.

  1. Ask why the problem occurred. Take that answer and ask why, and so on and so on for at least five levels of detail.
  2. Once you’ve gone five levels down asking why, list at least 20 solutions.

Here’s an example:

  • Clients are on hold too long.


  • We have a new popular product and are receiving more calls, and each call is taking longer because we have to explain the product to the client.


  • The promotional material we mailed to our clients didn’t explain the product in much detail. The mailer mentioned the name and the product and promised the client some pretty amazing returns but didn’t give much detail on what the product is.


  • We wanted to save money by printing only on one side of the sheet.

Once you’d gotten to the root cause, you’d begin making a list of 20 solutions: mailing out another more detailed piece, a pre-recorded message explaining the product in detail, a fax-on-demand service with information on the product, hiring an answering service, etc. Everyone involved in the process would brainstorm these solutions. Remember, you don’t have to stop at 20; you can go on and on as long as it makes sense to do so.

The lion’s share of customer service is just that simple:

  • Analyze your clients by asking questions, observing and recording. Get to know what they want and don’t want.
  • Make great customer service your personal mission.
  • Design your entire organization around the goal of great customer service.
  • Get to the root cause of customer problems.
  • Use a system like the 5+/20+ method for identifying problems and solving them.

If you’re still unconvinced that customer service directly affects your success in sales, listen to David Steinberg, president of Sterling Communications in Silver Springs, Maryland: He says customer service is “the cheapest way to run a business. The resulting referrals bring in customers that cost you nothing to generate.” As a financial professional, you must constantly provide excellent solutions and innovative improvements, ideally before the client asks for them.

Top producers get better at it and get ahead of the game.

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