Readers here know I cringe when I hear companies saying their unique competitive advantage is that they offer “great customer service”. This is not a marketing message — unless the customers truly say it themselves. And it is hard to get right in a systematization set-up; because really great client experience occurs when employees have the power (and will) to break/bend rules and policies to make things right, and things go awfully wrong generally when brutally uncommunicative systems break down badly and there isn’t a human back-up to the systems.
Consider, for example, this Tech Crunch story by Jon Evans, who describes how Air Canada managed to fly him from San Fransisco to Toronto, but his baggage took two (yes two) side trips to Korea. While there was some human communication with Star Alliance partner United Airlines (whose baggage representatives laughed with him about his plight), Air Canada provided a “service” line with a busy signal and an online tracking tool that never worked — he didn’t even know his bags had finally arrived until the delivery driver was approaching his door.
Mark Mitchell describes the other side of the story for a building products manufacturer; of a delivery driver purchasing a box of donuts for the receiving crew from a new customer; or the story of how someone could override the rules and have a vital part delivered right away — even if the delivery would be uneconomic and not within official policy.
Of course, there are contradictions even within the great customer service mantra — because I think not all customers deserve great service, and the core of really great service is an environment where employees both enjoy their work and are empowered to make decisions without getting any sort of official approval for their actions.
(I get a dose of terrible customer service complaints as a voluntary moderator on the Google AdSense forums — where I tackle files from people who lose their accounts, often because of their fraudulent behaviour; or, at best, really sloppy actions. I need to educate these people, that in the context of their relationship with Google — they are paid, not paying for AdSense — they aren’t the customers, Google is in fact the client, and they would be expected to offer great customer service to the search engine giant. I do, and here Google gets it right — they recognize me and other voluntary moderators with some perks and recognition, including expense-paid visits to the company’s headquarters.)
So how do you really achieve great customer service?
- Make clear to all employees that they can bend the rules to make things right and they have a discretionary budget (you can set a reasonable limit) to solve problems;
- Make sure you communicate forthrightly to clients when things aren’t right, and provide the best answers you can about how the problem will be resolved;
- Create a working environment where employees both enjoy their work and are chosen for their ability to empathize/communicate effectively with clients.
Finally, keep the “great customer service” mantra out of your marketing materials; at least until you have evidence that your customers are really eager to spread the great news for you. Then sure, you can help it along, and use the good news stories as working examples for your employees to guide them to even higher heights. Just don’t lose their baggage along the way.