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By Kelly Riggs | Sales + Leadership

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Nov 01

Customer Service? You’re Kidding Yourself

by Kelly Riggs


A week rarely goes by that I don’t encounter bad customer service somewhere. I suspect most people could make the same claim. It’s increasingly difficult to find companies that are focused on providing genuinely exceptional service.

Question: Do you know what all those companies with inadequate customer service have in common? Answer: They claim that customer service is one of their priorities or values. In fact, if you asked them about their service they would insist it’s very good.

And they are kidding themselves.

Don’t get me wrong. They get it right some of the time. You can easily find customers who think these companies are perfectly fine. But you could also line people up and down the block who would enthusiastically disagree.

That’s because real customer service is how you treat customers – and how you deal with issues – when circumstances fall outside of the realm of “normal operations.” Simply completing a routine transaction, one that requires little thought or time investment, is the easiest and lowest form of “customer service.”

The real question is how do you fare when the stakes are higher? How does your company perform when the situation requires you to think, or act outside of “normal” operations?

Is Service a Function of Your Prices?

I recently stayed at the incredible Plaza Anthanee hotel in Paris. It’s a Six-Star Diamond Award hotel, and, according to Forbes, one of the finest Five-Star properties in the world.

Actually, the word “incredible” doesn’t quite capture the experience.

From the moment I approached the hotel until the moment I departed, the service was nothing short of amazing. I was never told where things were, I was shown. I never detected any lack of genuineness in the smiles or greetings of associates. I ever encountered any irritation or impatience in the service that was provided. And the attention to detail was unbelievable.

Notice that none of those things are a function of the price paid for the room. To be sure, the amenities were ridiculous. Breakfast was an experience. The rooms were dazzling. The décor was luxurious. Those things are clearly a function of the price paid.

But the service – from every angle – was world-class. Each “associate” is impeccably trained. The standards are several levels above good, because the expectations created by hotel management do not allow for anything other than exceptional. That includes, by the way, the customer service that is provided when challenges arise. After all, luxury hotels don’t suddenly avoid customer issues just because they charge a lot more money for a room.

Case in point: I had an Internet connectivity problem while I was at the Plaza. The basic Internet speed was insufficient for some video work I was doing, and I couldn’t figure out how to access the higher speeds that were available. As it turns out, once you’ve connected at one speed, changing to a different speed is a bit sticky. So, I mentioned my challenge to a Plaza associate.

She immediately escorted me to the front desk. She was courteous, polite and professional, and not the least bit annoyed at dealing with something out of the ordinary. Once there, a second associate immediately came out from behind the counter, greeted me by name, and assured me that she would happy to solve the problem. However, instead of telling me who to call or what I needed to do, she personally picked up the phone, called technical assistance, and very patiently walked me through the process, which required someone from I.T. to complete). Then, she apologized for my inconvenience.

Inconvenience? With that level of attention, it was barely a bump in the road. And, as I mentioned to her, it was an inconvenience that I had created for myself when I chose the Internet speed. Regardless of the circumstances, she assured me that the fee for the upgraded service would be waived.

Wait…what? Yes, I was impressed.

No, every business cannot provide the level of luxury and amenities (quality and selection) that the Plaza provides. However, every business can provide an amazing level of customer service, provided they give it the same priority that the Plaza does. It does not matter at all whether you are a B2B enterprise, or deal directly with consumers as a B2C enterprise, you (or your business) can provide a level of service that far exceeds “normal.”

Here is the question you must consider: Will extraordinary service help your business attract and retain profitable customers if you provide it?

According to research, the answer to both of those questions is “yes”:

  • 62% of B2B customers purchased more after a good customer service experience
  • 66% of B2B customers stopped buying after a bad customer service interaction

And what exactly do customers expect from “good customer service?”

  • 69% attributed their good customer service experience to quick resolution of their problem
  • 72% blamed their bad customer service interaction on having to explain their problem to multiple people

You might be surprised to learn that amazing customer service is not nearly as difficult as you think. Nor does it cost nearly as much to provide as you might think.

On the other hand, what you currently claim to be “good customer service” is typically nothing more than being in business. Companies open their doors and immediately tell everyone about their excellent “customer service.”

Unfortunately, they are usually just kidding themselves.

The Four Principles of Crazy-Good Customer Service

I recently returned home from a very long road trip. During my absence, a lot of things had piled up on my desk, including several checks that needed to be deposited. It was Friday when I returned, so I headed to the bank on Saturday to make the deposit.

