* You are viewing the author archive. To see a listing of the people who write for Service Untitled, click here.

Take Assumptions Out of Customer Listening

Rock the mic.Len Berry of Texas A&M University first told this story twenty years old. But, it still holds a very valuable lesson. Don’t assume you know what your customers want or need without asking! Especially today when their needs are constantly changing.

The new manager of the Chicago Marriott was going over year-end budget requests and came across a $20,000 line item to upgrade the black-and-white television sets to color in the bathrooms of the rooms on the concierge level. At first glance, it seemed like a really nice enough service enhancement. But something teased at the edge of his service vision.

So, the manager started asking questions of his people, based in part on the implicit assumption that they had been listening to guests and hence would have a good handle on their preferences and requests. First, he asked the concierge level staff and the people in engineering how many requests they had received for color sets in the bathrooms on that fancy floor level. “Actually, none” was their reply, “but we thought it was a neat idea.”

Then, he asked the housekeeping staff assigned to the concierge level what they were hearing from the guests on the floor–what was the most requested item that they didn’t have. Keep in mind, this was twenty years ago. Their reply: irons and ironing boards. Guess what he authorized for purchase under that line item? And as an unexpected reward for listening, understanding, and responding, it turned out that the cost of putting in irons and ironing boards was much less than the cost of upgrading black-and-white television sets to color. It freed up housekeeping to spend time on more critical tasks.

Listening is a contact sport! It is about listening to learn, not listen to make a point, instruct, or correct. It is listening like you would at a raffle! Listening without contact–listening without dramatic connection–is like looking without seeing. Given the uniqueness of being really heard, customers remember long those who listen well.  How can you replace your shaky customer assumptions with solid customer intelligence?

Chip R. Bell and John R. Patterson are customer loyalty consultants and the authors of several best-selling books. Their newest book is Wired and Dangerous: How Your Customers Have Changed and What to do about it. They can be reached at www.wiredanddangerous.com.

photo credit: florianplag

Meaningful Service Metrics

In the Sea of Cortez, John Steinbeck describes a fishing expedition: “The Mexican sierra has 17 plus 15 plus nine spines in the dorsal fin. These can easily be counted. But if the sierra strikes hard on the line so that our hands are burned, if the fish sounds and nearly escapes and finally comes in over the rail, his colors pulsing and his tail beating in the air, a whole new relational externality has come into being—an entity which is more than the sum of the fish plus the fisherman.

The nature of customer service is a fundamentally an experience — feelings characterize it more than facts; emotion more than logic. Steinbeck’s reminds us that no matter how accurate our customer assessments, they will never completely assess its magic. With our objective data, tidy calculations, and sterilized reports, we must never forget to rely on the unscientific report of those directly involved in creating the experience.

There are important service metrics to watch — customers’ evaluation of their experience, customer effort gauges, customer complaints reports, first contact resolution, etc. But, these are all reflections of the customer experience, not its true measure. To quote Marilyn Ferguson in the Aquarian Conspiracy, “In our lives and in our cultural institutions we have been poking at qualities with tools designed to detect quantities. How big is an intention? How heavy is grief, how deep is love? What data guides your decisions about your customers? How do you ascertain the customer’s real evaluation of your service?

Dr. Johnny D. Magwood is the Chief Customer Officer of Northeast Utilities.  A well-known industry spokesperson, he can be reached at magwojd@nu.com.

Let Your Customers Count Cows

Crow in spruce“Counting cows” was a backseat game that parents used years ago in rural areas to quell the endless “Are we there yet?” queries from their children. The rules were simple: each person took one side of the car when the journey began. One point was given for every cow you saw on your side; five points for every horse, and if a graveyard appeared on your side, you lost all your points and had to start over again. Active participation in a simple, competitive game made the car trip seem much shorter.

Today’s customers have a strong need for speed. They are as impatient and restless as a group of “desperados waiting for a train,” to quote the country music song title made famous by The Highwaymen. Faxes gave way to e-mails which gave way to text messages from anywhere at any time. Netflix and FedEx taught us you could get it next day; Zappos.com surprised us with an order for new shoes placed on line in the evening arriving at our door step the next morning. The customer’s standard for the speed of service has continued to hasten with seemingly no end in sight.

But, there is a way to slow the speed of service. Let your customers “count cows!”  Look for ways to help customers participate. Like Disney World, entertains guests who are waiting in line to board that special ride, perhaps you could entertain your customers in an engaging yet appropriate way. My bank has a popcorn machine and big TV’s playing CNN or CNBC to help you wile away the wait should the teller line become long or the CSR is tied up and not quite ready to provide you assistance.

