Customer service is a topic that eventually finds its way into practically every dialogue about business at one point or another. Business school professors expound on the importance of it. Writers of blogs, columns and broadcasts wax poetic about it. Executives ponder over how to improve it. Customers complain when they don’t get it. It is a quintessential concern of any good business. It is also the failing of many businesses, new and old. Good customer service, it seems, is a moving target that many businesses fail to hit at one point or another. Tales of consistently great customer service are almost as unbelievable as stories about the Tooth Fairy, leaving many to wonder if being able to provide great customer service consistently is really only a fairytale.
Why is it so hard to deliver great customer service consistently? The reason is because customer service is actually much more than the exchange that happens between a customer and the business right at the point of sale. Customer service is inherently a part of every interaction between the customer and the brand from initial interaction until well after the sale is completed and the product or service is delivered. Customer service is part and parcel of the product or service, not just the interactions between customer and company. It is the responsibility of every employee in every department, from research and development to marketing and from manufacturing or operations to accounting. For example, at an attorney or CPA’s office, customer service is reflected in how the attorney or CPA cares for the client’s needs. But, it is also in the quality of the results achieved for that client as well how that client is treated by the receptionist, secretary, billing department clerk, and even the website at the firm.
One needn’t look very hard to find examples in the media of customer service gone terribly awry. Between Smartphone coverage and the 24/7 social media machine, customer service fiascos are now captured and communicated instantly for all the world to witness. That is all the more reason to get it right. But how? There are many organizations that do have a handle on good customer service. They have identified the one thing that matters most and focused on getting that single thing right.
Customer Service: Doing One Thing Right
Indeed, for some businesses, it starts by focusing on the single thing they think will make the most difference and then making sure that every employee does that one thing correctly 100% of the time. Case in point. At Boston University, new students receive a friendly check-in call from school staff to see how they are handling the often tricky adjustment to college life at BU. After new students have been on campus their first month, school staff and administrators — including the provost and dean of students — spend a week personally calling each of the 4,300 first-year and transfer students. It is a single ambitious task designed to make each student connect and feel at home. They don’t couple the call with an eblast or text message (unless the student does not have phone service). They don’t put up posters or billboards. They don’t hand out leaflets. They don’t do a rally. It is a single phone call from the top brass to each student to chat and find out ‘how are things going’. It is personal and it builds community.
Administrators and researchers alike applauded BU for reaching out to students during the pivotal first semester. Research has shown that the first semester is when new students are at greatest risk of falling behind and dropping out. It is during the first semester that students develop patterns of behavior and routines that lead to either failure or success. According to John N. Gardner, the head of a North Carolina institute that works with universities to improve student retention, the most productive thing a university can do is focus on the early experience. Academic problems that go unnoticed and unaddressed at that point can become severe.
Wonder how much of a difference one call can make? While nationally just 57 percent of full-time students at four-year colleges graduate within six years, Boston University’s six-year graduation rate is 85 percent, the highest in its history. Besides demonstrating excellent customer service, this one thing is also helping many more of BU’s clients to be successful and certainly makes parents paying tuition feel they are getting their money’s worth. Can BU’s graduation rate be attributed to just that one thing? Probably not. But focus on that singular task surely contributes to an overall culture of caring about student success.
Another case in point. When the recession hit, many hardware and home improvement stores felt the pain. For Ace Hardware, competing against hardware titans such as Home Depot and Lowe’s boiled down to three things: service, unique products and order customizing…. which is really all part of one thing, a superior customer experience. In practical terms, how did Ace achieve that? Every employee at Ace Hardware focused on helping the customer. While it was often difficult to find someone knowledgeable to help find a product at Lowes or Home Depot, Ace Hardware had someone greet each customer at the door and show them where to find what they needed. The chain store also ensured that all staff were knowledgeable. How successful was this one thing? It was so effective that Home Depot copied this tactic and implemented it in their stores as a way to overcome a history of complaints about poor service. As the saying goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
This focus on one thing is not good just for big organizations and institutions like a university or national chain store. Focusing on one thing is good even for small businesses. Take, for example, a barbershop in North Carolina that does not take appointments, but the owner gives every customer 30 minutes of his time, regardless of how much hair the customer has, and provides hot-towel wraps and massages if the haircut does not take 30 minutes.
Smaller companies that aren’t going to beat big companies on price need to out-class them on service. Given how poor or inconsistent customer service is at many companies, this is not difficult to do. Case in point. The airline industry, the media’s favorite target for customer service gone wrong, is a perfect example. Although airlines have elaborate customer service policies, the industry has been rife with customer service fiascos. When a plane sits on a runway for hours due to snow, ice or rain, airlines have typically pointed out that they don’t control the weather and there wasn’t anything they could do. However, air travel experts argued for years that airlines could do more and treat stranded passengers as if there was a medical emergency. Since no airline was willing to make this their one thing, in April, 2010, the Department of Transportation implemented rules forbidding airlines from leaving passengers stranded in airplanes on a runway for over three hours. A violation could cost the airline as much as $27,500 per passenger. To avoid a fine, airlines must offer stranded passengers food and water and the option to return to a terminal. The rules were incredibly effective in reducing the number of instances of passengers stuck on non-moving airplanes for over three hours by 97% in the first year. Apparently, this was one thing most airlines could do, when they try.
Of course, even with the stiff penalties, some customer service fiascos continue. This month, American Eagle Airlines became the first airline fined $900,000 for stranding hundreds of passengers on several delayed flights. The fine stemmed from lengthy delays at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on May 29, 2011 in which 15 planes, carrying 608 passengers, were stuck on the tarmac for three hours or more. Because of heavy fog and thunderstorms on that day, air traffic controllers canceled departures for several hours. However, an investigation found that American Eagle continued to land flights later that day, creating a backlog of flights. In many cases, American Eagle didn’t have enough pilots and crew to operate planes that were loaded with passengers and waiting at the gates. The penalty was actually only 5% of what it could have been, but that price is small compared to the loss of goodwill to their brand.
It may be that the reason so many companies get customer service wrong is that they focus on too many different issues. By creating complicated and elaborate customer service policies — that are often not understood by clients or employees — they fail to achieve any kind of consistent success. It is the quintessential example of being a “Jack of all trades but Master of none.” Perhaps the key is to target one thing – the most important thing for that company – and make sure that every employee does that one thing right 100% of the time.
What is that one thing? The one thing is different for each company. To figure it out, just ask customers and employees. They are probably eager to say. As 2012 approaches, it behooves every person in the business world to take the time figure out the single one thing that will improve the company’s success and make sure every person does it consistently. Then sit back and watch the results.
Quote of the Week
“A satisfied customer is the best business strategy of all.”
© 2011, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.