Is customer service important to you?
I know, dumb question… Read on…
At a recent banking conference, a senior account manager said, “We don’t set out to be rude; but when the conversation begins with hostility from the customer, we just shut down. It’s a coping mechanism.” Another said, “Because people can do so much online now, if a person does contact you directly it is because they have a problem and they are angry. So yeah, I spend my day talking to angry people.”
The bankers identified a spiral that occurs, a “meltdown”, when trust is broken in a service relationship. When trust is lost; customers are lost, complaints are written, manager are called, and both sides are happy only when they are done with one another.
The banker says, “It’s OK to fire a customer …”
The customer says, “It’ll be a cold day in hell before I set foot in that bank again…”
Just take a look at the businesses that earned a top ten spot in MSN Money’s Hall of Shame and most of you will nod your head and say, “Oh yeah, that seems right.” The sixth annual survey just released results identified Bank of America in the number one lousy-service spot, with AOL in 2nd place. Banks like Citigroup, Well Fargo, JP Morgan Chase, and Capital One continue to set low expectations. And of course telecom companies like Sprint, Dish Network, and Comcast are present. See what I mean? Of course you’re going to have crappy service from those companies!
Now let’s look at the winners for great customer service. Again, you are probably not going to be surprised: Southwest Airlines, American Express, Marriot International, Hilton, FedEx, UPS, Sony, Apple, Google, and in the number one spot, Amazon. Of course Amazon is going to be number one. Amazon is like, almost perfect!
Why is great customer service so elusive when we all know the characteristics and behaviors that define great service? If you don’t believe me, take five minutes at the start of your next staff meeting and ask, “What are the characteristics of a great service experience?” Get ready to write. You will probably end up with a list of 30 attributes in about two minutes.
It turns out that Evolutionary leaders know how develop the core practices that are the basis for great customer service experiences. They bring a couple of secret ingredients to every business transaction that has the effect of establishing a basis of trust and clarity in the service experience. I’ll share those ingredients in a second. But for now it is an important point that Evolutionary leaders don’t do things for the sake of “good customer service”. They would probably tilt the head and look at you quizzically if you asked them about customer service. Evolutionary leaders do the right things because they are the right things to do. Doing the right thing for a customer, a family member, a colleague is an end in and of itself. That is why the secret ingredients to great service are authenticity and empathy.
The Authenticity Advantage
In this world of crazy social media; authenticity is the coin of the realm. Everyone wants to produce media that will “go viral” and create a marketing sensation. We understand. We love it when people “Like” and “Thumbs Up” our Evolutionaries Facebook page (hint, hint). But of course the catch is that the only things that really “go viral” are the serendipitous, off-hand, unscripted, unintentional and utterly authentic experiences that happened to be captured on video.
Authenticity is in the DNA of the Evolutionary leader. They know who they are. They walk through the whole world comfortable in their skin and unabashed about their strengths and weaknesses. They are especially good at being authentic in situations that drive others to hide behind some mask of social convention or trite empty expressions. People can tell “this person is the real deal.” The key is that when people sense you are authentic, they are much more willing to listen, to trust, and to be authentic with you. And this is the point of magic. When you trust my motives, when you know “what’s in it for me”, you are able to anticipate what I would/should do. Your anticipations and expectations are fulfilled again and again as I behave in a manner consistent with my authentic self. As a result, trust is quickly earned and given. The opportunity for real fulfillment emerges. In many cases the service experiences are so profound that they exceed the parameters of a “business transaction.” Real relationships form and last.
Empathize or Fade Away
But authenticity alone is not sufficient to establish a vibrant culture of outstanding customer service. Evolutionary leaders also bring an insatiable curiosity about their clients and customers. They want to understand their customers because they actually care. The second key ingredient is empathy. They want to understand you, your business, your preferences, your pet peeves, and your challenges. They will likely throw the policy manual out the window if they feel it is not in synch with actual situation that their customer is experiencing. An executive for Key Bank recently told me, “We want our people to know their customers precisely because we expect them to make changes and decisions on our customer’s behalf.” It is not about understanding so I can spam you with messages or glean some extra edge of margin in a sale. It is not about manipulating or hoodwinking. It is about working hard to remain valuable and relevant to your customers.
It can’t be perfunctory. If I ask “How are you?” I better be ready to handle the “Not too good…” answer as well as the “Fine” answer. To be empathetic means you must be ready and willing to adapt your approach and responses based on the new information from the customer. Evolutionary leader Joe Brancucci, CEO of GTE Federal Credit Union, puts himself on the front line every day. “Members have direct access to me through our website. I read and answer every comment, concern, and complaint. It is not a gimmick. It is a great way for me to really understand what is going on in the lives of our members.”
The Right Question
So, how do you build a great customer service culture? If you ask Evolutionary leaders they will tell you that the customer service culture is the result of taking an authentic stand in your marketplace and bringing an active level of empathy to every single transaction. They would say that trying to build a great customer service experience is putting the cart in front of the horse. They would challenge your thinking about why you are in business in the first place. They would seek to build trust first, and then iterate with the customer’s best interest at heart.
It is also helpful to use customer service problems to “get things right.” If you are having customer service challenges, these issues are “canary in the coal mine” issues that can tip you off to much deeper, fundamental problems that require attention. Again, it is not so much about fixing the “customer service problem” but it is about asking what is missing or broken that is creating the reality where customer service is suffering. We need to understand what conditions must be in place for a great experience to unfold.
What is really sad is that the people at Comcast, Bank of America, and AOL are working really, really hard. They are trying. But they are not succeeding. They are like an inefficient swimmer slogging through water, arms and legs flying, going nowhere and getting worn out. Compare that to the hard work at Amazon, Apple, Hilton, or Marriot. Their efforts are paying off. They have established a set of expectations that are consistent with their identity as a company. They have developed real time strategies for deeply listening to their customers and adapting as needed. They have let Evolutionary leaders set the tone, and the result is outstanding customer service.