Crisis shouldn’t be the spur, but better late than never.

A Wall Street Journal article from a couple of summers ago caught my eye. Titled “Customer Service as a Growth Engine,” the article described efforts by large organizations such as Walgreen’s, Comcast, American Express and others to pay “more attention to customer service in an effort to increase sales and gain market share in the economic recovery.” The Journal cited a survey of more than 1,400 companies that found more than a quarter saying customer service would be the prime target of increased funding once the economy improved.

To which I silently responded, Duh!

I wonder if it occurred to executives at all those companies surveyed that had they invested more money in – or not scraped it away from — customer service activities when the downturn hit, they might already be enjoying increased sales and market share. It’s a real simple concept. People like to do business with companies that make it likeable to do business with them.

People in many lines of business are susceptible to overlooking customer service. That’s because they don’t really look at the people who pay them money as “customers” per se. Most think in terms of what they get rather than what they give. Customers come to them because they need something, goes this thinking, and for money they provide it, so ergo, customers ought to be grateful the business is there for them.

Much worse is when this line of thought evolves into the stinkinest thinkin’ of all. That’s when customers become not only supplicants, but adversaries. They are so-o-o-o demanding, and so ungrateful of the hard work you as a business owner put in to provide for their needs. Think of cabbies who only want to choose the most lucrative fares on a rainy day, or a home repair contractor who goes days without returning your calls because he’s wrapped up with a more important job.

This is dangerous thinking. Whoever pays for your services is a customer, plain and simple. You need to do everything in your power to make sure not only that you provide the goods or services needed, but that your customer finds you easy to do business with and would like to work with you again.

Companies of all kinds can get so wrapped up in trying to generate revenues that they neglect customer service. It’s easy to do, especially since many activities that fall into the customer service category may end up costing money, and in hard times everyone is looking to trim overhead. In the end this is shortsighted, because anything that detracts from customer service is bound to impact revenues in a negative way over time. Besides, for the most part customer service is not expensive.

Running a business can get pretty complicated, but customer service is not. You don’t need an MBA to master it, and it costs little to nothing to implement. It’s a matter of attitude and simply applying the Golden Rule to your policies and procedures that relate to customer interactions.

Most important of all is simply to make customer service a priority, and train all your people on how to behave when dealing with customers. Stress the importance of being polite, keeping appointments and adhering to professional telephone manners. Make sure they don’t reek from cigarette smoke or body odor, and to avoid the griping and grousing that attends so many lunch break conversations. Set an example by being civil and polite in all conversations with your people, and make sure they understand that this is how you expect all business to be conducted even when you’re not around.

Ever walk into a retail store and stand around waiting while some clerk avoids eye contact while finishing up paperwork or some other chore? That’s a good example of anti-customer service. A better way is to make it an explicit company policy that employees ought to drop whatever they may be doing at any given moment in order to respond to a customer request. Some important tasks might get delayed, but this rule states loudly and clearly that nothing is more important to your business than your customers.

Something else is important – stretch the definition of a “customer.” A company owner may be person who writes a check for a b-to-b transaction, but the office staff and other “little people” also qualify as customers. Those little people have a way of getting promoted into positions of buying influence. Even if they stay in their “little” roles, they may be persons of influence with the power to either embellish