Is there a way you can make getting service seem to go faster through turning it into a compelling game? Ted’s Restaurant (as in Ted Turner) in Atlanta helps calm fidgety little kids waiting for a meal by providing them color crayons and a kids menu turned into coloring book. What would be the adult version for your customers? How about a clever contest? Or, a social gathering? How can you manage the customer’s perception of service pace as you work to improve the reality of service pace?

Chip R. Bell and John R. Patterson are customer loyalty consultants and the authors of Wired and Dangerous: How Your Customers Have Changed and What You Can Do About it due in bookstores in May.

photo credit: alexfiles

Looking Forward from the Service Museum

A quick trip to any museum not only provides an interesting picture of yesteryear, it reveals an instructive barometer on the ways we have changed. What would be the artifacts and displays in a Service Museum? And what would it tell us about the ways customers have changed?

In the not too distant past, retail stores had sales clerks on the floor (not just at the register), grocery stores had bakers, elevators had operators, gas stations had a mechanic, and mail-order catalogues were all-purpose and not specialty. Stores had layaway plans and returns clerks; banks had signature loans. Doctors made house calls and treated whatever malady they encountered.

What has changed? Obviously, there has been a dramatic push toward self-service. But, there has also been a swing toward reliance on specialists. We often hear “we don’t carry that item, check with…” or, “I need to refer you to…” or, “you might look it up online.” We now talk with an IVR or a robot instead of person, forcing us to use a language driven by the service provider. Our nods and “uh uh’s” no long mean “yes” since the machine cannot “talk with us” with the intuition of a person. We get self-service channeled and offshore directed.

The day of the all-purpose, full service experience has been altered to be the purview of specialists. Where did you buy your last stereo, telephone, or book? At a Wal-Mart or Sears or at a specialty store? As customers are unable to “take care of it myself” and are forced to deal with an expert, their standards of service excellence go up and out. That means customers assume competence of every expert and assume expert in every service provider. What steps are you taking to make all front line employees the smartest, best resourced, most empowered service providers on the planet?

Chip R. Bell and John R. Patterson are customer loyalty consultants and the authors of the best-selling book, Take Their Breath Away: How Imaginative Service Creates Devoted Customers. They can be reached at www.taketheirbreathaway.com.

Imaginative Service: What if Service Were a Treasure Hunt?

CerraduraWe had our granddaughters visit one weekend at our lake home. There is absolutely nothing more jarringly creative than a five-year-old or more innocent than a three-year old. Grandparents wonder why their grandchildren can’t stay “puppies!!”

One morning we decided to stage an elaborate backyard treasure hunt. The girls decorated their treasure boxes while we drew each a detailed map of the yard. While the two were off on a boat ride with their parents, we hid the “treasurers” – foreign coins from a business trip abroad, old costume jewelry, shells from a beach trip, etc. – and marked their locations on the respective treasure maps. We even included a few silly treasures. When the girls got back they took their decorated treasure boxes, their different treasure maps, and set out to locate the loot. It was a joy to watch them squeal with each discovery.

What could you do to make your service like a treasure hunt for your customers? How can you hide special treasures for your customers to discover?

photo credit: Oneras

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in Customer Service

The military service practice of “Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell” has an interesting message for customer service practice. If you don’t ask customers for their feedback, they won’t tell you how to improve. Ignoring their issues may reduce the conflict, but it also reduces the learning. And, today those customers with a problem will steal away in the night without warning. Why do organizations fail to solicit feedback in a meaningful way? Most fear the customer’s ire if that Pandora’s Box is opened – better to leave well enough alone.

The truth is that simply asking has a big impact on the customer’s perception that an organization cares, even if nothing changes. Granted, continually asking for feedback without change that customers notice will ultimately erode their trust. Customers know you are not perfect and do not expect you to be. But, they do expect you to care.

One organization sent out feedback postcards to randomly selected customers. When the cards were returned, the company filed them away with reading them. The next time that company did a customer survey, the customers who had received feedback postcards gave the company higher customer satisfaction scores than those who did not receive a postcard! What are you doing to make it easier for customers to register their feedback? What steps can you take to enable your front line employees to ASK in manner that encourages customers to TELL?

Chip R. Bell and John R. Patterson are customer loyalty consultants and the authors of the best-selling book Take Their Breath Away: How Imaginative Service Creates Devoted Customers. They can be reached at www.taketheirbreathaway.com.

