Current Articles for You:
and the New Customer Service
By Kathy Loveless, MS, CSP
After giving my gazillionth seminar on customer service, I am convinced that every human being on the planet knows what it is, knows why it is important, and wants to deliver it. Then I walk into the San Diego Alamo Rental Car company to return my car–purchased gasoline receipt in hand. I only have minutes before I will be seriously late for my flight. Perhaps they know that, hence their success in charging me $32.97 for an empty tank of gas that really is full–and getting away with it. Three months of correspondence later, I still have no refund and remain furious with them. Uncommon? Not according to customer surveys throughout the country. Even with all the talk, some companies still are not getting it.
So what’s a manager to do? Try a different, a more creative, approach. Oh, and remember that with the enormous employee turnover present in most companies today many employees may never have heard the Customer Service Message. So, not only is a new approach necessary, but continually reinforcing it is required.
When I analyze poor customer service, three explanations emerge. First, the individual service provider really does not comprehend the BIG picture. These workers do not understand that without customers who are pleased and want to return, there is no business. Second, there are institutional and managerial barriers to their performing in customer-friendly ways if they do understand the BIG picture. Third, the linkage between the what’s-in-it-for-me thinking of employees and the service they provide is not leading them to better performance. All three explanations of poor service can be corrected, but employee ownership in the problem and in the creation of the solution must exist.
What About Creativity?
In his enlightening journey toward creating the 20th Century’s most successful television ad for Coca-Cola, based on The New Seekers song, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” Bill Backer illustrates how important obtaining ownership by many people is to the creative process. So it is in producing excellent customer service.
In too many organizations, the frontline people are those
most frequently overlooked when it comes to making decisions about completing
a task or providing customer service. One of my clients is an irrigation
company in the arid Southwest. Ditch riders are employees who ride up
and down the irrigation ditches regulating the release of water onto the
fields and looking for blockages to the free flow of irrigation water.
They use two lengths of pipe to open the gates that divert water to the
various fields. In the old days, these ditch riders performed their service
by horseback. Now, they do it via GM trucks. One day, a supervisor decided
that the trucks needed to be upgraded along with the tool box that carried
the valuable lengths of pipe. Thousands of dollars were spent buying new
trucks and tool boxes. When asked how they liked their new trucks and
boxes, one ditch rider responded, “We hate them. It now takes us
much longer to do our runs because the tool boxes are so hard to get in
and out of. But, nobody asked us before spending all of that money.”
Creating corporate cultures that encourage the risky business of thinking in unusual ways is a challenge faced by most companies today. It becomes more difficult when finances are tight because the downside of risk-taking is more damaging at those times. Never-the-less, it is necessary to do, maybe even more so when finances are tight.
Five important steps can be taken to encourage customer service that takes into account the needs and expectations of the customer in creative ways:
1. Include the frontliners in a brainstorming process that
answers the question, “What can we do to make every customer pleased
with our service and want to return?” Standard brainstorming rules
are especially critical at this time because creativity cannot be stifled
by jumping prematurely on an idea, nor by dismissing another idea too
quickly. It is imperative that those employees who first encounter the
customer be included–and valued–in this brainstorming. Generating
as many options, without evaluation, as possible is important. But always,
creative thinking is imperative. I was in a session in which the group
brainstormed how to get from one side of a river to another. Over 250
ideas were generated, including: dam the river, fill it full of gelatin
and walk across it.
2. Ideally, the next step would be to “operationalize” each idea by answering the question, “How could we make this idea work to improve the experience for the customer.” I use the word “ideally” because I know how time-consuming such a task would be. If there simply is not time to flesh out every idea, then move to item three.
3. Multi-vote the brainstormed list. This involves removing
any redundant items and reducing the list down to a size that can be operationalized.
Each participant is given a number, say 5, for which he or she can vote.
This quickly pares down a long list to one that is more manageable.
4. Test the new ideas with an open mind. A common mistake is permanently discarding an idea whose time has not yet come — something doesn’t work at one time, so we assume it will never work. In 1995, I attended classes on the internet. I concluded that the internet was nothing but a bunch of chat rooms with unsubstantiated opinion and undocumented ideas. Good thing I didn’t stay with that opinion.
5. Always, always look at the situation from the customer’s
viewpoint. If you are offering benefits and services that are benefits
only in your eyes, you have served no one but yourself. Recently, I was
working for a client in southern California who was located in the middle
of agricultural fields. Each evening I would return to my motel and face
two major problems – an air conditioner that did not work in 128
degree weather and bugs– lots of them, everywhere. The next time
I returned to this motel, the desk clerk explained that the rates had
gone up, but it was because they had added new services for the customers.
They had upgraded the bar and had added coffee machines to the rooms.
“Swell,” I thought, “Now we can get so drunk that we
won’t notice the heat and bugs or so caffeinated that we can chase
the bugs around the room all night.” Who was being served with their
The requirement constantly to seek creative, new ways to serve the customer will be with us always. As technology, and just the simple passing of time, change the needs of customers, so must the way we serve them. And as the leaders in customer service keep raising the bar, those who don’t meet the new standard, will fall further and further behind until they are forced to erect a “Going Out of Business” sign.
As I prepare my gazillionth and one seminar on creativity and customer service, I am reminded that most people are not born with the knowledge of how to provide outstanding service. They must be taught and those teachings must be reinforced by a corporate culture that really does understand that without the satisfied customer, there is no business.
Kathy Loveless, MS, CSP is President of Loveless Enterprises, Inc., a management consulting and professional speaking firm. She conducts seminars and research on creativity and customer service throughout the U.S. and Europe. She helped create the first nationwide customer service training for the U.S. Federal Government and has trained over 100 federal agencies.
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