Part 1: How Is Good Service Defined?
Delivering consistently high-quality service to customers is the biggest challenge for many businesses. Some industries are rife with customer service complaints. In fact, in some industries, certain company names have become synonymous with bad service. For example, recently, USA Today published a list of nine retailers delivering the worst customer service. The ranking (March, 2013) was based on the American Consumer Satisfaction Index (which measures customer satisfaction with retailers). Companies that scored the worst in customer satisfaction included Safeway (which has been at the bottom of the ASCI data for 10 years in a row), Walgreens, Netflix, TJX (which owns TJ Maxx, Home Goods and Marshalls), The Gap, Sears, CVS, Supervalu and Walmart. Of course, retailers are not alone in the struggle to delivery consistently good service. The travel industry — including airlines, cruise ships and hotel chains – also regularly makes the news for its flagrant disregard for its customer’s needs.
That said, there is evidence that companies in every industry are striving to improve their service. In fact, according to the ASCI data, customer satisfaction with retailers is at an all-time high. Some companies even claim that what sets them apart from their competitors is their superior customer service. In the hospitality and travel industries, among others, they’ve adopted a star system to denote quality and service. Five stars has been considered ‘the best’, until recently an even higher level of service was denoted. So what separates bad customer service from good, and dare we say, even great service? And what is six-star service? More importantly, how does a company go about raising the bar and setting a new benchmark for its customer service?
What is the definition of ‘good customer service’?
It is actually not as easy as you’d think to create a definition of bad service versus good service. Most people use terms that are vague. For example, in a recent survey, one person defined top service as “Staff that is at your beck and call.” What does that look like in practical terms? How do you train staff to be at every customer’s ‘beck and call’? If a salesperson hovers too close to a person is in a store or asks periodically if they need help, customers typically see that as pushy and intrusive. But if no salesperson is available in a department or a salesperson is busy, then customers are irritated at the lack of customer service. Another person defined excellent service as “an unparalleled experience that you feel good about.” That is totally subjective. Even attempts to be more specific can be less than clear. For example, one person qualified their definition of five-star service as “1 star for making you feel special (or providing personal attention); 1 star for resolving any issues immediately; 1 star for genuine friendliness, smiles and personality; 1 star for getting your money’s worth (value); and 1 star for rewarding customer loyalty. While that definition does offer a bit more structure, it would be difficult for a store manager to train staff on how to make a customer feel ‘special.’ Personal attention that might make one customer feel special might irritate another.
That actually is the problem with trying to define what is bad versus good customer service. There are many variables that affect what constitutes good service including the culture and demographics of the customers, the industry, the company, and the product/service it sells. In other words, when it comes to customer service, one definition does not fit all. In fact, a good definition for good customer service is “the ability of an organization to constantly and consistently exceed the customer’s expectations.” That could not be more vague, but at the same time, if forces us to expand one’s thinking about customer service. To consistently exceed the customers’ expectations, we have to recognize that every aspect of our business has an impact on customer service, not just those aspects of the business that involve face-to-face customer contact. Improving customer service involves making a commitment to learning the customers’ needs and wants and developing action plans that implement customer-friendly processes.
Some might consider the above definition a bit too esoteric. A better definition might be: “the process by which an organization delivers its services or products in a way that allows the customer to access them in the most efficient, fair, cost effective, and humanly satisfying and pleasurable manner possible.” That definition certainly has more teeth. Based on that definition, here is a basic good customer service checklist:
Good Customer Service Checklist
1. The process is efficient.
- Product information is immediately available.
- Information is complete and correct.
- Information can be easily obtained from a website, spec sheet, literature, catalog, or whatever source is relevant.
- Features and benefits are presented convincingly, but honestly.
- Terms of the purchase are clear.
- The payment process takes place in the least amount of time possible.
- If there is a turnaround time to deliver this product, accurate estimates are given about the time required.
- If the product is immediately available, there is virtually no lag time in taking possession of the product or experiencing the benefits of the service.
- Common issues are addressed up front to eliminate problems before they occur.
2. The process is fair.
- The customer service process is transparent.
- The customer is given full disclosure in an obvious way about all product information and contracts.
- The customer is never surprised and never feels deceived.
3. The product or service is cost-effective.
- The product or service is competitively priced.
- The product or service offers value.
- Products don’t seem better in quality than they really are.
- Customers are not misled into having false expectations only to be disappointed later.
- The product will last through the first year of the standard limited warranty.
4. Service is delivered in the most humanly satisfying and pleasurable manner possible.
- Read the customer / client accurately in order to solve problems and offer everything possible.
- Employees are personable. They smile and engage the customer.
- Employees are genuine.
- The customer’s needs are recognized and the employee is attentive to what is said, noting how the customer acts in order to provide an appropriate response.
This is a starting point for companies that need to improve their customer service. These guidelines can help a company to achieve good service; perhaps even very good service. On a scale of one to five, these suggestions can generate up to four stars.
Five Star Service
However, to achieve five star status, the company must go above and beyond the basics. There is consistently exceptional service. The customer is treated as a human being, and not just a number.
1. Simple needs are anticipated.
Boarding passes can be scanned off cell phones. Prescriptions are sent to the pharmacy of the customer’s choice directly from the doctor’s office to eliminate the customer having to wait in line.
2. There is a value-added proposition.
Value is added without the customer requesting it, such as an upgrade to a nicer room or business class for loyal customers.
3. Problems are fixed without a fuss.
Even when the customer is at fault, the company tries to fix an unforeseen problem such as waiving a 24-hour cancellation policy or a change fee. The idea is to trust and impress the customer now and the customer will return the favor next time with repeat business or a referral.
4. Preferences are remembered.
Companies make an effort to remember what the customer likes. At a regularly used car rental agency, the clerk remembers the preferred type of car. At a hotel, the reservation system records the customer’s preference of a king size bed, non smoking, room near the elevator. A travel agent recalls that the customer’s preference when traveling by plane is an aisle seat near the front of the plane.
5. Promises are made good.
This is important when the promise is something unusual. For example, dry cleaning is ready when needed the next day. A car is ready for pickup at the mechanic on time, as promised.
6. Deliver white-glove or concierge service.
Provide bottled water to guests arriving from a long trip.
If this is what denotes five-star service, then what is six-star service? Stay tuned next week when we look at what comprises six-star service, and the companies that deliver it.
Quote of the week
“Notice what happens when you shift your focus from making money to contributing to your clients’ success.” Marilyn Suttle
© 2013, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.