The Devil is Really in the Details

Customers use detail management as an indicator of a service provider’s commitment to delivering a positive service experience. But, there is a more profound element of detail management that service providers often miss or misunderstand. As customers, there are core requirements we assume. We presume the commercial airline flight will be safe. We believe the fastfood we buy will not make us sick and hospitals are clean. And, customers are keenly aware of signals that leave them comforted or concerned about core requirements.

We call the details service air. No one notices the air in the room until it is removed or threatened and, then you can think of nothing else. The wonderful flight with great food, super-friendly flight attendants and a comfortable seat will be completely erased from the customer’s memory if the flight lands in the wrong city or four hours late. It means taking care of the basics is required if a great service experience is going to be recalled by customers as great.

But, there is an even bigger issue with poor service detail management. When passengers lower a serving tray on an airline and notice coffee stains, their negative reaction might not be about a sloppy cabin maintenance crew. It could trigger an intuitive leap to the condition of the plane’s engine and a fearful concern that the plane might crash. The customer’s perceptions about a bus driver with obvious alcohol breath are not just about the driver’s personal habits. A nurse with dirty hands shows more to a patient than simply shoddy hygiene. And, a trashy parking lot might cause concerns about food preparation in the kitchen. Some details are much more significant than others. Some take customers straight to the core requirements they would prefer to take for granted.

Take a close look at the details of your customers’ experiences. Are there signals that leave customers worried about “big deal” core requirements? Are you a constant guardian of the details that feed customers’ perceptions?

Writer Bio: Chip R. Bell and John R. Patterson are customer loyalty consultants and the authors of the best-selling book, Take Their Breath Away: How Imaginative Service Creates Devoted Customers. They can be reached at www.taketheirbreathaway.com.

Make Service Your Nature

Canoes at the LakeThe economic recovery is on its way according to the animals around my house. And, they seem to be trying to let me know. I recall how my childhood dog got under the back porch steps if there was a storm coming. And, if she paced around a lot and whimpered, you could count on rain. She was never wrong. Nature seems to know the future.

Two years ago I caught a quick glimpse of a red fox in the woods near my place. Last year it crossed the road in front of my car. But, this week? The fox sat right near the road and watched me drive by. I was impressed by its courage and wondered it was giving me a sign.

Last week someone ran over a snake crossing the highway. When I passed by there were four crows standing near the snake sensing his inevitable demise. But, the snake was coiling and striking at the crows as if to say, “I’m not giving up.” I was impressed with its tenacity. A sign?

A barn swallow built its nest on top of a column at the corner of my house. It was well-protected from everything except the down spout of the gutter. One big rain and the little ones would be floating away. But, the swallow seem unconcerned. The baby birds hatched and completed flight school before the next big rain. What optimism!

Three signs do not a prophesy make. But, my dog was never wrong. Nature not only is a fortune-teller but a mentor as well, outlining the recipe for customer service in worrisome times.

Give your customers your best confidence. Spend extra time learning more than you need to know to serve your customers at the level of excellence. Famous speakers will tell you that the secret to concrete confidence on the stage is solid preparation. It is the same with great customer service. Plan for hiccups so when they occur (as they inevitably will), you will immediately know what to do and how to do it. When customers witness your confidence, it becomes infectious — they gain solace and calm even in a context of anxiety.

Show customers your most impressive tenacity. You grew up hearing the line, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” The message is not about some macho brute strength, it is about a stick-to-it-tive-ness. The tortoise won the race not because he was the quickest, but because it never gave up. The Road Runner always leaves Wile E. Coyote in the dust, not because the Road Runner has greater speed, but because he is more agile, more nimble, and not threatened by the myopic, obsessed coyote. Customers will hang in there during adversary times if they know you are there to adaptively go the distance with them.

Deliver to customers your warmest optimism. Optimists are not naive Pollyanna’s who blindly ignore reality in exchange for some fantasyland view of the world. Optimists instead use their positive hopefulness to call up a bright spirit of courage. They assume the best and are rarely disappointed. Their sense of cheerfulness releases endorphins which arm them with an edge important in staving off those spirit leeches bent on robbing all around them of confidence and faith. Customers are attracted to the light of optimism and will hook their hopes on service providers with a vision of possibility and a plan for distinction.

I live on a large lake. And, I just saw a great big bass jump straight up out of the water. A sign? Not likely. Not all of nature’s actions are prophesies. I think this one might be a cue for me to get my fishing pole and get back to nature! Make service your nature and give your customers hopeful signs of a brighter future.

Chip R. Bell is a customer loyalty consultant and the author (with John R. Patterson) of the best-selling book Take Their Breath Away: How Imaginative Service Creates Devoted Customers. He can be reached at www.taketheirbreathaway.com.

photo credit: michaelnpatterson

Next Page »