Customer care can make a small business stand out

What makes a business stand out? I took my MacBook in for upgrading recently, choosing ZA Support on the basis of online reviews, which all mentioned excellent communication. When I booked it in online, Elise responded and opened a WhatsApp group of me, her and Courtney who runs the workshop. When I took the Mac in, Courtney himself met me at my car, and from then on I was kept informed throughout the two days, and was able to post questions and requests. What a pleasure.

Fixing Apple Macs is not a field in which one can compete much on price – Apple parts cost what they cost and are usually the major item in the repair bill. And while the quality of work clearly counts, it’s not easy to judge this from the outside. That leaves customer service as the area with the most latitude to differentiate oneself.

Courtney is the founder, owner and CEO, with forty engineers working on clients’ machines. I asked him where the level of customer communication came from. “As consumers our greatest frustration is not knowing what’s going on, or that someone in there really cares about us,” he explained. “Large companies can lose touch of this and end up treating you as a number, not a customer.”

The result of Courtney’s focus on customer care is that ZA Support thrives on repeat business – on average their customers will come back six to eight times over five years.

Courtney follows the wise path of surrounding himself with people who are smarter than he. But they must be genuinely committed to the principle of caring for customers.

He has learnt to fire fast but hire slowly, as having the right team is the key to quality, service and accountability. He says his worst mistake was micromanaging, so now before hiring someone, he takes great care to document exactly what the person needs to do and how it must be done. Then once he has found the right person, “It’s a marriage, based on trust.”

He lets the techies get on with what they are good at and love. “These are people who are better than I am in the role,” he explained. And many of them are introverted, while he loves interacting with people.

A few years ago the business was robbed and lost R3 million worth of material, including client equipment containing confidential information. It was an existential crisis, but he survived and moved the business into a secure building with no customer access.

Why does he stay in South Africa? “There is a huge opportunity in SA. It is a marathon, but I don’t believe the grass is necessarily greener elsewhere. To succeed here you have to do something meaningful and solve a real problem. To survive in Africa is a true test of yourself. And I like fixing broken things.”

Entrepreneurs need unbounded energy to put in whatever it takes. “If you don’t do something that scares you each day you’re not pushing yourself.” Courtney’s burning desire to succeed arises from having nothing. He left home at 17 and was literally homeless for a while before he found a job at an Apple shop. When it closed and he was retrenched, he started ZA Support with R10 at age 19. He has turned the disadvantages of his past into an enabler: “If I could survive my hardship, I can do even more.”

This provides some ideas about what makes a business stand out: Find a distinctive competitive advantage, as Courtney did with customer service; push the limits of it beyond what others do; draw on your own deepest well of energy to implement it; and find others willing to share that passion.

There’s lots more in Courtney’s and others’ stories. What have you noticed?

Jonathan Cook, a Counselling Psychologist and Chairman of the African Management Institute. If you’d like to read previous columns in this series or ask Jonathan a question please visit http://www.africanmanagers.org/jonathan-cook

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