The CEO Refresher Websites for Professionals
Take control of your online presence
with your own professional website!

Cutting Service Costs without Cutting Service
by Chip R. Bell and John R. Patterson


Delight your customer!  Exceed your clients’ expectations!   Provide value-added service!  These phrases have been the mantras of customer service gurus for a long time.  Such a focus on “delivering more” has no doubt raised the quality of service for many organizations.  But, what’s an organization to do when the budget-cutting ax is loosed and tight profit margins get even tighter?  How does an organization avoid sending a very mixed message by telling the front line to “wow” their customers in the morning and announcing staff cutbacks and expense reductions in the afternoon?  How do you add value when there are no more resources to fund the addition?  In a phrase:  imaginative service!  The notion that exceptional customer service must cost more is pure myth.

Imaginative service is different than exceeding customer expectations.  Ask customers what actions would be value added and they will focus on taking the expected experience to a higher-level…meaning “they gave me more than I anticipated.” It’s the upgrade, the extra helping, the complimentary dessert, or the baker’s dozen.  But, imaginative service is not about addition, it’s about creation.  When service people are ask to give more, they think to themselves, “I am already doing the best I can.”  But, if they are asked to pleasantly surprise more customers, they feel less like worker bees and more like fireflies.  If employees are asked to create a big customer smile instead of just working harder or faster they suddenly feel a part of an adventure.  

Ask employees to give better customer service and they will think of chores, tasks and duty.  But, make a request for imaginative service and you will find employees thinking about Ms. Jones or Mr. Smith—a shift from “all those customers” to “this customer.”  When employees get to create, not just perform, they feel prized.  When they are a part of an organization pursuing devoted customers, not just satisfied customers, employees extract enthusiasm and excellence from a growing reservoir of pride.  Just ask a Southwest, Disney,, or Lexus dealership employee what they think about their job and you will get a smiling “it’s awesome,” not a shrugging “it’s alright.”   

Imaginative service is generally crafted around a collective sense of purpose.  When employees are invited to be a part of finding and demonstrating a novel and inventive way to serve customers, their commitment to the outcome soars along the way fueling their creatitivy.  Conventional wisdom teaches that people will care when they share.  Employee participation is the antidote to resistance when change is required.  Employee inclusion says “you are valued.”  From that platform employees are more apt to give their best since it invites them to donate instead of hoard; contribute instead of protect.

Imaginative service is sourced in joy and fun.  It comes from the same part of the soul that plans a prank, organizes a party, or does a favor for a friend.  When that part is used regularly, it raises self-esteem, increases resilience, and improves morale.  Take a look at Fortune Magazine’s annual “Best Companies in America to Work For” and you will find they serve their customers a large plateful of imaginative service.  They also boast the lowest turnover (a cost saver), the best recruits (an investment), the highest productivity (another positive hit to the balance sheet) and the greatest profits.  Companies in the top 20% of the highly revered American Customer Satisfaction Index outperformed the Dow Jones industrial average by 93%, the S&P 500 by 201% and the NASDAQ by 355%. These companies yielded an average return of 40%. 

What Is “Take Their Breath Away" Service?

Take Their Breath Away service is about a quest for being remarkable.  “Remarkable takes originality, passion, guts and daring,” wrote Seth Godin in his best-selling book Purple Cow.  “Not just because going through life with passion and guts beats the alternative (which it does), but because it’s the only way to be successful.  Today, the one sure way to fail is to be boring.  Your one chance for success is to be remarkable.”  Below are eight ways to deliver take their breath away service. 

Idea # 1:  Ramp Up the Use of the Five Senses

The effective use of Sense cries not just for congruence but for creativity. Take it from Billy Rivera of Karaoke Cab in Charlotte, who was the subject of a story by Simone Orendain on the NPR news program All Things Considered for his novel approach to a mundane service.   With a laptop in the front seat next to him and a screen scrolling the words on the back of the seat that the passengers can view, he offers customers a choice of over 39,000 songs.  Some passengers so enjoy the wild sing-a-long, they ask Billy to keep driving around the block until the song ends, not minding while meter continues to run. 

Idea #2:  Look At Your Service Through New Eyes

Make a list of great service providers.  Now pick a service offering or service process of yours.  Then, brainstorm ways that service great might reinvent that service offering or process.  What if a great Lexus dealership service department could be in charge of your service department for a week?  What improvements might come from Jiffy Lube being in charge of your maintenance department for a few days?  If the Geek Squad at Best Buy ran your IT department, what would customers likely notice changed?  What would human resources be like if it embraced the “ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen” philosophy of a Ritz-Carlton?  How about putting Disney in charge of the cafeteria, or UPS in charge of the mail room?

Idea #3:  Know Your Customers Well 

When now retired “Coach” Jim Miller was the CEO of Miller Business Systems in Arlington, Texas, he monthly held a customer appreciation day.  Miller Business (now Corporate Express) provides office supplies to businesses.  On customer appreciation day, Miller employees constructed posters of the spotlighted customer company complete with displays of what the company did or made.   All employees wore special “We love ­­_____” buttons.  A special luncheon gave employees a chance to meet and talk with customer contact people they formerly only knew as a voice on the phone.  The best part of the day was the opportunity for the customer’s employees to observe Miller warehouse workers “picking” the customer’s actual pending order! 

