by Noel Ward, Executive Editor August 11, 2003 -- Suppose your business is open until 6 PM every weeknight, but you turned customers away if they come in with a job after 5 o'clock. How would that sit with your clientele? That happened to me last week when I went to order some parts for my car. The parts I needed weren't regularly stocked items, so I called around and found a regional parts store chain with a great price. They said if I came in and pre-paid I could have my parts the next day, so I went to the store at about 5:15 that evening. "We can't order the parts tonight," said the store manager. "It's after 5 PM and the computer won't accept the order. So we can't get a price." Apparently the computer is a union employee or works short hours. "Can't you just take my order manually and put it through in the morning?" "No. We don't take parts orders after 5 PM. Company policy. And anyway, we have the parts manager take the order. He's gone home." I thanked the manager and went home, where I went online to eEuroparts.com. There I found the parts I needed, placed an order, got free shipping, and was done in under five minutes--half the time of a one-way trip to the local store. The parts arrived two days later, which was fine since I wouldn't need them until the weekend. Then I went to the web site of the local parts store and keyed in a note to the customer service folks, explaining that I thought they should understand how their policy can lose them money--especially with online competition crowding their market. As of this writing, they have not responded. Still, there may be some semi-justifiable reasons why the parts chain doesn't accept parts orders late in the day. And it's perhaps unfair to compare them with a company with an efficient web site. But the real issue is the policy and how it makes it harder to business with the company. I'm pretty sure there probably aren't many print providers who would refuse jobs based on when they come in the door. But my point here is that it always pays to look for places were you may inadvertently make it hard for customers to do business with you. In the old business book Up the Organization, Robert Townsend recommended calling your business as a customer (or have someone do so) to see what barriers to communications and service have arisen that you may not be aware of. It's not a bad idea, and can point out places where improvements can be made. In no particular order, here are some key questions to be asking about your own operation: * How easy is it to navigate through your voice mail system? Does the menu keep changing or is it stable so people know what to do? * Do you have a clear way for customers to contact the most appropriate person when they have a problem or complaint? And can customers easily reach the person they need to reach? * How quickly are phones answered or calls returned? What about emails? * Do you have people who serve as what John Giles and Bill Farquharson call "technical communicators," who can articulate file and format concerns in layman's language? * Does your staff treat customers the way you want them treated, or (as is not uncommon) with thinly disguised contempt? * Are the charges for all your services clear and understandable? * If you accept jobs over the Internet, does your job submission system confirm the job was received, provide a job number and a price estimate or quote? * Does your staff understand the relationship between the customer's best interest and yours? * Do you clearly communicate those policies and procedures that your customers need to be aware of? And are those policies arbitrary or do they make sense? There are plenty more line items like these, each with greater or lesser importance to your business. Treating customers well is vital to the success of any company, perhaps even more so in the present economic climate. In fact, if business is slow just now, it may be a good time to look at some of the ways you communicate and relate to your customers. Make sure it is easy to do business with your company and avoid policies and procedures that might make customers take their business elsewhere. What do you do that makes doing business with your company as easy as possible?