In a previous series we took a close-up look at the leadership of the world’s best brands. (For the first of the three part series, click here). One common thread shared by the leadership of companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, Disney, and Southwest Airlines is an appreciation for the customer experience. Great brands are built and sustained on great customer service. Especially in a time when consumers have more buying choices than ever, great customer service adds value and differentiates brands from their competition.
Customer service is no longer simply the “complaint department,” replacing or refunding merchandise. Customer service is now a 24/7 focus on the needs and experience of the customer. It’s an understanding that success is based on providing a customer experience so satisfying that it creates “brand evangelists,” consumers who sing the praises of your business to their peers.
Looking closely at the top brands, I’ve distilled 10 strategies for creating world class customer service.
1. Hire greatness – Delivering great customer service starts with hiring for customer service greatness. Enterprise Rent-a-Car has built itself into the largest rental car company in the United States based on their customer service. Enterprise uses a “Critical Customer Service Skills” checklist when hiring associates. The key skills they hire for are: passion for customer care, flexibility, work ethic, eagerness, self-motivation, persuasive ability, communication skills, and leadership.
2. Give fun – The customer experience should be fun. Southwest Airlines encourages its employees to use their creativity and humor when working with customers. Flight attendants might sing or joke their way through pre-flight instructions or status reports. The result? Both the customers and the crew have fun.
3. Educate and entertain – A key part of serving customers is educating and entertaining them. Apple Stores offer free software workshops. Home Depot offers home improvement classes. Jet Blue was one of the first airlines to let each passenger channel-surf on planes. Educated customers are more likely to buy and be satisfied. Entertained customers are more likely to report a positive experience.
4. Train incessantly – Training is essential for effective customer service. Representatives must have a thorough knowledge of your offerings and of all the tools available to them to serve customers. Zappos, a brand built on customer service, trains representatives for seven weeks! Beyond initial training, leaders and staff should continually review the customer experience and how to improve it.
5. Team source ideas – Great ideas can come from anywhere. Disney customers were dissatisfied with long lines. Disney introduced Fast Pass, which saves your place in line. The idea originally came from a fire safety officer. Front-line employees and others see the customer experience close-up all day long. Take advantage of their eyes, ears, and ideas to sharpen your service.
6. Ask for input and feedback from customers – The best source of information on the customer experience is, of course, the customer. Get their feedback and input and use it. Hotels.com used customer feedback software and streamlined the online booking process. Their conversions (site visitors who purchase) went up and their complaints went down.
7. Aim higher than your competition – Go for the gold standard in trying to deliver for your customers. If you offer them the best, they will take it. Larry Page of Google once said “Our goal is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible,” not just to draw page views to a website. By delivering on that lofty goal, Google made itself the industry leader.
8. Be proudly humble – Humility is a great customer service strategy. Not groveling, mind you, but transparency and saying “sorry” when appropriate. Domino’s Pizza recently ran a series of ads that admitted that their service sometimes failed to meet expectations and that they were working to get better. By Fall 2011, same-store sales were up 12%, a pizza industry record.
9. Take good risks – When considering risks, we often calculate the potential costs. That’s good, but we should also calculate the cost of complacency, of not taking any risks. Consumer satisfaction is a moving target – you may need to step out of your comfort zone to meet it. Nordstrom is famous for its service. Nordstrom gives its employees one rule for customer service: “use your best judgment at all times” to satisfy the customer. Do they run the risk that an employee might occasionally give away too much? Of course. But that risk is outweighed by thousands of satisfied customers and a reputation for legendary service.
10. Do different – Service is the number one way to differentiate your business. So offer service that’s different. When Safeway employees are asked the whereabouts of a grocery item, they are instructed to stop what they are doing and escort the customer directly to that item. That’s how they differentiate themselves from low-cost big-box stores where service is minimal.
In the digital economy, consumers can find and compare the products and services they want with the click of a mouse or the tap of an app. They have a wide range of vendors and buying channels to choose from – they hold all of the cards. Increasingly, they decide to buy based on service. In a world where you people can buy say, shoes, from any number of sellers for the same price and terms, they will choose the one that offers the best service. And if the service is great, and continues after sale, not only will those customers continue to buy from you, but they’ll become brand evangelists, advertising for you by word of mouth.