The term “customer service” evokes different images in people’s minds. One image could be that of friendly, smiling, helpful employees who go out of their way to serve you. Or it could be the opposite – indifferent, unfriendly employees who can’t wait for you to leave or hang up the phone.
Most people can recall many examples of poor customer service. Whether it’s the help desk employee that puts you on hold for 20 minutes or the store cashier who engages in a personal conversation with a coworker instead of ringing up your purchase, poor customer service can make people feel frustrated and vow never to do business with that company again. You can probably think of several examples of poor or mediocre service you’ve received in just the last few days.
In this article I focus on some key elements of excellent customer service, and more importantly, how to provide excellent customer service. I should first make very clear that customer service isn’t about a department that deals with customer issues or complaints. What I’m talking about is the entire experience a customer has when dealing with your organization.
While the “customer service department” is certainly a part of the experience in some cases, I’m focused on the overall experience because that’s where the magic happens or the problems happen. I regularly remind my clients that they’re not just selling a product, they’re selling an experience.
Because it’s relatively rare, great service feels like a gift. You feel welcome and that the organization cares about you as a customer.
You feel valued rather than merely tolerated. The company’s processes are designed for the customer’s convenience, not the organization’s convenience, and the processes feel seamless. If there’s a problem the company takes ownership and goes out of their way to correct the issue.
When I think of companies that deliver great customer service, I think of companies that appear delighted to see me or hear from me, care about the quality of the product or service they offer, do the job right, and are efficient while doing the job. And they do these things consistently.
Receiving great customer service makes us want to continue to do business with an organization over the long haul. And that alone is the secret to business success – retaining customers by providing great customer service.
With so much competition out there, customer loyalty is the single most important attribute your business can have. You achieve loyalty by doing the “little things” that make customers want to deal with you again and again and recommend you to their friends.
The real difference is how a business makes their customers feel. If customers feel valued, most will remain loyal. If they feel under-valued, sooner or later they will defect to a competitor.
Several reasons exist for why customers defect from a company. The customer may move away, a competitor may lure them away, or they may leave because they are unhappy with the product.
However, many studies from organizations such as TARP, American Express and others have shown that one of the top reasons customers defect is because of poor customer service. Other studies have noted how customers define poor service: “An attitude of indifference on the part of employees.” So, while poor customer service certainly causes customers to leave, indifferent service can be almost as detrimental.
With customers citing poor customer service as a reason for leaving, what can your company do to achieve customer loyalty?
Assuming your products and prices are competitive, you need to focus on providing excellent customer service in order to gain loyalty. To do that, here are four simple principles to help you make sure your customers remain loyal to your organization.
Note: This article focuses on providing excellent customer service to external customers. But the principles described can also apply to internal customer service. The support team is vital to providing a seamless customer experience.
No matter what industry you’re in, chances are that you and your employees interact with customers at some level. Customers can be shoppers at a store, patrons at a bank, patients of a doctor, clients of a law firm, a fellow employee, etc.
Because customers have their choice of where to obtain goods or services, the business has to convince the customer that they truly care. Engaged, caring employees or customer service professionals raise the customer’s confidence that the business is looking out for the customer’s interests. When that employee suggests a new product or service, the customer trusts that his or her best interest is at heart. On the flip side, if the customer senses a lack of caring, he/she will question the motives behind any recommendations.
A good example of seeing through the lens of the customer relates to the use of industry jargon. Every business has its jargon, acronyms, etc. It allows employees to communicate with each other in a kind of shorthand. But it’s important to remember that customers typically don’t understand that jargon and find it confusing and intimidating when it’s used in communication.
Successful businesses speak the language of the customer, not the language of their own industry. In other words, they look through the lens of the customer when choosing their words.
Take, for example, the banking industry. Would a young couple buying their first house be looking through the same lens as a customer who buys and sells real estate for a living?
Of course not. That young couple purchasing their first house is excited and nervous – that’s the lens with which they are experiencing this purchase. Therefore, they need a loan officer who is excited for them, who explains the terms in everyday language, and who provides information that will make their buying experience easier. A bank that shows that level of care is likely to earn that young couple’s ongoing business.
The same applies for customer complaints, which can be frustrating for customers and customer service reps alike. As employees, we often can’t understand why a customer is making such a big deal about a particular issue.
Didn’t the customer read the contract? (Probably not.) Doesn’t the customer understand that researching a problem takes time? (No, they don’t.) Remember, it’s not the customer’s job to see through the business’s lens; it’s the business’s job to see through the customer’s lens and show an understanding of the customer’s frustration.
One of the reasons we tend to look through our own lens rather than the customer’s is that the longer we do what we do, we start to think that customers know what we know. But they don’t always know what we know.
Those processes and procedures that you and your team might deal with every day, your customers don’t. That’s why so many times when there’s a customer problem, and we analyze it later, we’ll say it was a communication issue. And the issue is that we made an assumption that the customer knows how this process or procedure works, and the customer did NOT know how it works, and our relationship with that customer suffered because of that assumption.
When designing customer processes or actually delivering service through those processes it’s important to keep this question in mind: “Am I seeing this experience through the customer’s lens?”
Imagine visiting a fine dining restaurant for a special occasion. You’ve been looking forward to the meal and you’ve heard good things about the restaurant.
Then imagine noticing something crusty dried on your silverware and old lipstick marks on your water glass. Wouldn’t you begin worrying about the cleanliness and quality of everything else in the restaurant? Everything speaks!
Now imagine a customer entering your place of business. She notices trash in the parking lot. When she enters the reception area, she sees delivery boxes stacked by the receptionist’s desk. She sees employees standing around eating and having personal conversations.
