The Lost Art of Customer Service: When Chocolates on the Pillow Aren't Enough

Too many businesses complain about today's decline in customer loyalty but ignore the customer revolution that is taking place all around us. They respond simply by trying to boost sales but this ignores the fact that people don't want to be treated like just another financial transaction. To compete in a marketplace where customer is king, executives need to start thinking of their customers as guests -- and then build their business around treating them that way. If businesses worked harder at providing their customers with inventive customer experiences that made them feel special, they would build relationships that would last a lifetime. And the sales and revenue would follow.

As someone who grew up in the hotel business, I've always thought about our customers as more than just people who pay us for a room to sleep in. They're not merely our customers, they are our guests, and what we offer is not simply a transaction, it's an experience. But today, that perspective must apply to businesses and organizations of all kinds. Whether you work in the travel industry, the high tech sector, manufacturing or government, the only way to build long lasting customer relationships is to create great customer experiences.

Unfortunately, too few people remember this simple concept...and too few companies prioritize it. But you ignore it at your peril. Today's world -- no matter what the business -- is perhaps the most challenging in history. We can all recognize the symptoms:

* Shrinking brand loyalty;
* Increased price sensitivity;
* Emergence of new competitors; and
* Increasing customer knowledge, skepticism, and power thanks to the Internet, blogs and the ubiquity of choice.

As a result, it is getting harder and harder to understand, attract, satisfy and retain customers. But there are certainly exemplary businesses out there that "get it" and we could all learn a few lessons from them including:

* Plan your business around your customers, not your goods or services. Commerce Bank broke industry rules to open on "bank holidays" and weekends to fit their customers schedules;

* Make the experience as memorable as the product. Build-a-Bear, through mass customization, makes the customer feel special. It's not about the sale of a stuffed animal, it's about the experience;

* Customize your products or services so your customer feels like an individual. Lands End developed mass customization technology for perfect fit clothing;

* Make your customer feel like an insider. California-based In-N-Out Burger developed a "secret menu" so its fast-food customers would feel special;

* Give your customers a sense of security and safety. Target reinvented prescription drug packaging to improve safety.

These are but a few examples of companies faced with steep competition that decided to go back to basics, re-prioritizing the customer experience and turning it into a competitive advantage. These companies have become customer-centric and are enjoying the benefits. More companies need to follow their example. Good customer service is simply good common sense.