He Who Profits Most Serves Best: The Power of True Customer Service

This excellent article was written by Brian Lassiter, President of the renowned Performance Excellence Network. Many thanks to Brian for sharing this article!

Sometimes the most powerful insights come from the most disastrous experiences.  This is particularly true as it relates to poor customer service – something with which, unfortunately, all of us can relate.  As Bill Gates once said: “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.”

The Rental Car
It was the morning of May 15, probably three or four years ago, as I was standing in the security line at the Minneapolis St. Paul International airport to board a plane for some meetings in Dallas.  It was then when I received an email from the car rental company in Dallas, informing me that they did not have a vehicle for me.  This, of course, was about 24 hours after receiving an email from them confirming my arrival and my vehicle.  While they were excited to see me yesterday, they apparently had a change of heart.  The email was something like this…

Dear Mr. Lassiter,
Unfortunately, we are currently experiencing challenges sourcing vehicles in the DFW market, and are therefore compelled to cancel your reservation for 2:00PM today.  Please accept our sincere apologies for this inconvenience, as we tried hard to rectify the situation before cancelling your reservation.

Customer “Service” Manager at XYZ Car Company

My first reaction was to spot the irony in his job title (quotations mine, of course, for emphasis).  My second reaction was: what the heck?!  A car rental company doesn’t have cars?!  That’s like a grocery store completely running out of groceries or a hardware store having no hardware.  “Cars” are in its name for Pete’s sake – that’s all they do is rent cars!!  My reservation had been accepted – and confirmed – by the company, but they were now withdrawing their promise (on very short notice: I was to arrive in about three hours) without offering any alternatives.  I was a bit miffed, to say the least.

Clearing security, I jumped on my phone to try to find alternatives. Of course, with only three hours’ notice, every other car rental company was booked.  Now boarding the plane, I figured I had five or 10 minutes before the doors shut, so I called XYZ Company to see if I could find some solution.  I’ll give you one guess what happened.  You got it: I got trapped in an automated call tree.

“Press 1 to make a reservation.”  No thank you – already did that a few weeks ago.
“Press 2 to change your reservation.”  No thank you – you actually did that for me.
“Press 3 to confirm your reservation.” I thought I did, but apparently it was recently un-confirmed.
“Press 4 for emergency roadside assistance.”  Not yet, but we may need that later!
“Press 5 to speak with a customer service representative.”  I pressed 5, but then listened to music for nine-and-a-half minutes, just enough time to finish three songs of elevator music and then have to hang up as the plane door shut.

When I arrived in Dallas, I proceeded to the XYZ rental counter.  Of course, there was a line probably 20 people deep (apparently many of us got the same friendly little email), so I weighed my options.  Waiting could be 30 minutes or more (and my meeting was in an hour, about 20 miles away).  Since no other companies had vehicles, I did the quick math and transferred to the cab line.  Forty minutes and a $65 fare later, I was at my meeting.

I’ll make the rest of my story short.  When I returned home two days (and about $200 of cab fares) later, I called the XYZ Company.  After waiting on hold for what I think was about 15 minutes, I finally got a human.  I told her my story.  She did apologize, which I appreciated a little.  But she really had no explanation for the vehicle shortage (sometimes customers just want to know what went wrong), and she was very light on remedying the transgressions: she offered a free car upgrade for next time I booked with their company.  I usually don’t “negotiate” in these situations, but I didn’t think that was adequate compensation.  So I explained that I paid $200 in cab fares – probably double what I would have spent with their rental car – and while the upgrade was a nice gesture, it really did nothing for me to offset my extra costs, let alone my troubles.

Back on hold four minutes; I’m guessing she had to talk to a supervisor.  She came back, apologizing again, and offered two free days’ rental.  Figuring I had made my point and the offer was a little fairer, I thanked them and hung up, but still largely dissatisfied.

The story has an unsettling ending – maybe one you could have predicted.  I never got the two-day coupon I was promised.  I’ve never used XYZ company again.

The Cost of Poor Customer Service 

The cost of poor customer service is real.  I shared these in an article last August, but it’s worth repeating: 

  • 90% of customers dissatisfied with the service they receive will not come back or buy again.
  • Only 4% of unhappy customers bother to complain.  In other words, for every complaint an organization hears, 24 others go un-communicated to the organization.  So, in theory, if you have 10 complaints in a month, that means that potentially 240 customers also have complaints but just didn’t share them with you.  But they did share them with others…
  • Unhappy customers tell his or her story to at least nine other people.  That’s not the “word of mouth” you want about your organization.  And with today’s social media, I think the number is growing.
  • Of the customers who register a complaint, between 54-70% will do business again with the organization IF the complaint is resolved.  That number goes up to 95% if the customer feels the complaint was resolved quickly.  This is commonly referred to as “service recovery”: we all make mistakes, but it’s how quickly and thoroughly a company resolves those mistakes that determines whether a customer will remain loyal and engaged.
  • 68% of customers who quit doing business with an organization do so because of company indifference.  In other words, if you don’t respond and/or resolve a customer-related issue, your customers perceive that as not caring about their business.  And it takes 12 positive incidents to make up for one negative incident in the eyes of customers.