After a longer-than-normal wait, the teller mentioned she would have to put a hold on my deposit. The “large deposit” hold was policy, she said. Nothing she could do about it, she said. Nope, nothing the supervisor could do about it either.

I mentioned that I was a long-time customer and routinely deposited checks from these same companies. In fact, the only reason for the “large deposit” was that I had been away for several weeks. “I’m so sorry,” she said, but there was nothing she could do except give me the name of a person to call on Monday. I guess it was too much trouble to have that person call me.

The deposit hold, by the way, was on the ENTIRE deposit. Every dollar.

Fast forward to Monday. I called the manager, explained the situation, and asked him to remove the hold on the funds. Since he knows me, my sense was that he would not only take care of the problem, but would apologize for the inconvenience.

Him:     “Were these corporate checks?”

Me:      “Yes.”

Him:     “Well, did they explain the policy?”

Me:      “Yes, they did. I asked them if they could just review my account and see that I was a long-time customer, but they said there was nothing they could do.”

Him:     (In a remarkably condescending voice) “Tellers can’t make those decisions.”

The good news is he released the funds right away. The bad news is he never apologized for the inconvenience. Even worse, he didn’t even bother to thank me for my business. #tonedeaf

The truth is, he could’ve completely turned things around by saying and doing the right things. He could’ve hit a home run and made a great impression. Instead, he swung and missed. And lost a customer. I wonder if they’ll even notice?

So, what does it take to create awesome customer service? Much has been written about the subject, and I highly recommend Raving Fans: A Revolutionary Approach to Customer Service (Ken Blanchard) as a guide, but here is what I have learned from the many good and bad experiences I have had over the years:

  1. It’s not just what you deliver, it’s how you deliver it.
  2. But, it’s also what you deliver.
  3. Attitude is everything.
  4. Attention to detail is the difference between average and amazing.

You may not be a luxury brand. You may just sell widgets to manufacturing companies, or everyday brands to middle-class America. It really doesn’t matter. No matter what your product is; HOW you deliver customer service – whatever that might be – is absolutely critical. The proof is simple: A restaurant with incredible food but consistently lousy service will be a memory in a very short period of time.

That said, WHAT you deliver is definitely important – in the context of your customer’s expectations. When customers expect one thing but get something different, they get cranky. If they expect luxury (based on your prices), you better deliver luxury. If they expect quality or selection or inventory, you better make those things happen. For a customer, conflict is a result of one thing – frustrated expectations.

Still, you can train employees to do the HOW and the WHAT correctly, and they can still have a bad attitude when they provide customer service. When employees are condescending or arrogant, or make excuses for failure, or act like customers are a nuisance, or become combative when customers are upset, they absolutely kill any good they might potentially accomplish.

Finally, with those first three items addressed, the most significant differentiator in service is attention to detail. The Plaza in Paris made that clear. Not long after my stay there, I visited another luxury hotel brand, this time in New Orleans. To be sure, it was a very nice hotel with very nice accommodations, but the difference in service (not the luxury) between this hotel and the Plaza were fairly dramatic.

The difference? Attention to detail.

The Last Word

Companies who provide great service invest in great service. They train relentlessly. They measure, review, and revise as needed. For them, awesome customer service is a standard to which they are completely committed.

However, you should note that the four principles above address the human component of customer service. What many companies attempt to do is substitute technology for training when it comes to improving their customer service. That, according to information gathered by Consumer Reports, is a huge mistake:

“Many companies today are simply awful at resolving customer problems, despite investments in whiz-bang technologies and considerable advertising about their customer focus,” said Scott Broetzmann, president of Customer Care Measurement & Consulting.

Great customer service is not a function of technology. It is a function of well-trained people who are empowered to solve problems; people who genuinely care about creating a great experience for customers.

It does not happen by accident.

Don’t kid yourself.

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About the Author

Kelly Riggs is a business performance coach and founder of the Business LockerRoom. A former national Salesperson of the Year and serial entrepreneur, Kelly is a recognized thought leader in the areas of sales, management leadership, and strategic planning. He serves clients ranging from small, privately held companies to Fortune 500 firms.

Kelly has written two books: “1-on-1 Management™: What Every Great Manager Knows That You Don’t” and “Quit Whining and Start SELLING! A Step-by-Step Guide to a Hall of Fame Career in Sales.”