My wife and I had two astonishing customer service experiences this week -- one good and one bad. Both were small events that will have a large and lasting impact on our buying decisions. Both were "remarkable" -- something we talked to other people about -- each in their own ways. Together, they illustrated a sharp truth: In today's globalized world, products are becoming commodities. Brands are becoming hollow. And competitors are always just one mouse click away. But customer service is here to stay.
Customer service is one of the last frontiers of sustainable competitive advantage. It's one of the strongest ways to grow your profits. Yet many companies still treat it like a cost function.
Business leaders often pay lip service to its value, while doing everything they can to cut costs, rather than investing in customer service as an opportunity for growth. Or managers may try to codify good service, as if they were writing a program for a computer. They may proclaim simplistic mantras such as "the customer is always right," or invest in creating detailed processes and procedures for their employees to follow.
This can work if your goal is to meet customer expectations. But excellent customer service can't be reduced to a stack of three ring binders and call center scripts. It requires creating a company that cares.
We had a positive example of this over the weekend, at a Marriott hotel. Even though my wife just gave birth to our second daughter, I was crazy enough to agree to speak at a conference there. Rather than leave Nicole at home with the girls, we brought the family along, and the hotel staff astonished us with their service.
The first surprise came when we checked in, and we were told that as a way of making things easier for my wife, we'd been upgraded to an executive suite. The second surprise came while I was at the conference, and Nicole took the girls to the restaurant. Our baby suddenly started crying, wanting to be fed. A manager named Allison saw what was happening, came over, and offered to bring Nicole to a private room next door. Along with another manager named Michelle, she helped entertain our three year old while Nicole was breast feeding, and then asked if there was anything else they could do. As if that wasn't enough, we received a third gift that night, when room service brought up a gorgeous table filled with an orchid, a bucket of bottled waters, a stuffed doll, a molten chocolate cake, and a card from Allison wishing us a pleasant stay.
What touched us wasn't the price of the gifts, but the care behind them. And in return, we will absolutely be giving them our business in the future.
In contrast, our car was recently rear ended, and the other driver was clearly at fault. We filed the claim with his insurance company, and while the company's employees were prompt and responsive, their actions were clearly designed to minimize every dollar they could out of the transaction. We had to fight with the adjustor, just to get them to cover the actual costs of repairs. The size of the disagreement wasn't that large -- a few hundred dollars -- but because of how they demonstrated their lack of care, they earned a permanent spot on our "no go" list.
TARP, a behavioral research company, found that customers who have a negative experience like this tell an average of 12 people, and that those people tell an average of 72 more. That's 85 people who get taught not to use a company, all from a single incident. And in our wired world, this pattern is only becoming more pronounced.
So how can you create exceptional customer service? How can you turn genuine care into a true competitive advantage? There are five essential steps.
- Start at the top. If you want to build a company that cares, you have to start with leaders that care. The real question of leadership isn't "what do you value?" It's "what do you value more?" Your executives need to have a set of values -- building a culture, providing exceptional service, growing their people -- something that they care about even more than they care about short term profits. And they need to align their actions with those values.