If you’re curious, most of those data were compiled by Research Institute of America and CX Solutions (formerly TARP) and published in Research Institute of America for the White House Office of Consumer Affairs.

Good customer service doesn’t just apply to service-oriented businesses.  Good service is required by manufacturers, schools, healthcare providers, non-profit and governmental agencies.  Every organization has customers (though they may be called something different, like patients, students, stakeholders, or citizens).  So every organization therefore has touchpoints that either make or break customers’ perception of the organization.  Remember, 90% of dissatisfied customers won’t come back: so there is a huge financial return for those organizations which truly focus on customers rather than just talk about customer service.

What Should Organizations Do? 

So what should organizations do to ensure world class service in every customer interaction?  Bryan Williams, founder of BW Enterprise and former Global Corporate Director of Training and Organizational Effectiveness at the world-renowned Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company (and closing keynote at PENworks 2017) recently published a book that outlines 30 best practices in customer service.  Here are a few: 

  • Be eager to serve – show a sense of urgency to be of service.  Greet your customers enthusiastically.  According to Williams (and believe me, we’ve all experienced it): customers know when your employees are apathetic.  They just sense it.
  • Build trust – in any relationship, including with your customers, trust leads to confidence and loyalty.  Williams claims that three things are required to build trust: competency (which implies training, development, and practice), integrity (which implies being ethical, transparent, and authentic), and follow through (do what you said you’d do – be reliable).
  • Make it happen – Williams, from his experience at the Ritz-Carlton, suggests that – so long as it’s legal, ethical, and moral — organizations should find a way to make a customer’s request happen.  They want something off the menu but is doable?  Make it happen.  They want a late checkout?  Make it happen.  They want delivery of a certain part by tomorrow noon?  Make it happen.  What this suggests is employees should resist the urge of automatically saying no to a customer request, but instead try to satisfy that request (and they need to be empowered to do so).  And if for some reason the request is really impossible to honor, then explore options.  Not only will this promote deep customer engagement, but it’ll also bring meaning to employees’ work.
  • Strive for the double platinum rule – the Golden Rule is “treat others as you would want to be treated” and the Platinum Rule is “treat others the way THEY want to be treated.”  Both are great philosophies, in business and in life.  But Williams advocates for the Double Platinum Rule: “treat others as THEY DON’T EVEN KNOW they want to be treated.”  Applied to customer service, this means considering what a customer might enjoy based on what you know about them.  That requires not only listening, but forming a deep understanding over time – and an element of surprise in delivery.  It most always results in customer delight.
  • Pay attention to what your customers care about – according to Williams: “It doesn’t matter how many years you’ve been in your profession, or how many academic credentials you have. Your organization will only attain and maintain its competitive edge if it can accurately meet and exceed its customers’ expectations better than its competitors.”  I believe that’s true.  And I also believe that this requires first asking customers what they need or want: organizations must have a robust (and well-deployed) voice of the customer process(es).  Then deliver on what you learn.
  • Smile and be kind – sounds simple enough, but we often experience workers who appear to view customers as a nuisance.  Either that, or they think they have a limited inventory of smiles to give out every day.  Williams says that if we treat customers – all customers, not just our “favorites” or those we know the best – with true kindness, customers will feel that they are valued.

Those are six solid practices to immediately elevate your organization’s level of service for its customers!  If you want to read more about these six (including tools and techniques to improve your effectiveness at each) or if you want to see 24 more, pick up a copy of Bryan William’s book How to Serve a VIP: 30 Tips to Earn & Re-Earn Your Customer’s Loyalty.

Better yet: consider attending a full-day workshop that focuses on implementing and practicing these principles.  PEN will host From Great to World Class Service April 26 in the Twin Cities, facilitated by Bryan Williams.  You can attend it as a post-conference workshop (PENworks 2017, the region’s largest and most powerful conference focused on continuous improvement and organizational excellence, is April 24-25), or you can attend the workshop by itself.

For more information on the conference, visit here.  For more information the customer service workshop, visit here.

By the way, the quote for this article’s title – “He who profits most serves best” – is from Arthur F. Sheldon, creator of the British Institute for Economic Affairs.  His wisdom some 100 years ago is still true today. 

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