HISTORICALLY, many of us believed that simply following best practice and delivering great customer service was enough to gain a competitive edge over our competitors.
But today these attributes are increasingly common and taken as read by our customers.
Expectations of quality service have been fuelled further by the increasing efficiency of the 24/7 internet age, generally overtaking any improvements in customer service itself.
The result is that everyone now expects a defect-free product, delivered on time and with very good customer service.
So it is easy to see why the perceived gap between expectations and reality is getting much wider, leading many to think that customer service is much worse than it used to be.
In reality, it is probably not, but we all have a duty to at least try to meet our customers' expectations.
The increased competition for customers' time and money across all leisure and service industries has, therefore, led to the development of "customer management" as a discipline in its own right and everyone is now fighting much harder not only to get customers but, crucially, to retain them.
This increased focus on managing the customer experience also makes real economic sense since it costs at least five times as much to win a new customer as it does to retain an existing one.
Unlike technical features and prices, a customer-focused philosophy is also very difficult to copy or beat without a genuine willingness to put your customer at the heart of your decision-making process.
In re-orientating your business around your customers' needs and expectations, it is worth recognising that your most important asset is the quality of the relationship that you have with them. Given that customers are usually your most scarce resource, you have to try and get as much long-term value as you can from them.
But in order to get the best return from your customers you first have to deliver real value.
In striving to be the very best, you have to define exactly what kind of customer experience you are trying to deliver in the first place, because if you do not take the time out to plan, articulate and communicate this to your staff, then how on earth can you expect them to deliver it to your customers?
Too often this definition is restricted to the physical background against which the customer experience is expected to be delivered since graphic images and storyboards are much easier to understand than "woolly ideas" such as customer care, service and management.
As you look for ways to improve your customers' experience, be aware that something like 50 per cent of their experience is emotional - hence why they might get disproportionately upset over things that are easily fixed, albeit afterwards and generally too late in the recovery process.
This gives you the opportunity to seek out easy wins that cost relatively little, but which have high emotional value to the recipient.
It also demonstrates why you should avoid rubbing up your most important customers the wrong way over issues which are of lesser importance in your anticipated long-term relationship with them.
In very simple terms, everything that your business does "front of house" should be aligned to the customer, encouraging staff wherever possible to fix problems at the first point of contact and before they spiral out of control, whereas, in the past, many organisations were more determined to make customers comply with their rules and procedures, regardless of how un-customer friendly they were.
The customer, in return, was expected to be loyal in spite of the quality of the service experienced.
RATHER than making procedures more complicated to suit head office's internally focused systems, it is the process of simplifying and refining your customer experience which will drive success.
One of the easiest ways to give your business a service health check is to imagine that you are in a helicopter hovering above your premises. As you look down into your business you must make a very honest appraisal of what you can see from your customer's perspective.
While little can change until you can actually see what you had previously overlooked, the old adage of actions speaking louder than words is certainly true and you have to make these customer improvements as quickly as possible.
Otherwise they will probably never get done and a culture of "it doesn't really matter here" will spread like a mould throughout your company.
And if this does happen, it can lead to a dangerous downward spiral that is very difficult to correct without a greatly disproportionate amount of time and effort.
Believe it or not, the starting point in actually delivering an outstanding customer experience generally comes by recruiting staff with the right attitude and simply having them display conscious competence at every point of contact that customers have with your business.
Astonishing as it sounds, most people will gain a very positive impression of your business just by your staff being, and knowing that they are, competent at whatever they are meant to be doing for your customers. Thereafter, it is reasonably easy to exceed customer expectations. To do this most successfully you also have to do more for your customers than your competitors and over time this will enable you to charge what is, in fact, a value-added premium.
That, of course, requires you to be equally good at communicating these unique selling points, since there is little point in having them if you don't then tell your customers. Without these points of difference they will judge you purely on price and not on who is offering the best package.
Your front of house staff are obviously a very good source of suggestions on how to improve the quality of your service since they have the most immediate contact with the customers.
However, the customers themselves are the most valuable source of suggestions and you should not shy away from asking them three simple questions - Did you enjoy it? Would you recommend us to someone else? And is there anything else we could have done to make it better for you?
Even your most loyal and supportive customers will give you very valuable suggestions on how you could improve the way in which you do business with them.
In summary, delivering five-star customer management will be much easier if you:
Have a genuine customer-focused philosophy;
Define and communicate to your staff exactly what kind of customer experience they are being expected to deliver;
Simplify processes and procedures around the customer's needs;
Have conscious competence at every point of contact with your customers;
Deliver real value and emotional satisfaction to your customers;
Seek, value and implement customer feedback.
Bob Downie, director of the Royal Yacht Britannia, is a Catey Tourism award-winner 2005 and chairman of the 5-Star Customer Management Conference.
Now in its third year, the event will bring together hundreds of professionals and a host of expert speakers to tackle the key issues surrounding customer care.
The one-day conference, which this year is being co-sponsored by the Evening News, will take place at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre on November 3.