I am fixated lately on the topic of outstanding customer service. As a road-warrior and constant consumer of restaurant, hotel, car rental, coffee shop, salon, apparel, and convenience store services domestically and abroad, in community sizes ranging from tiny Iowa towns to London, I suspect I encounter a reasonable approximation of what customer service means today. What I have encountered is a strange dichotomy.
Customer Service Out, Customer Service Culture In
On the one hand, excellent customer service is no longer treated as a differentiator by consumers. Twenty years ago, a business could set itself apart by touting its fantastic service. Advertising one’s customer service prowess or awards for customer service meant something to consumers, and it was often excellent service that businesses chose to feature in taglines. Today, excellent service is a minimum standard necessary to compete. Boasting about or branding with excellent customer service is like advertising an automobile and saying, "It runs! It goes up to 75 mph!"
On the other hand, excellent customer service can be very difficult to find, even in the luxury sector. At a time when consumer expectations regarding service are higher than ever, why aren’t businesses stepping up and delivering?
Because excellent – no, outstanding – customer service is one of the hardest things to do. You can’t automate it. You can’t script it or cookie-cutter it. You can’t ensure it with policy or rules. Excellent customer service is about people, and people run on motivation.
When I refer to customer service, I’m not just talking about direct personal interactions. Think of all the people in non-customer facing roles that have significant influence over how the customer feels about the company:
- The web developer that cares about customer experience creates shopping interfaces that are simple, fast, and efficient and filter or search functions that quickly provide the right answers.
- The systems person that creates strong data warehouse tools helps customer-facing team-members quickly find and deliver information to interested customers.
- The purchasing staffer who does such thoughtful forecasting and planning that the right products are in the right places at the right times – so customers can find them.
- The CFO who supports the creation of simple, easy return policies to ensure customer satisfaction.
- The marketing team member who thoughtfully manages customer lists to ensure that the most relevant email campaigns go to each list subscriber.
- The production worker who looks for the tiniest errors to ensure a customer never finds one.
- The shipping clerk who packs every box as if the contents are fragile and going to his own mother.
To deliver outstanding customer service, a company must motivate every single employee in every single role to think about how his or her work will affect the customer.
Outstanding Customer Service Starts with the Right Ingredients
I do not believe in the adage you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. But I do believe that our essential ingredients – personality, character, and self-discipline – are fairly set by the time we reach adulthood. The truth is, some people are wired to deliver an outstanding customer experience because they are empathetic, interested in others, and motivated to serve. If the people you hire don’t start with those essential characteristics, no amount of training, cajoling, or threatening will induce them to become passionate service people.
But it’s more complicated than that, isn’t it? Because those aren’t the only ingredients you need. When you hire a sales person who must deliver outstanding customer service, they must combine empathy and service-orientation with self-confidence and the ability to influence someone to part with their cash. On the other hand, if you are hiring a nurse, you need a person who combines empathy and service orientation with the ability to handle tremendous pressure, mete out pain, and deliver difficult news with pragmatic calm, all while keeping the patients from becoming frightened. An airline attendant must combine empathy and service orientation with vigilance. These are three very different recipes.
The Human Resource function has evolved to do a much better job of finding the best ingredients and matching them with roles and teams, and many new business tools and practices are available to support best practices in hiring, onboarding, and training. But are most businesses using these tools? Unscientific research (i.e., observation) would suggest that they are not. If you invest in one area of improvement for your service-dependent business this year, do a better job of matching the right people with the right teams and jobs.
First You Solve the Processes . . .
The full saying goes, first you solve the process, then you solve the people. The source of most people-problems at work is process problems. If your processes are unnecessarily complex, cumbersome, inconsistent or – worse! – nonexistent, your people cannot give consistent – let alone outstanding – service. Make sure that your business processes are simple, effective, complete (which means no opportunities to drop the ball), documented, and trained. In that order. Let’s do that again:
- Complete (this means that each process design is complete, from beginning to completion and monitoring)
Walk into any company that delivers consistently outstanding customer service, and you’ll find excellent process management. Why? Because the end result – outstanding customer service – is dependent on each company defining what service means according to its own brand and standards, defining the services that deliver the required level of care, and being able to train all employees involved in each service area to deliver the same services in the same ways.
Outstanding Service Comes from Effective Management
Good management is essential to business success. Too many businesses approach management as a personality trait, or the thing we do when we’re creating schedules, granting time off, or creating reports. In fact, great management comes from two terms that are not terribly in vogue these days, concepts that seem related to old, hierarchical models of business: command and control. But when you break these concepts down and examine the details, you see how important they are.
I use the term command because it’s still the term that is taught in business schools and recognized as one of the pillars of management. Other effective terms would be influence, motivate, and inspire. In fact, “lead” is the concept we’re going after, but in management theory terms, leadership is more than just this element. So, what is a manager supposed to be doing in this regard? Command is about having a clear vision, communicating it to the team, and ensuring that the team achieves its objectives. Communication skill is critical, because constant, effective communication helps a group of people embrace and share a common set of goals. A manager with a grasp on command creates an environment where people understand what is expected, have enough information to buy into the goals and objectives, are excited about the pursuit of excellence, and are clear that failure to deliver on the team’s goals will result in consequences.
Control is not about controlling people – it’s about controlling the way in which the work is done and whether or not the work is done correctly. Processes, procedures, efficiency, and structure are the domain of control. Good managers not only communicate expectations and motivate people to do as required (command), they also create project plans, delegate activities, evaluate, monitor, measure, and share progress with their teams.
If you’re not being successful in the management areas of command and control, then it is unlikely that your team is capable of delivering outstanding customer service.
Culture is the Binding Agent
A company’s culture is the glue that binds all the important elements of the company together. A strong, positive business culture reinforces the brand, and in the best examples, defines it. The culture of a workplace determines and reflects employee commitment. To create a company culture that will nurture and serve customers, you must have a culture that nurtures and serves employees. Please don’t confuse nurturing with coddling – they are not the same. Employees want to be treated as professionals, with dignity and respect. Study after study demonstrates that employees who are trusted and expected to perform admirably will rise to the occasion.
A strong, positive business culture is created by thoughtful leadership, the right people in the right roles, good processes, strong management, and positive, goal-oriented behavior.
Every business culture is different, but all should include these ingredients. Without a strong culture, you cannot achieve outstanding customer service.
I’ve heard people blame today’s lack of customer service on the continued automation of service, reduced congeniality in society, or on an angrier, more demanding workforce. There may be particles of truth in all that, but I don't think those are the core reasons. Rather, what I observe in both the businesses I patronize and those I consult, is that the frantic pace of business combined with frequent economic and social uncertainty causes business owners and executives to work in a very tactical manner. This leaves little time for thinking about and managing the basics, and does not lend itself to long-term thinking and planning. Which, among other problems, erodes the company’s ability to deliver outstanding customer service.
Delivering outstanding customer service is one of the most critical things a business must do, particularly at a time when consumers expect nothing less. The good news is that dedication to known management fundamentals is half the battle. What will be harder for many companies is the creation of a strong, positive business culture. In fact, strong, positive business culture may be the differentiator of the future. A worthy, rewarding goal to shoot for.
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