By Gabriel Bristol

Getting a customer to pull the trigger on a transaction often takes a lot of moving parts. You have to have the product they want (or at least feel they can live with), it has to be available and it has to be at a price point that fits in their budget. But above all of these, throughout that entire discovery process the one thing that will end a deal before it begins is poor customer service.

According to a survey from American Express, 78 percent of consumers have bailed on a transaction or not made an intended purchase because of a poor service experience.

Now, this doesn’t mean the customer didn’t ultimately buy the product or service, in most cases they do. It just means they didn’t buy it from where they were getting bad service. In other words, while they may not buy the product from you, they will buy it from your competitor.

In these cases, consumer behavior gives a powerful narrative: Even if the price and product are right, the success of a company relies on the quality of its customer service.

Just like setting a price for a product or service depends on various formulas, customer service too relies on a formula. Here are the Seven Components to the Great Customer Service Formula.

Know your product — There are few things more frustrating than asking for some information about a product only to be told “I don’t know” or to be referred to a website. Likewise, there are few things more satisfying than asking a question and being given a direct, reasonable answer that informs a decision. In fact, the experience of dealing with a knowledgeable sales rep is so great, it’s even worth paying a little more.

While nobody can be expected to know everything about every product, to provide truly great customer service, everyone should have at least a working knowledge of the products in their department.

To take this a step further, if a customer asks a question to which you or your staff doesn’t know the answer, don’t make it up! The only thing more frustrating than not getting an answer to a question is getting a wrong answer to a question. If you don’t know the answer, simply admit you don’t know, but then promise to get one quickly and make good on that promise.

Keep it simple – Whether it’s an online retailer, big box store or quick service restaurant, too often companies make it overly complicated for a customer to find/get what they want, pay and leave. Make sure your products are easy to find with easy web navigation and/or clear floor and wall signage. Greet your customers quickly and when possible, help them find what they need. When the customers are ready to make a purchase, it’s very important to make the check-out process as simple as you can. Point of sale protocols should be simple and painless.

Know when to upsell – It doesn’t matter if we’re ordering a fast food cheeseburger or buying a ceiling fan at a home improvement store, invariably we get asked the equivalent of “Do you want fries with that?” Even e-tailers tell us what customers “also bought” when we’re adding an item to our cart. There’s no doubt this can increase revenue and can sometimes be helpful. For instance, if you’re in a brick and mortar store and a customer is buying a product that requires batteries, it’s actually helpful to inform the customer that batteries are not included and inquire as to whether they need some. But sometimes it’s ill advised. If you can tell a customer is in a hurry or you have a long line to check out, that’s not the time to prolong the transaction beyond what is necessary. Be thorough, but be efficient. Customers may not remember why the lines were long, but they’ll remember that they were. This will inform their decision the next time they need what you sell and may very well decide to see if your competitor is more convenient.

Take the time to secret shop — Every business owner or entrepreneur thinks they have a good handle on the experience customers have with their company. That isn’t always the case. Take the time to experience it yourself if you can. If your sales experience happens primarily online, secret shopping is easy. But if you’re a small or medium-sized business owner, and everyone knows you, it’s a little more difficult. In this case, asking a trusted friend to go through the process can be invaluable. If you’ve got the resources, there are also professionals who can help critique and tweak your process. In short, don’t assume what you’re doing is perfect or can’t use adjusting here and there. The truth is, it probably could benefit from a pair of outside eyes.

Don’t argue, just fix it — Not every customer gets what they bargained for. Sometimes a product just doesn’t work the way intended and sometimes the service fails to live up to customers’ expectations. Fix it. Make it right, and do it quickly. If you work hard to make it right you’re doing two things. First, you’re making your customer realize you care about their business and will do what’s necessary to keep it in a hassle-free approach. Second, you’re creating opportunities for a positive “word of mouth” referrals. In this way, every experience and contact with a customer is a valuable marketing opportunity. Treat them as such.

Follow Up — My 20 years of business and management experience has taught me that a “sale” doesn’t end when the “transaction” is complete. A key component of customer service is follow-up. After the transaction has ended, keep in touch with the customer. Make sure they’re completely satisfied and find ways to keep your company “front of mind” in the days and weeks after. Maybe that includes sending out periodic emails with special offers or notifying them new products or services are available. A word of caution here, though. Don’t reach out to your customers with the same information you’ve already shared. Make sure every time you reach out you’re telling them something they didn’t already know.

Take care of your employees — Most customer service experiences are going to be measured by how helpful the person working with them was. If your employees are underpaid, over-worked, or uninspired, that rests with the management/ownership. To have great employees, one must first be a great employer. By providing a living wage and a great work environment, your employees will mirror your commitment to them when helping your customers. I promise you this comes across during the experience. How many times have you been at a “low-end” retailer and by the way you were treated by the sales associates felt as though they were doing you a favor by taking your money? Imagine what the experience would be like if they were paid a living wage, felt as though there were opportunities for advancement and received frequent positive feedback.

In 2011 Oracle released a jaw-dropping study that showed 89 percent of customers who had a bad customer experience with one business immediately began doing business with their competitors. In that same study, 86 percent of customers revealed they would be willing to pay up to 25 percent more for a product or service if it meant it would result in a better customer service experience.

Yet despite the overwhelming evidence in favor of expending time and treasure on excellent customer service, companies still fall short.

In a study by the Harvard Business Review, 84 percent of customers said their expectations were not exceeded in their most recent customer service interactions.

On the other side of that coin, a customer service study by Right Now showed that 73 percent of customers fell in love with a brand after an upbeat, positive experience.

There is no doubt a company’s success hinges on the service it provides, before, during and after a transaction.

Gabriel Bristol is the president/CEO of Intelicare Direct. Follow him at @Gabriel_Bristol.