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Exceptional Service, Exceptional ProfitThe Secrets of Building a Five-Star Customer Service Organization
By Leonardo Inghilleri Micah Solomon
AMACOMCopyright © 2010 Leonardo Inghilleri and Micah Solomon
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Engineer on the Ladder
Reaching for the Highest Level of Service
Suppose you're the manager of a group of hotels. In one of them, a maintenance engineer is replacing a light bulb in the lobby ceiling. Out of the corner of his eye he notices a woman and her two sons coming from the pool, wrapped in towels but still dripping wet. The woman has her hands full with bags. She fumbles with the door that leads into the lobby, looking exasperated. The man on the ladder becomes alert to her predicament, puts down his tools, climbs down, crosses the lobby, smiles, and opens the door for her.
"Welcome back to the hotel, ma'am," he says. "Let me help you with your bags. How was the pool? Did your two little guys have a good time? What floor are you going to?" He presses the button, exits the elevator, and heads back toward his ladder.
When we spin this story out for executives and managers in our seminars, the most common first reaction is envy: "I'd be thrilled to have my rank and file achieve this level of customer service," runs a typical response. "The customer expressed a need, and 'my' employee responded energetically," says a manager. "He got off the ladder rather than saying 'That's not my job.' So what's not to like?"
It's true: We've all seen worse. But there's still plenty to dislike. As upbeat as this encounter was, it was reactive: The woman had to fumble with the door, thereby making her frustration known so the engineer would react. Reactive service is a pretty ineffective way to create loyal customers. To get on the fast track to customer loyalty, your company needs something better.
The magic happens when you, your systems, and the employees throughout the ranks of your business anticipate the needs of your customers, learning to recognize and respond to the needs of your customers before they are expressed—sometimes before your customers even realize they have a need. That is the difference between providing hohum service by merely reacting to customer requests and building loyalty through true anticipatory service.
Function Versus Purpose
Picture this instead: What if the moment your fellow on the ladder sees the overburdened mom returning from the pool, he thinks to himself, "My routine daily function is to change light bulbs, paint ceilings, and fix pipes, but the reason I'm here, my purpose, is to help create a memorable experience for guests"? Understanding this, he immediately climbs down and opens the door for her—before she has to fumble with the door handle or knock to get attention.
The maintenance engineer—inspired by your leadership—has now provided genuine service that anticipates the customer's needs. The timing of the engineer's intervention is the only measurable change, but what a difference that tiny change makes! Suddenly this employee has anticipated a customer's need, a need she has not yet expressed. In doing so, he has honored her idiosyncratic life circumstances—her individual humanity.
This extraordinary kind of service is a highly reliable path to winning customer loyalty. In the chapters ahead we will equip you to make such service encounters the rule rather than the exception, at all levels of your company.
You probably have doubts.
You may doubt that your maintenance engineer or other rank and file worker would ever anticipate the needs of customers so masterfully. We'll show you how and why he can and will.
You may doubt that you can afford to create such lavish standards of service. As one of our students put it, "In one of Leonardo's five-star resorts, I can see it, maybe. But in Micah's bootstrapped ventures—how does he pull off that level of service? As for my own company, I need my maintenance workers to stay up on their ladders, thank you very much!"
Actually, creating extraordinary service systems is a cost-effective proposition for almost any business: the natural outcome of a systematic approach to customers. And such service pays great dividends in reasonably short order.
First Steps First
Before we get to the creation of those all-important loyal customers through anticipatory service, we'd like to ensure you've pinned down a more basic initial step: creating simple customer satisfaction. We'll head there first.
Chapter TwoThe Four Elements of Customer Satisfaction
Perfect Product, Caring Delivery, Timeliness, and an Effective Problem Resolution Process
There's not much point in taking a specialized upper-level course before you've studied the field's introductory concepts. In a similar vein, there are prerequisites to meet before you can learn to provide extraordinary, loyalty-building customer service.
First, become adept at meeting the more fundamental expectations of your customers. That is, learn to make them satisfied.
What does a satisfied customer look like? She thinks your business offers a reasonable solution that it delivers well. If asked, she'll say nice things about you. But although she may have some warm feelings for your business, she's not yet an advocate for your brand, and, unlike a truly loyal customer, she can still be wooed away. A merely satisfied customer is still a free agent, exploring the marketplace.
She still has a wandering eye.
