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Charlie Mullins: New sales are great, but customer service makes a business

With Theresa May saying the UK now has to "make its own way", British businesses must put customer service at the forefront to get ahead of competition.
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With the UK now having to “make its own way”, as prime minister Theresa May put it in her Conservative Party conference speech on 5 October, British businesses really have to improve customer service to stand out and be seen in the competitive international marketplace.

While UK businesses need to develop the best and most innovative products and services to compete, we also need to ensure that we are also head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to dealing with customers.

So often companies put a huge amount of time and money into winning new business, but just as often what comes next lets each down, and that’s just bonkers.

Regardless of whether a business has just won a large contract, or convinced a new customer to try out a small sample of what is on offer, be under no illusion, this is not the end of the sales process. Firms are then on a job interview, and not one run by a Lord making a bunch of muppets run round London flogging cheap tat.

Bagging a sale may have got them through the initial screening process, but the real job is to convince the customer to keep the firm on, by coming back again and again, and becoming a loyal customer. And, in my more than 35 years in business I have discovered only one way of converting that opportunity, and that’s by winning over your new customers’ hearts and minds with exemplary customer service.

It’s easy to see how this situation can develop. People generally go into business to offer customers something for which there is a demand, and that they can provide on a commercial basis. I served my time as an apprentice plumber and heating engineer, and when I came out of my apprenticeship I dived straight in to set up my own business.

Nailing customer service

During my time as an apprentice I’d like to think I picked up some pretty useful skills that meant, as I tell all my young apprentices, that I would never be out of work while I could still lift a spanner.

But it turns out that the most important thing I picked up during my apprenticeship was the understanding that people didn’t just want their toilet unblocked, what they really wanted was a great service that fitted in with their lives.

So, what I did, that many of my contemporaries didn’t, was I listened to all the things customers said was wrong with the service they were currently receiving, and set out to give them what they were asking for.

To me that seemed like just common sense, but it turned out that not only is common sense not that common, but what I was doing without recognising it, was offering better “customer service” than the other plumbers.

Unsurprisingly, my business grew and grew, and most of those other blokes stayed as one-man bands. Many of them were every bit as good at plumbing as me, but the customer service let them down and their businesses didn’t grow.

For me I think winning over the hearts and minds of customers is the hardest part of running a business, and yet it’s the most important. Sure your product or service has to be good, and you need to bring in new business to grow your operation, but if you can’t hang on to it you are wasting your time, and like I said that’s just bonkers.

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About Author

Charlie Mullins

Charlie Mullins, also an OBE, is the archetypal entrepreneur – having started his business from scratch and then building it into a multi-million pound enterprise. From humble beginnings growing up on an estate in South London, he left school with no qualifications, but after a four-year plumbing apprenticeship he started his own firm, Pimlico Plumbers, which now generates a turnover in excess of £30m and boasts many well-known names among its many clients including Simon Cowell, Helen Mirren and Richard Branson. He has been a regular contributor on Real Business since 2011 and is particularly about apprenticships.

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