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Charlie Gaffney is an entrepreneur who owns Chuck's Anime Shrine in Selden, N.Y. He has been a BusinessWeek reader for five years and a BusinessWeek.com reader for two years.
As the economy is forcing companies to cut costs—or at least scaring them into doing so—one important aspect of business is being left behind in the panic: customer service. For the past few decades it has taken a backseat because of budget cuts, outsourcing, and the loss of talented staff. As companies go down to the bare minimums this coming year, sadly this trend might continue.
As a business owner for the past few years, I feel that the return on investment from a team of skilled, honest, local, and loyal workers is far greater than that from a team of cheap, outsourced employees. I'm glad countries overseas are flourishing because of our companies, but those employees should work for that country's branch in that specific company.
One can't blame all of these companies for their actions since their costs have risen as well. (Yet, with all the excessive spending on executive pay, there is much more room to work with than they claim.)
Businesses, though, have a choice other than outsourcing: locally utilizing current technology and keeping workers here. For example, this year, e-mail was said to have finally surpassed the use of phones or cell phones both commercially and personally in the U.S. In my company, I use e-mail to communicate, and rarely do I use the phone. Customer service in my company is priority No. 1, and yet I purposely let phone calls become a sort of second gate—reserved mostly for urgent situations.
This has yet to bother my clients since they would rather use e-mail than waste their time on the phone. I have yet to spend a dime on advertising, but in this horrible economy, my having my own business has freed me from having to work full time at my day job (for another employer). In 2009 I expect to expand, not decrease my operations. My current need for a part-time day job will of course be completely abolished, and I'll be the one reviewing rÉsumÉs, not writing them.
E-mail is that much more efficient and allows me and my future workers to take the time to handle clients' needs right way. Phone calls, though obviously still necessary, tend to hang up more workers per customer, and let's face it: Most of the inquiries can and should be handled via e-mail or online.
It may sound as though customer service takes a hit, but the way society is moving, e-mail is a preferred medium due to the consumers' increasingly busy lives and longer time in front of a computer. They, too, don't want to be held up by a phone call for a simple answer.
Many companies can cut their costs by simply going to an e-mail-centric system. Consumers have complained that outsourced service is like throwing their inquiries under a rug. Hiring the cheapest possible workers locally isn't a great move either. Take a look at the fall of Circuit City. It let go of talented upper management and hired uneducated workers at the bottom end. The talent void was their downfall, and I'm sure other companies are facing the same risk.
Customer service is a business's No. 1 advertisement. It will keep people coming back even if the prices are not the lowest, because adding value to your service still holds weight in this economy. Businesses that realize this in 2009 should continue to grow no matter what the economy throws at them.
BusinessWeek reader Chuck Gaffney is the owner of the Japanese anime Web site and store Chuck's Anime Shrine.