Idea #4:  Go the Extra Mile

Chanaka Demel was working the front desk at the Holiday Inn Select hotel at the Toronto Airport when two men came in to register late one evening.  As he was checking them in, the guests communicated their anger over the fact that the airline had lost their luggage.  Both men were scheduled for important interviews beginning early the next morning and did not have the proper clothes.  Realizing both guests were about his size, Chanaka signaled to another clerk to fill in for him and went home to secure two business suits, complete with shirts and all the appropriate accessories for the guests.  They returned to the hotel late the next afternoon after completing a successful day of interviews in Chanaka’s clothes.  “He’s a miracle worker,” the men told the general manager.  “We plan to tell everyone to stay at this hotel in the future.”

Idea #5:  Overcommunicate and Underdictate

Customers want to be heard more than they want to hear you.  They value service providers that treat them like important partners.  Tom Berger, financial consultant with the CBC Group of Merrill Lynch enjoys a rich, long-term relationship with all of his clients.  Their allegiance to Tom comes from an intense curiosity that drives his pursuit of understanding.  He not only is accessible 24/7 to his clients, he finds an array of ways to keep his clients constantly plugged in to the ever-changing financial world.  His proactive style creates the unmistakable impression that he has one mission in life—to ride herd on each client’s portfolio as if it was his only one and with the passion that says his entire career is hanging on its performance.

Idea #6: Include Your Customers

On Southwest Flight 22 from El Paso to Phoenix, the flight attendant accepted assistance from two adoring passengers to help pass out peanuts to fellow passengers.  The most important part of the occurrence was not the obvious fun the two guys in Bermuda shorts and ball caps had.   It was the noticeable positive effect the incident had on everyone on board.  Even super serious passengers could not help but grin as they received the all-too-familiar snack from the flight attendant-wannabes!

Idea #7:  Always Be Generous

Bouquets is an award winning flower shop located in the heart of downtown Denver near many parking meters as well as a bus stop.  Many businesses refuse to give change for meters and buses, except to customers, because it depletes their cash till and takes employee time to go to the bank for more change.  Bouquets replenishes a bag of quarters daily, specifically designed to make change for anyone who asks, says co-owner B.J. Dyer.  “Coins are offered with a smile and a business card.  Many people later become our customers when they need flowers.”  Dyer adds, “But, even if they didn’t, we get a kick out of treating people different from the way others treat them.”

Idea #8:  Be Worthy of Customer Trust

Trusting actions can be as small as the cup of pennies next to the cash register with a sign that reads, “Got a penny, give a penny; need a penny, take a penny.”  Or the dry cleaner’s poster on the wall that says, “We DO take personal checks.”  Examine the signs around your organization that say “Don’t,” “No,” or other negatives.  Can the same message be communicated in a more trusting way?   And in the back room, out of sight from the customer, put reminders for employees to think through the customer’s eyes.  Would you like you for a service provider if you were the customer?  What signals do your actions send to your customers? 

What is the biggest obstacle to imaginative service?  Fear.  It is hard for employees to be inventive when they feel anxious.  It is challenging to be original when taking a risk is done under the critical eye of snoopervisor.  It requires being open to diverse thinking, responding to failure with mentoring and support rather than rebuke, and celebrating excellence that misses the mark not just excellence the works.  It takes leaders who talk about the vision more than they complain about the budget.  It takes leaders who show humility, openness and optimism.  Finally, it requires leaders who express sincere gratitude for valued contribution.

Customers are bored!  Service providers, chastised by the “less-than-exciting” results of their surveys, have put all their eggs in the “improvement” basket.  Like the well-trodden story of attempts to free the eighteen wheeler truck stuck in the overpass, too many units and organizations have sought the help of a “jack hammer or a welding torch;” too few have simply let the air out of the truck tires. 

Imaginative service can ramp up customer devotion. Devoted customers spend more, forgive more, and become strong advocates--an extension of your sales and marketing units.  Devoted customers cost less to serve because they know your operation and they defend you, even if they know you sometimes come up short.  As the crown jewels of the organization, they can be the source of savings and the foundation of profits.  Help your employees stop making your customers say “wow” and start saying “whoa!” Value-added delight can often be an expense but imaginative service is always an investment with a high return.


The Author

Chip Bell John Patterson

Take Their Breath Away

Chip R. Bell is the founder of The Chip Bell Group headquartered near Dallas.  John Patterson is president of Progressive Insights, Inc., a CBG alliance company.  Their newest book is Take Their Breath Away:  How Imaginative Service Creates Devoted Customers

They can be reached through

Many more articles in Customer Service in The CEO Refresher Archives
The CEO Refresher

Copyright 2009 by Chip Bell and John Patterson. All rights reserved.

Current Issue - Archives - CEO Links - News - Conferences - Recommended Reading

Refresher Publications