The Essence Of Service

For more than 20 years I’ve focussed on service, studied examples of service, worked with almost every conceivable type of organisation to improve their service, and yet I still have an insatiable desire to read about, hear about, talk about and experience ‘good’ customer service.

So, I’d like to share with you my answer to the question: ‘what is the essence of service?’

In recent years we have all heard the catchcry ‘good service isn’t good enough’ or ‘to stand out in today’s competitive world you’ve got to delight your customers’, or even ‘if you’re customers aren’t saying WOW when they experience your service they may not come back’.

At the same time, we are surrounded by examples of disappointing, frustrating and occasionally shocking service. Service that is not quite up to the mark or service where the provider really doesn’t value you. Then there are the all too frequent examples of public utilities, banks and other large corporations with systems designed to treat you like a number even though the individual operators (when you actually get to speak to a real person) do the best they can within the constraints of the system.

How come it’s so hard to consistently give and receive ‘good’ customer service? To answer that we really have to be clear about what customer service is.

Is it about identifying and satisfying the customer’s needs?

Yes… and no. We can’t always give customers what they want. For a start, some of the world’s most talked about and benchmarked customer service organisations are very clear about what they don’t do for their customers. Stew Leonards in Norwalk, Connecticut, USA stocks only 2,000 items while most other supermarkets stock 16,000 to 30,000 items. Stew’s limits the choice and the customers still love them. Then there’s the world’s most consistently profitable airline (an oxymoron these days) Southwest Airlines in the USA, which doesn’t offer flights from some major airports (because they are too congested and cause regular delays), doesn’t serve meals on board, and doesn’t transfer baggage. Yet they are lauded for their excellent service and fun experience and even seem to be the inspiration behind the successful approach taken by Ryanair in the UK and Virgin Airlines down here.

Is it about smiling and being happy?

Yes… but only if it’s genuine. There are too many instances where the front line people have clearly been through smile training but still aren’t empowered to do anything to solve the customer’s problems.

Is it about doing the unexpected to WOW the customer?

Yes… but not at the expense of doing the expected consistently well.

Is it about doing what you promise when you promise?

Yes, this will put you in the top ten percent but it’s also about doing that little bit extra.

Is it about loyalty schemes and customer relationship management programs?

Yes… and no. Developing ongoing customer relationships requires a managed system. Otherwise, when you are busy, regular customers may be neglected. As for loyalty schemes, many of us today are fed up with frequent flyer programs that make it almost impossible to redeem your points unless you book two years in advance using the communications medium that the airline dictates. Many other programs are just too hard, have so much small print that they alienate us, or are bribes that only work until the competition offers a bigger bribe.

So what is the essence of customer service?

I believe that customer service is much like friendship. A key part of friendship is keeping in touch. In our busy lives this becomes more and more of a challenge. Picture the situation – you have arranged to catch up with a close friend over lunch. It’s something you are looking forward to but then life gets in the way. You have an urgent deadline for a project at work or a mini-crisis at home and suddenly you wish you hadn’t made the commitment to your friend. You may even start rehearsing your excuse for cancelling on them but then you think “no, I’ve made a commitment, everything else will have to wait.” You keep your commitment to your friend and you are so glad you did. Why is that? Is it because you love being with them?

Yes, but its more than that. It’s because you feel better about yourself when you are with them. And that also is the essence of service. Of course you want your customers to be satisfied that they received value and of course you want to do that little bit extra. You want to WOW them with a memorable experience but most importantly you want them to feel better about themselves when they are with you. Whether it is over the phone, face-to-face or a written communication you need to make them feel like they matter. It’s why you are doing what you do for them.

Your customers are unlikely to say, even to themselves, “I feel better about myself when I’m with you” but it will be there, it will draw them back and it will encourage them to tell others how wonderful you are to deal with.