Nonetheless, simple customer satisfaction is one of the underpinnings of the exceptional relationship we call true customer loyalty. And, fortunately, customer satisfaction is based on four predictable factors. Customers are satisfied whenever they consistently receive:
1. A perfect product
2. Delivered by a caring, friendly person
3. In a timely fashion ... with (because any of those three elements may misfire)
4. The support of an effective problem resolution process
A Perfect Product
Customers want defect-free products and services. You need to design your product or service so that it can be expected to function perfectly within foreseeable boundaries.
Things will sometimes go wrong. Your products, and people, will sometimes fail due to unpredictable circumstances. But sloppy or incomplete product or service design is, from a customer's perspective, intolerable.
Suppose you're staffing an online photo lab. Let's call it Stutterfly. You know from experience that one prepress technician (PPT) is needed for every 100 orders in-house. Now suppose you want to be ready for a maximum of 1,000 photo orders at any given time. How many prepress technicians do you need? Ten? Perhaps. But a "perfectly designed" answer needs to take into account absenteeism, last minute no-shows, and vacation time: any reasonably foreseeable scenario that could prevent you from actually having ten PPTs on hand to cover the orders in-house. In addition, your "perfect design" needs to include provisions for getting these technicians all the supplies, tools, resources, and information they'll need to do a great job.
Of course, something that is not realistically foreseeable could still happen: six of your ten PPTs might get the flu on the same night, or a major earthquake could knock a paper mill that supplies you out of commission. The product will not always be perfectly deliverable. We know.
But you must design it to be perfect—foreseeing all that is foreseeable.
Delivered by Caring People
Your perfect product now requires caring, friendly people to deliver it. Let's visualize just how a product and its delivery work together to determine satisfaction. Let's make the setting Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta. Picture featureless corridors, long ticket counters, and the reason you wish you didn't have to exchange your ticket a few days before Thanksgiving: a maze of people waiting behind a roped line to speak with any of five agents. Eventually, you make it to the front of the maze. Now you're first in line, waiting politely for an agent at the counter to help you.
What do you hear?
Hmmm. As you approach the agent, you see that her "Next" was premature.
So you stand there, waiting for her to finish the previous transaction.
Finally she finishes keyboarding, looks at you, and says curtly: "Yes?"
You answer, "My plans have changed. Would it be possible to exchange this ticket so I can fly to Washington Dulles?"
"Uh huh ..."
She takes your ID, gives you your boarding pass—and never looks up at you.
You take the boarding pass, go through security, get on the plane, and land safely and on time at your destination. So, you got a perfect product: a product that would appear, if anyone charted it out, to be 100 percent free of defects.
But do you feel satisfied?
Of course not.
OK. Now let's change the script. Same airport, same maze, same line of people ahead of you in the maze. Again, you eventually make it to the front of the line, where you quietly wait for an agent to call on you.
"May I help the next person in line, please?" (You step forward.)
"Good morning, Sir. Thank you for your patience. How are you today?"
"Not bad at all, thanks, considering, and how are you?"
"Just fabulous. How may I assist you today?"
"My plans have changed, and I need to get on a flight to Washington Dulles."
"It'll be my pleasure. I hear the weather isn't actually too bad in the D.C. area this weekend. Are you visiting family for Thanksgiving?"
"No, it's just business. But I'll be flying back right afterward and will get home for the holiday." (She checks your ID and hands you your boarding pass.)
"Is there anything else I can do for you today?"
"No, I think that's all."
"Well then, have a splendid day."
"Thank you very much."
"Thank you for flying with us."
How was this interaction? It was great, right? An interaction like this, with just a single caring, friendly employee, can make us feel good about doing business with an entire company.
Now you get through the long security line and to the gate. Only at that point do you notice your boarding pass says Dallas, not Dulles.
Uh ... now are you satisfied?
Again, no—not with a defective product or service, no matter how warmly delivered.
In a Timely Fashion
In our world of iPhones and IM, your customers get to decide what is and isn't an appropriate timeline. A perfect product delivered late by friendly, caring people is the equivalent of a defective one.
Customer experiences guide their expectations, so on-time delivery standards continue to get tougher all the time. What your customer today thinks of as on-time delivery is not only stricter than what her parents would have tolerated, it's stricter than what even her older sister would have tolerated.
Amazon.com's tight supply and delivery chain has single-handedly raised the timeliness bar in the online world, but that's not the end of the story: Their speedy online delivery has raised offline expectations as well. In fact, the concept of special ordering for walk-in customers is obsolete for most brick-and-mortar merchants. If you don't have it in stock when a customer walks in, a customer's just going to go online and find it for herself.
