Looking back over my own years of being in business I recall times when the concept of delivering outstanding customer service was emphasized, and then allowed to falter. Rising and falling like some tide in a sea of trendy business/management idealogies.
The fact is, that in spite of the customer service and management preachers of the 80’s and 90’s of like likes of Tom Peters (A Passion For Excellence, Thriving in Chaos) and Ken Blanchard (The One Minute Manager), and those corporations of that era that somehow managed to deliver golden customer service of the likes of Nordstroms, Walt Disney, Home Depot… customer service in this great land of opportunity still generally sucks. Yeah, it still gets a lot of lip service in management circles and there’s a new crop self-appointed gurus that coin new phrases and buzzwords every decade. But humans being simply human tend to need constant supervision to make effective customer service happen, that’s the bottom line. You can’t simply mandate good customer service because good customer service is an idea… a theory… a philisophy. It’s subjective and relative and the only person in the world who can judge its effectiveness is the person on the receiving end at the time its given.
The term customer service itself is so broad in its definition that it encompasses multiple levels of theory. Customer service can begin with a magazine ad or even a TV commercial. But for our discussion here let’s presume to explore customer service as a point of person-to-person contact. For example, you walk into a retail store and customer service begins with the attentiveness of the sales staff. Even if you just want those commission sales people to vanish and let you just browse, that’s customer service. Are the sales people product savvy? Are they friendly? All that goes into the mix. But what also goes into the mix is the mood we, as customers, might be in on that day. If we’ve had a bad day with the in-laws we might not be as patient with certain friendly responses from a sales person as we might be on another day. My whole point here is that customer service, however it’s defined, is not always dependent on the business person we are trying to relate with, which means a lot depends on timing. Hence the number one rule in delivering great customer service… you are not going to satisfy everyone on every day of the week. We are human.
What illustrates this so effectively is when we develop our own friendships with others. There are people we like for various reasons.. some people contrast our interests and others have like interests… some are humorous and others might be more cerebral. We pick our friends based on what relationships meet our need for a trusting social contact. So to presume that a sales person can deliver an initial person-to-person relationship with me that I will like as soon as I enter a store is a bit unrealistic. For the most part we have all been conditioned to expect certain responses to certain life situations and we have learned to adapt accordingly. I know when I walk into a store a sales person is likely going to ask me if I need help… and I will likely have a reply already prepared based on my need and mood at that moment.
So the question remains, how can any company provide the customer service level they wish to be noted for to have that competitive edge when delivering good customer service is relative to the person receiving the service. Again, you can’t be successful with every customer all the time. Yet many businesses are so devoted to trying that they end up just being… “fake”, and therein I see the fault.
I simply hate that patronizing verbage when calling a customer service person on the phone or meeting them in person and they open with that “How may I deliver outstanding customer service to you today?” You can’t blame the customer service person.. they are simply following some company script. Company scripting is an attempt to make their customer service representatives fit into a singular “perfect” mold of a person.. which can’t be done and only ends up being transparent patronizing. I personally prefer people being themselves. Of course there are techniques in handling problem situations as a customer service person, and those can be taught. But a lot can be conveyed by attitude and personal inflections.. which is a part of all of us.
One of the best customer service experiences I had was, believe it or not, at a local Burger King. For a while there BK was selling their version of chili which I rather enjoyed. I had one of those crappy mornings and I just wanted to get away from the office and digest some comfort food. Here’s the dialog when I pulled into the drive-thru…
“Welcome to Burger King. May I take your order?”
“Yeah.. gimmie a Whooper with cheese, a chili, and a medium Coke.”
“I’m sorry but we don’t have any more chili.”, was the unexpected reply from the metal box. I was truly disappointed and slightly in no mood. I retorted back, “You’re out of damn chili?”
“No, Sir… we don’t offer any more damn chili.”
At this point I smiled at the new descriptive we both had given to the chili, although still disappointed, I said, “Who’s idea was it to stop the damn chili?”
“The damn manager, sir.”
Well, by this time I am laughing out loud. When I pulled around I met the other end of the patronizing voice in the metal speaker, who was also laughing. A young black fellow was there who shared that he was also disappointed that the chili had been discontinued. We completed the transaction… and he said as I drove off, “Have a damn nice day, sir.” I felt better when I went back to work. Why?
It was a brief, albeit a tad risky for this young man, verbal exchange between two strangers… especially when we are just voices to each other. Perhaps he unconsciously read from the vocal inflection in my first disappointed tone that he could carry the “damn” further along. He was no so-called customer service professional you might find in a corporate setting. In fact, one might call his reply a bit smart-ass. If he were my subordinate I’d have given him a stern warning in the least. But… for whatever reason.. that exchange worked for the both of us because he was himself.. and not a mirror of a company script. It was the right customer service at the right time… for me. And even while the whole exchange was unabashed sarcasm and mimicing levity… I left Burger King that day in better spirits than when I drove in there.
Isn’t that what it’s all about?