Customer Service, Not Lip Service

Run a search in AltaVista for “customer service,” and you’ll get 4,094,413 word hits. boasts 880 book titles on the subject. Obviously, there’s a lot to say about this. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz wrote a book on how customer service (among other things) got the coffee giant to where it is today: on every street corner (sometimes literally on every corner of a particular intersection!). At the Disney Institute, professionals around the world train in the fine art of creating customer loyalty.

Mention the acronym “E-CRM” to a marketing person, and everyone is an expert on what it means. It means databases and complex algorithms for determining what customers want and how to sell them even more than that. It’s about help desks and call centers, field services, marketing integration, research, tracking, and other accoutrements.

Just as in public relations, all is fine and good as long as the customer is happy. But you separate the pros from the fakes when things don’t go well. Then you can see the difference between customer service and lip service.

Many people think customer service is about friendly smiles and patient responses to angry customers. That’s only part of it. True customer service means fixing the problem that angers the customer in the first place, without much fanfare.

Disservice With a Smile

A few weeks ago, Emily ordered some office supplies from the web site of a national office supply chain that promised next-day delivery. The next day everything but one item arrived. Emily called the customer service phone number to report the missing item. The representative was very friendly, conversational, and addressed Emily by her name.

“Oh, yes,” the rep said. “I see they didn’t put that item in the shipment. We’ll make sure it’s on tomorrow’s delivery truck. Sorry for the inconvenience. Is there anything else you’d like to order today?”

Emily said, “No, thanks.” And what happened the next day? That’s right: no delivery.

Emily called again, this time reaching another very friendly customer service representative. “Oh,” said the rep, “I see here you called yesterday, and a second order was placed for the item. The truck is still making its deliveries so you should receive it by the end of the day. Sorry for the inconvenience. Is there anything else you’d like to order today?”

Again, “No, thanks.” And again, no delivery.

Exasperated, Emily faxed the company and complained that the item had not been received. She gave the company 24 hours to deliver it, or else she would cancel that item. No response. No phone call. No email. No delivery. On the fifth day, Emily faxed the company again and canceled the item from her order.

Now, one could argue that the customer service representatives were indeed very customer oriented. They were polite. They communicated what they knew from their computer screen – basically confirming what Emily had already told them. And, of course, they offered to help with any future ordering. But Emily never received the original item she’d ordered, and the problem was never resolved.

On the other hand, her experience with another online retailer demonstrated true customer service. The following experience demonstrates, too, why 80 percent of your revenue will come from 20 percent of your customers… if you do it right.

A couple of months ago, we ordered some new bedroom furniture from an upscale hardware-slash-retro store. The cherry wardrobe arrived and fit perfectly in its spot. Missing were the brass pegs that were to fit in holes for the shelves inside the cabinet. Emily emailed the company’s customer service representative about the pegs. Less than two hours later she received a response that the pegs had been ordered from the manufacturer and would be in the mail within 48 hours. Two days later she had the pegs, delivered by UPS.

Thank you. Come again.

What this demonstrates is that customer service is more than the call center or tracking a customer’s purchasing habits and matching needs with products. It’s more than being friendly and communicative. It’s about delivering on the promise.

United Airlines suffered through a difficult summer with the pilots’ quasi-strike and other problems that caused numerous delays and canceled flights. As frequent flyers, we found it interesting to watch how United Airlines tried desperately to hold on to its customer loyalty through the summer. When Greg sent United Airlines a complaint email about the consistent cancellations and delays he’d suffered between San Francisco’s International Airport and Newark, N.J., the response was candid. It admitted that United had not delivered on its promise and apologized for this. The response also outlined what United was doing to mend the problems.

Now United Airlines is on an aggressive campaign to retain those customers through various incentive programs and letters of apology. Whether on-time service or reduced cancellations become a reality remains to be seen.

There are a lot of consultants out there telling you how to best deliver on customer service. They offer mysterious services, such as “loyalty strategy,” “loyalty process design,” “systems integration,” and “loyalty support.”

It’s really not that hard: Give them what they want when they want it. We’ve all heard it before. Few, if any, things are as critical to a company’s success as this simple truth. It doesn’t take a genius to figure this out, yet companies are spending millions of dollars on customer-loyalty decoder rings, trying to identify the great secret to retaining customers.

As we head toward the holiday season, we’ll see how many companies’ “loyalty strategies” bear out on the shopping and delivery frenzy.

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