This impatience rule can only be disregarded when a customer is commissioning something truly custom, something specially made by you for her alone, such as fine art, cabinetry, or a gourmet meal. In fact, for some truly custom items, providing something too quickly can be equated by customers with low quality or prefab work. The trick here is the same: Learn your own customers' definition of "on time," and obey that definition—not your own.
With the Support of an Effective Problem Resolution Process
Service breakdowns and other problems experienced by customers are crucial emotional moments in a business relationship. Therefore, solving these problems will have an outsized impact on your business success. That's why you need an effective problem resolution process.
Effective problem resolution sounds like a modest goal. But so does reaching base camp—until you find out you're climbing Denali. A big reason it's so tough? Effective cannot be measured by whether you have restored the situation to the pre-problem status quo. Effective is measured by whether you have restored customer satisfaction.
This can be challenging, but it's well worth it. Resolve a service problem effectively and your customer is more likely to become loyal than if she'd never run into a problem in the first place. (On this point, our studies and practical experience are 100 percent conclusive.) Why is this so? Because until a problem occurs, the customer doesn't get to see us fully strut our service. Of course, we would never recommend that you make mistakes on purpose so you can engineer a splendid recovery and win yourself some client love in the process. But it is a silver lining to keep in mind when you're staring down a problem.
The topic of effective problem resolution, especially the handling of service breakdowns, is so crucial that it will fill all of Chapter Four. First though, we need to explore a fundamental tool: language. Because no matter what lengths you go to for your customers, if you don't use the right words with them, they'll never appreciate how good they have it. Language is crucial to how a customer experiences your business, which makes it a critical element of your brand. It's the next stop on our itinerary.
Chapter ThreeLanguage Engineering
Every. Word. Counts.
Your company has probably given more thought to the language it uses in marketing campaigns than to the words employees use when having conversations face-to-face with customers. That's a mistake, because customers don't generally get their make-or-break impressions of your company from high-minded branding exercises. They get them primarily from day-to-day conversations with you. And those are the impressions they spread to others.
Language underlies all other components of customer satisfaction. For example:
* A perfect product won't be experienced as perfect unless you also use the right language in describing it to customers.
* Even your most well-intentioned and technically flawless employees can alienate customers if they use the wrong language.
* When you have a service failure, the right words can be your best ally.
If you haven't given much thought to selecting and controlling your company language—what your staff, signage, emails, voicemails, and web-based autoresponders should say, and should never say, to customers—it's time to do it now.
Establish a Consistent Style of Speech
No brand is complete until a brand-appropriate style of speaking with customers is in place at all levels of the enterprise. You should therefore work to achieve a consistent style of service speech.
A distinctive and consistent companywide style of service speech won't happen on its own. You'll need social engineering: that is, systematic training of employees. Imagine, for example, that you've selected ten promising salespeople for your new high-end jewelry boutique. You've provided them with uniforms and stylish haircuts and encouraged them to become your own brand's versions of a Mr. or Ms. Cartier, starting on opening day. But they'll still speak with customers much the way they speak in their own homes: that is, until you've trained them in a different language style.
Happily, "engineering" a company-wide style of speech can be a positive, collaborative experience. If you approach this correctly, you won't need to put a gag on anybody or twist any arms. Once everybody in an organization understands the reasons for language guidelines, it becomes a challenge, not a hindrance. The improved customer reactions and collaborative pride of mission are rewarding. As a consequence, our clients have found it to be a pretty easy sell companywide.
Here's how to make it happen.
Create a Lexicon of Preferred Language and Phrasing
To help launch their Ritz-Carlton luxury hotel brand, initially, founding President and Chief Operating Officer Horst Schulze and his team decided on a set of ideal phrases for use in conversation with customers, then trained employees to use those phrases. The frequent use of certain phrases helped unify their employees around a shared identity and contributed to a distinctive "Ritz style" that the public could easily recognize: phrases like "My pleasure," "Right away," "Certainly," and—a personal favorite—"We're fully committed tonight." (Translation: "We're booked solid, bub!") The list of words and phrases to be avoided included folks, hey, you guys, and okay.
Excerpted from Exceptional Service, Exceptional Profit by Leonardo Inghilleri Micah Solomon Copyright © 2010 by Leonardo Inghilleri and Micah Solomon. Excerpted by permission of AMACOM. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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