All of this detracts from your business’s image. Consciously or unconsciously, the customer’s antennae go up and makes them question, “Do I really want to spend my money here?”
When it comes to delivering great customer service, the “everything speaks” philosophy means that all employees understand that even the little things count. So pay attention to everything, including whether the physical environment is neat and clean, whether all necessary supplies are available, whether the employees are dressed appropriately, etc.
Anything that sticks out as “wrong” becomes an intrusion on the customer experience. These intrusions add up and result in customer concern. On the other hand, when customers sense an atmosphere of professionalism, care, and order, they feel a sense of confidence.
How many times have you seen employees in a business walk right by trash on the floor or a display that has been bumped out of alignment? Employees who understand that everything speaks will take a moment to pick up some wadded paper and straighten the display because they know that such behaviors have a direct impact on the customer experience.
Attitudinal Everything Speaks
This principle doesn’t just apply to the physical environment. There’s also what I call “attitudinal everything speaks.”
We’ve all dealt with a customer service rep who we could tell didn’t really want to help us. We could tell by the tone of voice that he or she would much rather be doing something else.
Or you overhear two employees complaining about their company or another customer. Or an employee blames another department for a problem. Or an employee’s entire demeanor communicates that he or she is totally bored with the job.
On the other hand, we’ve dealt with service providers who appear through their demeanor that they are delighted to see us or hear from us, and are anxious to serve us. That’s what I mean by “attitudinal everything speaks.”
Take a moment to think about your company’s physical and attitudinal service environment. Since everything speaks, what are the details saying about your organization?
Small gestures can create customer wows.
Consider the housekeepers working in the hotels at Walt Disney World. Housekeepers have a tough job. Cleaning up after people on vacation is a challenge. Even in such a challenging job, Disney’s housekeepers will do little things that make guests say, “Wow.”
For example, while spending a day in the Magic Kingdom children will often leave their stuffed Disney characters in their hotel room. Housekeepers have been known to position the characters with playing cards in their hands or tuck the characters into the children’s bed to create a moment of magic.
Employees can do many things to create wows. Remembering a customer’s name is a huge wow, creating a feeling of family. Letting a customer know that another product may better meet their needs is another wow. Sending a goody basket with a handwritten note to that young couple who just took out their first mortgage is a wow.
Some wows are small and some are large, but make no mistake about it – wows add up.
One of the most powerful ways to make creating wows a part of your organization’s culture is to share best practices with fellow employees. Hold a company meeting so employees can share things that they have done that dazzled customers. Just talking about these behaviors increases the likelihood that others will adopt some of the practices or create new ones of their own.
It is also likely that some wows can become standard procedure, whether it’s a grocery store bakery handing out fresh-baked cookies to children, or salespeople escorting customers to a product rather than simply pointing.
Imagine everyone on your team performing with this mindset: “Will my behaviors make this customer say or think, ‘wow’?”
“Why does this have to be so difficult?!?”
How many times have you had that thought as you navigated through some company’s confusing, maddening process? My guess is you could rattle off several experiences without batting an eye. I know I can. Sometimes it’s all you can do to keep from screaming.
Recently I was helping my mom close an account with a large online bank. She hadn’t used this particular account in years, and the balance was just $94. Well, it might as well have been $94,000 dollars with all of the hoops we had to jump through just to close the account. It reached a point where I just wanted to tell the customer service rep, “Just keep the $94.” (Maybe that was their strategy all along.)
I realize that this frustrating experience was not the customer service rep’s fault. She was simply following the process the bank has in place for closing an account. And maybe there are good reasons for the hoops we had to jump through.
But it doesn’t matter. To the customer it’s a clunky process that will likely keep me or my mom from ever working with that bank again.
Frustrating processes are everywhere:
Keep in mind that most of the organizations guilty of causing these frustrations know that they exist. They just don’t do anything about them.
And while it’s maddening for the customer, it’s likely even more maddening for the company’s frontline employees. They’re the ones who have to deal with these frustrated customers every day.
And human nature being what it is, employees learn quickly to put an emotional barrier between themselves and the frustrated customer because they know they can’t win. They just want to end the interaction as quickly as possible.
A wonderful way to delight your customers AND your employees is to actually do something about those frustrations. When you do that, you become a beacon of light in an often frustrating customer service world. Consider the following examples:
Each of these organizations has identified a customer frustration and done something about it. Customers appreciate the organization’s efforts, and employees do too. It’s a great way to build customer and employee loyalty.
What are some of the things that frustrate your customers, and what can you do about them?
Building a culture of customer service excellence takes commitment from everyone on the team. It’s not something that happens overnight or can be put on automatic pilot. It takes constant focus and nurturing.
The hard work does pay off, however. Consider the following statistics:
Excellent customer service is not about policy manuals. Excellent service is about excellent behaviors.
When employees focus on excellent service, the results can be magical. Customers are happy, employees are happy, and shareholders are happy. Everyone wins.
The key is to make service excellence a habit. Encourage every employee to internalize the principles described in this article so they become habits. When employees focus on these principles, your company will achieve the most powerful result of all – intense customer loyalty.
Dennis Snow is a business author, speaker, and consultant who helps organizations develop world-class customer service. He is the author of two books, "Lessons From the Mouse: A Guide for Applying Disney World’s Secrets of Success to Your Organization, Your Career, and Your Life" (Snow & Associates, In.), and “Unleashing Excellence: The Complete Guide to Ultimate Customer Service” (Wiley). Dennis can be reached at http://www.snowassociates.com/ or at 407.294.1855.