Ten Lessons About Service

About twenty-five years ago in 1989 I started working in the world of customer service, and what really delights me is to see how far South African businesses have come in terms of looking after their customers. There are ten key lessons that I’ve learned, and would like to share with you.

“Customer service” is not enough anymore. I get good, even great service just about everywhere that I spend my money. Today sustainable customer loyalty is important, and that means continuously and innovatively adding value for customers. Famous companies like Virgin Atlantic, Disney World, Ritz-Carlton Hotels, American Express, Exclusive Books, Mr. Delivery, Avis Car Rental, the Crystal Towers Hotel, and countless other businesses, large and small, are growing successfully because they continuously find new ways to create irresistible, memorable experiences and a quantum leap in value for customers.

Hygiene before delight: Fix the basic rotten things first, the “dumb contacts,” because it’s the simple things that count the most. Yes, I know that every management consultant since Tom Peters has been saying this, but there are no magic wands. After all, you can’t put whipped cream on garbage. Every time I seek to discover something new about Truworths “secrets,” I’m disappointed: there aren’t any! But there is an obsession with getting the basic, small, detailed things right: Look after your customers like they were your friends, make sure we never run out of stock, speed up the queues and payment, train staff often and much, and respond positively to customers’ needs – however weird they are. If you don’t think that the little things count, try walking around with a small stone or a Lego piece in your shoe all day.

It’s all about your people. Survey after survey shows that motivated and empowered people look after their customers. Forget about expensive CRM and other costly customer care technology available today: if your people are angry and frustrated with their managers, and feel abused and disrespected by the company, they will take it out on the safest target – the customer. You cannot neglect your people. The more you encourage them to be fussy about the service that they get, the more likely it will be that they give good service. Start off by hiring people who are “nice” first. (See what makes people “nice” in the next point.)

Saying “Thank-you” and being nice to customers, in a meaningful manner, is rare in most businesses today. More common is apathy and indifference towards customers. I’ll spend R250 000 financing my car with my bank and receive a standard computer-generated letter – with my name spelled wrong. This is the same bank where I have three home loans totaling millions of rand, the same bank where I have been a customer for forty-nine years now, and where nobody more senior than a bank-teller has ever said thank-you. (I do occasionally get a telephone from a more senior person – but only to warn me that I have exceeded the overdraft limit.) My local supermarket had no idea that I could spent on average about R6000 per month there, and until I met Max from my local SPAR in Dowerglen, I have never been specially acknowledged. Not good enough. You can get away with murder by showing courtesy, friendliness, warmth, care and empathy to people, and when you treat customers with dignity, helpfulness and respect, they feel an obligation to support you, and to protect you from your rivals.

Companies are generally awful at keeping and using meaningful information about customers. My cell phone provider sent me a Valentine’s Day SMS which began “Dear Valued Subscriber…” and wondered why I was ungrateful. (If you don’t understand why, it’s because this day of showing love is not about standard, computer-generated messages, and because at the age of 56 I don’t do Valentine’s Day anymore.) The airline I used to travel with regularly – approximately 1200 economy-class flights in the past twenty five years on SAA – still doesn’t know where I like to sit, how to pronounce my name, nor that I am a diabetic who hates boiled fish. Of course, they assume that I will be happy when I get one free flight to Durban – but only after having to fly there and back 37½ times to earn my free flight, and only after the government has spent around R29bn (yes, billion,) of our tax money to bail them out. On the other hand, when Discovery Health found out that my wife was pregnant after many years of trying, they responded personally to both of us with written information and warm messages.

Why do we find it so difficult to say “sorry”? In my opinion, the poorest customer service skill in companies today is recovery from poor service. Is it because we are such big deals with too much testosterone, (even the women,) or a fear that we will lose something if we apologise? Perhaps it’s because we think that we will be sued, or that if we ignore unhappy customers, they will forget about it. A genuine apology, correctly timed, can work wonders, and may turn an unhappy customer into a very surprised and loyal customer. And in today’s social media-driven world, it’s become even more important.

Customers are very willing to talk about their experiences… if asked. Why is it that a business will spend a small fortune to pay another company to find out about their customers – when they should be doing it themselves? Nothing beats a face-to-face meeting, knee-to-knee, jaw-to-jaw, over a cup of coffee or a beer. Watch your customers’ reactions to you, and ask what else they want. They want the best possible deal – no matter who they deal with – but will probably be loyal to you if you ask them and involve them.

Today, customers make the rules. Rules, systems, policies, and procedures are all usually created to benefit the company, to protect the business, rather than to delight customers. And most customers think that they are trivial, irrelevant, irritating and even pathetic. You need to challenge everything, and if this particular issue is crucial to your business, then ask yourself, “How can we best protect our customers from this thing?” As Chris Anderson wrote in his book The Long Tail…, “The ants have megaphones now.” It is just so easy for them to switch to another competitor today.

You have to stay in touch with customers at least once every ninety days. If you don’t, the relationship starts from scratch next time. There is always an excuse to communicate: celebrations, news, changes, learning, whatever. And with software that customises e-mail, sms, and printed stuff, there is just no excuse to not talk with them. Keep in touch.

Customers love choices. One of the most powerful ways to get customer commitment is to empower them, and one way in which this comes is through choice. Having a sit-down meal is fine, but a buffet let’s me choose what I want. Self-service – in whatever customer environment you care to mention – is a powerful way to get enthusiastic participation, to save your business from the hassle of serving each customer individually, and to give customers a sense of “ownership.” When they feel like partners, they act like partners, and this can only benefit your firm.

Today, we need customers more than they need us. Follow these ten suggestions and you will definitely enjoy the benefits of greater loyalty, repeat business, increased profitability, and positive recommendations and referrals that are so important for word-of-mouth communication..

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