A friend told me about an experience he had with an airline during a family vacation.

They decided to return home a day early, and asked the airline to accept their Sunday tickets for the Saturday flight.

Even though there were plenty of available seats, the airline required my friend to pay a hefty change fee.

“I didn’t like paying the fee, but I expected it. What really irked me was the attitude of the ticket agent and her supervisor – they didn’t seem to care how I felt.”

That was seven years ago. My friend flies a lot. But he hasn’t flown that airline since, and swears he never will again.

Interactions between front-line employees and customers affect loyalty across virtually all industries where there’s competition.

According to a study in the October 2008 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, “Patients’ ratings of hospital care are of interest, because they are in many ways the bottom line. How the patient perceives the overall hospital experience has a significant impact on the success of the hospital in attracting more patients.”

Customers frequently stop buying from companies for reasons far removed from product quality, price or convenience. Customers leave because of the way they feel they were treated, at the hands of an employee.

If you’re a sole practitioner, and your customers’ only point of contact, then you have nearly full control over the customer experience.

But the greater the number of employees who separate you from the customer, the less direct control you have over how your customers perceive your brand, and their propensity to defect to competitors.

If that doesn’t scare you, it should.

The reason it doesn’t scare many companies is that they don’t know they’ve lost a client until they review sales reports or profit and loss statements.

By then it’s too late, and often attributed to an external factor, like a “bad economy.” But the bottom line is the same: Customers often change suppliers because they didn’t like the way they were treated. That may seem too simple, but it’s also too true.

So, how can a business owner or manager positively affect the behavior of customer-facing employees?

THE EMPLOYER’S GOLDEN RULE

Practice the “Customer Experience Golden Rule for Employers.”

As a business owner, shareholder or executive-level manager, you have a vested interest in your firm’s success, profitability and market share. But you must rely on lesser-compensated, higher-turnover employees to deliver the type of exceptional experience that will maximize customer loyalty and long-term revenue.

The point of the Employer’s Golden Rule is this: Treat your employees the same way that you want them to treat your customers.

How many front-line employees have you gone out of your way to thank recently?

How often do you publicly acknowledge the successes of your customer-facing employees?

How are you creating an environment that encourages all employees to make life great for your customers?

How much latitude do you give your front-line employees, to make what they feel are the right decisions to delight a customer on the spot, without getting a supervisor or manager involved?

CANDOR IS KEY

Increase transparency throughout the organization.

How much do you make “results” visible to your employees?

To what extent do you enable and help employees to see the impact of their actions on the overall health of the business?

You’re a private concern, so your employees don’t need to know the financials, right? Perhaps. But transparency can be a powerful motivator in making employees feel accountable.

Employees are more likely to hold themselves accountable for results when they can see the impact of their actions on the company’s bottom line.

LEAD BY EXAMPLE

Increase dialogue with customers, and lead by example.

Customers want to feel appreciated and valued. Your best front-line employees are probably already feeding this core human desire. But as owner or manager, you should, too. The more your employees see you out there, the more they’ll understand the value of their actions on the front lines, and focus on getting it right.

How many clients have you met with this month, to just listen and get their take on your business relationship?

Within all industries, executives should place a greater emphasis on the shoring-up experience that the front-line employees deliver to clients.

The impact of human interactions on business success has been widely documented through stories and statistics.

Three ways to optimize these interactions are by practicing the golden rule, increasing transparency and leading by example, through executive-level dialogue with customers.

You’re not just selling a product; you’re selling a relationship.

JIM WATSON is the founder of JL Watson Consulting, which helps companies acquire and retain high-value customers by improving communications. To learn more, go to www.jlwatsonconsulting.com or call 741-9047.