Improving Customer Service Through
Effective Communications

by Bob J. Holder

Service firms are beginning to recognize that price and image marketing will no longer provide them with a competitive advantage. Research indicates that the effectiveness of advertising is more myth than fact. Marketing consultant, Regis McKenna suggests that advertising can be a disadvantage because people feel that it is misleading.

Tom Peters presents a number of studies and case examples indicating that customers are increasingly not influenced by price. He also points out low-cost providers are not the most profitable firms in their industry.

What is replacing quality, price and image marketing? The key is customer service. In their report, Preparing Now For the Next Decade: A Preview of Emerging Trends, the Global Network indicates that service firms have recognized that customer service is their Number 1 problem. In Florida, the Sheraton Design Center Hotel and the Boca Raton Hotel and Club are providing their employees with training in customer service. These and other firms recognize the importance of word-of-mouth selling and that the loss of customers because of poor service can greatly affect profitability.

How can a firm enhance customer service? A Customer Focus Research Study conducted by the Forum Corporation indicates that customer service involves the totality of the customer's experience with a company.

Forum found that customers can see through image building marketing. Incorporated into this study was research undertaken by Texas A & M University showing that complete service quality involves five factors:

(1) reliability,

(2) assurance,

(3) empathy,

(4) responsiveness and

(5) tangibles.

Tangible factors were least important in predicting overall service quality. Cost was not a major factor affecting a customer's decision to purchase a product or service or to switch to a competitor. The study found that the most important factors were responsiveness, reliability, empathy and assurance.

A firm develops a customer focus by providing its associates with communication skills that will allow them to be reassuring, empathic and responsive. Contrary to popular belief, most people are ineffective communicators. Consultants have found that approximately 75% of verbal communications are misunderstood. It is impossible to be responsive, reassuring and empathetic without a clear understanding of what a customer is communicating. Listening to customers is only the first step. The next is understanding.

Improving Customer Service Communications Using NLP

How can a person become an effective communicator? Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is one communication process that will achieve this end.

The best way to explain NLP is to describe the skills involved. Genie Laborde has developed a set of NLP skills for use in business. The first skill is to define your outcome. The primary questions for creating an outcome are:

  1. What result do you desire from your communication with the other?
  2. How will you know when you have achieved that outcome?

Laborde suggests that an outcome be defined in a full sensory form.

The second skill is to know your own and the other's dominant sense. A simple way to learn your own and your partner's dominant sense is through language. People tend to experience reality primarily with one of their senses. They also tend to use words associated with their dominant sense.

Some people are visual. They use a lot of visual words and phrases. For example, a visual person would say, "I see your point" or "that involves seeing the big picture."

Others prefer auditory experiences. They use a lot of hearing words. They might say, "That rings a bell" or "I hear what you're saying."

Finally, there are people who are kinesthetic. They need to touch and do things. Their communication contain alot of feeling words. An example is, "I feel that your room just doesn't feel warm."

The next skill is to gain rapport with another. This can be done by matching his or her breathing, voice tone or body movements. For example, if one has a loud tone and speaks rapidly, the other should increase the tone and rate of your communications. In matching body movements, it's not necessary to mirror the person's exact behavior. For example, if one person tends to rub his or her chin, the other might cross his or her legs when he or she takes this action.

To enhance rapport, start using the dominant sense of the other in your communications and behavior. For example, if the person is visual, you should use statements containing visual words and use pictures to illustrate your point. If they are kinesthetic, use feeling words and have them do something. For example, if you were a computer salesperson and your client was kinesthetic, you'd leave the computer for him or her to play with.

The next skill is the use of probing questions. Probing questions clarify general words and statement. What's a general word? An example is the word "service". Try this little experiment. Ask three people what service means. You will tend to get three different answers. Other examples of general words are "always, all, better, excellence, love, effectiveness and never."

When a person experiences general words and statements in communicating, he or she needs to become a journalist asking who, what, where, when and how. These questions will result in a more specific understanding of what the person is talking about.

Avoid using "why". When you ask why, you don't get anywhere. It just creates excuses, explanations and leads to placing blame. Why questions do not lead to problem solving. For example, suppose that the desk clerk forgot to register a guest. If asked why, she would make excuses for the mistake such as,"I forgot." If you asked what caused her to forget, she might answer with the reason for the situation. "I was really busy." The parties can begin to explore what caused her to be busy and how to solve the problem in the future.

The final skill is "dovetailing." Dovetailing involves a union of your and the other person's outcomes. It's not a "win-win" situation. Win-win involves compromise. In dovetailing both people get what they want.

For example, a customer may say he wants a room by the pool and there are none available. The resort person's outcome is for the man to stay at his resort. You might ask the reason he wants a room near the pool. He might say his reason is to see if there are single women at the resort. To dovetail, the clerk might give him a free pass to the bar and state that there are a few single women registered. This meets both preferred outcomes.

These skills form a communication chain, involving the following steps:

  1. define your outcome,
  2. find out your and the other's preferred sense,
  3. create a state of rapport with the person,
  4. ask what his or her outcome is,
  5. using clarifying questions when the other's outcome and communications are unclear and
  6. dovetail.


Historically, businesses have developed products and services in a standardized, impersonal and mass production fashion. They focused on the competition and used advertising to indoctrinate customers. But today's challenges require businesses to move beyond the old rules and embrace new approaches. One of these approaches is NLP.

While executives might suggest that training employees is not worth the cost, the fact of the matter is that this is an investment in the present and future. Poor customer service has a multiplier effect that will show up on the balance sheet in declining sales. If existing businesses don't embrace new approaches, entrepreneurs will. The result will be the death of the old and the birth of the new.


Fonvielle, W. and et al. (1988). Customer Focus Research Study--Preliminary Report of Overall Findings. The Forum Corporation.

Global Network. (1988). Preparing Now for the Next Decade: A Preview of Emerging Trends. John Naisbitt's Trend Letter.

Laborde, G. (1984). Influencing with Integrity--Management Skills for Communication and Negotiation. Syntony Publishing.

McKenna, R. (1986). The Regis Touch--New Marketing Strategies for Uncertain Times. Addison Wesley.

Peters, T. (1987). Thriving on Chaos: Handbook For A Management Revolution. Knofp.

Bob Holder is a development consultant. His St. Louis area based consulting firm works with profit and non-profit organizations and small enterprises. He was a contributor to the book, After Atlantis: Working, Managing and Leading in Turbulent Times. His, Requisite for Future Success ... Discontinuous Improvement in the Journal for Quality and Participation with Ned Hamson was the lead article in the launching of Emerald Management, the trade name for MCB Publishing in the United Kingdom. His articles have appeared in ODJ, ODP, Quality Digest, CI Magazine, Journal for Quality and Participation and Quality Journal. Bob has been devoting the last two years to teaching and doing paid and volunteer consulting in Russia. He consults, speaks and writes about innovation, strategic visioning and human systems design.

Contact Bob J. Holder at:
Gray Matter Production 620 Roosevelt Dr. Edwardsville, IL. 62025
Telephone: (618) 692-0258, Fax (618) 692-0819, e-mail: .

Articles by Bob Holder | Many more articles on Customer Service, Communications, Competitive Strategy and Leading Change in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2002 by Bob J. Holder. All rights reserved.

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