Going Beyond Customer Service

From the offices on high we hear the missions and mantras of customer service, customer driven, exceeding our customers’ expectations, customer care, the customer comes first, and so on. I think it’s safe to say that most enterprises get it – where the ‘it’ is an awareness that customers somehow matter in their business model. Customers matter in the words and rhetoric, but for most businesses, most of the time, customer service is abysmal. It’s bunk! It’s bull! It’s a sham and it’s a lie! Customer service for most businesses, most of the time, is at best – lip service. 

How many truly memorable shopping or purchasing experiences have you had last week, or last month, or in the last year? I’ll bet it’s no more than ‘a few’ or ‘several’ at best. I’m sure you will admit that in terms of the potential number of service encounters a memorable experience is indeed a very rare occurrence. The batting average on service delivery for most enterprises would bounce them out to the minor leagues. What a shame given the research, the rhetoric and the investment most organizations make to intend to serve their customers. 

There are some exceptions some of the time. Occasionally, a specific individual will provide an incredible experience, through their extra care, attention to detail, perhaps a courageous solution to your dilemma, possibly going beyond your expectations to ensure your needs are satisfied, or perhaps just a smile and sincere appreciation for choosing them. 

At my local Home Depot I always wait in line for Margaret. She has turned cashiering into a memorable encounter and never fails to engage you in a conversation of what you’re up to with what you’ve bought today. Faith and Anna at The Keg have a lot of that too – they seem to take a sincere interest in you while providing impeccable and attentive service for your party. A young man at Dell provided outstanding technical advice and followup on my last purchase. Most recently a wonderful young lady at Gap Kids took the time to help my daughter coordinate little outfits for the twins – and even took a shirt off a display to make it work. 

In most enterprises it’s rare and I suspect these exceptional individuals are just exceptional – they somehow just enjoy serving others, having an interesting conversation, and making a difference in the lives of others. They are also likely the highest performers in their organizations and are unfortunately the exceptions to the rule. They have somehow ‘broken the mold’ or at least have avoided being broken by the mold. The trouble is – they are the exceptions, and the rest is lip service.

In some enterprises on the other hand, most of the time, the service is outstanding and memorable. Everytime I’ve been in a Delta hotel the service has been phenomenal. The check-in is very fast and accurate – the associates are superb – they’re into service, they smile, they are sincere and I like it! I have never had a bad experience with Delta. And more importantly, I have always had a very positive experience there – and obviously I do tell others. Also with WestJet – Canada’s answer to Southwest Airlines. I will always book them first. The price is right, but the ride is an adventure. I like the extremely efficient check-in, the smiles, the casual and kooky style, and the lightness that they add to my travelling day.  I am very happy they are doing very well and expanding their routes. I like it when the best win.

So the point of this article is that for most enterprises most of the time customer service is lip service, aside from a few very special people who go beyond because that’s who they are. The best these organizations will ever be able to do is to attempt to recruit more of these special people and hope it transfers to others. This will always be a significant challenge as the best or special individuals will always be attracted to environments where they can unleash their talent. The reality is, unfortunately, that in most organizations memorable customer service will always be a rare occurrence.

But for some enterprises most of the time the service is memorable and … please listen slowly to this one … memorable customer service has become a distinct differentiating factor and a competitive advantage.  That is where we are going. Beyond lip service to customer service – to real customer service and beyond. We call it customer obsession – where providing memorable customer service is strategic and ‘cultural’ and provides a significant competitive advantage.

Why memorable?

‘Good’ – is the price of admission, whether it applies to quality, service, order fulfillment or any measure of satisfaction and performance delivery. You have to be ‘good’ to be in the game today. So anyone in the game is at least ‘good’ or going out of business. But if the price of admission is ‘good’ in terms of customer service, it cannot be a differentiating or ‘strategic’ factor if it’s the same. Good is merely adequate. Meeting expectations is ‘expected.’ And ‘sameness’ is not strategic – it doesn’t make a difference in terms of influencing the decision of a customer. 

How many people have you told about having a good or acceptable shopping experience? Perhaps one or two. More likely only if asked specifically for a referral.  Why would you tell anyone if the experience just met your expectations? You had a need, your need was met, and life goes on. Loyalty – perhaps, it depends – on your needs, interests, curiosity, whatever.

On the other hand, think back to the most memorable experiences you’ve had. How many people have you told about them. Perhaps a dozen, or more? I tell the stories all the time to thousands of people because it is so rare to experience truly memorable service. The point is that exceeding expectations, or in other words, providing a memorable experience, results in more than a ten-fold word of mouth positive referral for your enterprise. It’s free marketing – and it’s valuable and deep marketing as it comes from ‘more than satisfied’ customers – something like ‘raving fans’ – positive and credible testimonials from people you know and trust. Loyalty – you bet! And it’s a self reinforcing upwards spiral of memorable experiences and positive referrals that can be very very powerful.

We all want to differentiate ourselves, add value and avoid the commodity game. But most of us most of the time have competitors that can, if they choose, match our quality, match our convenience, match or beat our prices, or otherwise preempt us on the tangibles. That is why we invest to build brands and the ‘share of mind’ to move to compete in the realm of theintangible. It is the intangible appeal that ultimately is strategic. True competitive advantage exists only in that magical realm of the intangible

Going beyond customer service to create a memorable experience creates an intangible in the minds of customers. It is an experience, and the feelings one has about that experience. It is indeed powerful, because … no one can take that away. It cannot be pre-empted – it has happened. And it lives long in the mind and greatly influences the behaviour of an individual and their network of associates. It is strategic – as it establishes the magical andintangible connection between your customer and your enterprise. Going beyond customer service to customer obsession is very strategic and will provide your enterprise a distinct and unique competitive advantage, if you get it right. 

As we attempt to differentiate ourselves from our competitors we must first acknowledge that it is the entire experience the customer has that is significant, not just the brand or the product or the facility or the interaction. All elements are vital – the product has to be right  from the customer’s point of view, the environment has to be comfortable for the customer, the value has to ring true to the customer, your people have to be knowledgable – it all has to work to be effective. To go beyond customer service for strategic advantage however, you will have to embrace new concepts and new values – and go over the edge and challenge everything you do.