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April 10, 2006

The Art of Customer Service

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This blog entry is a response to a topic suggestion by Douglas Hanna. It covers the art of customer service, a subject that is near and dear to my heart.

1. Start at the top. The CEO's attitude towards customer service is the primary determinant of the quality of service that a company delivers. If the CEO thinks that customers are a pain in the ass who always want something for nothing, that attitude will permeate the company, and service will be lousy. So if you are the CEO, get your act together. If you're not the CEO, either convince her to change her mind, quit, or learn to live with mediocrity--in that order.

2. Put the customer in control. The best kind of customer service happens when management enables employees to put the customer in control. This require two leaps of faith: first, that management trusts customers not take advantage of the situation; second, that management trust employees with this empowerment. If you can make these leaps, then the quality of your customer service will zoom; if not, there is nothing more frustrating than companies copping the attitude that something is “against company policy.”

3. Take responsibility for your shortcomings. A company that takes responsibility for its shortcomings is likely to provide great customer service for two reasons: first, it's acknowledged that it's the company's fault and the company's responsibility to fix. Second, customers won't go through the aggravating process of getting you to accept blame--if you got to the airport on time and checked your baggage, it's hard to see how it's your fault that it got sent to the wrong continent. (Except if you were a schmuck to the ticket counter person.)

4. Don't point the finger. This is the flip side of taking responsibility. As computer owners we all know that when a program doesn't work, vendors often resort to finger pointing: “It's Apple's system software.” “It's Microsoft's 'special' way of doing things.” “It's the way Adobe created PDF.” A great customer service company doesn't point the finger--it figures out what the solution is regardless of whose fault the problem is and makes the customer happy. As my mother used to say, “You're either part of the problem or part of the solution.” (By the way, as a rule of thumb, the company with the largest market capitalization is the one at fault.)

5. Don't finger the pointer. Great customer service companies don't shoot the messenger. When it comes to customer service, it could be a customer, an employee, a vendor, or a consultant who's doing the pointing. The goal is not to silence the messenger, but to fix the problem that the messenger brought so that other customers don't have a bad experience.

6. Don't be paranoid. One of the most common justifications for anti-service is “What if everyone did this?” For example, what if everyone bought a new wardrobe when we lost their luggage? Or, to cite the often-told, perhaps apocryphal, story of a customer returning a tire to Nordstrom even though everyone knows Nordstrom doesn't sell tires, what if everyone started returning tires to Nordstrom? The point is: Don't assume that the worst case is going to be the common case. There will be outlier abusers, yes, but generally people are reasonable. If you put in a policy to take care of the worst case, bad people, it will antagonize and insult the bulk of your customers.

7. Hire the right kind of people. To put it mildly, customer service is not a job for everyone. The ideal customer service person derives great satisfaction by helping people and solving problems. This cannot be said of every job candidate. It's the company's responsibility to hire the right kind of people for this job because it can be a bad experience for the employee and the customer when you hire folks without a service orientation.

8. Under promise and over deliver. The goal is to delight a customer. For example, the signs in the lines at DisneyLand that tell you how long you'll have to wait from each point are purposely over-stated. When you get to the ride in less time, you're delighted. Imagine if the signs were understated--you'd be angry because Disneyland lied to you.

9. Integrate customer service into the maintstream. Let's see: sales makes the big bucks. Marketing does the fun stuff. Engineers, well, you leave them alone in their dark caves. Accounting cuts the paychecks. And support? Do to the dirty work of talking to pissed off customers when nothing else works. Herein lies the problem: customer service has as much to do with a company's reputation as sales, marketing, engineering, and finance. So integrate customer service into the mainstream of the company and do not consider it profit-sucking necessary evil. A customer service hero deserves all the accolades that a sales, marketing, or engineering one does.

10. Put it all together. To put several recommendations in action, suppose a part breaks in the gizmo that a customer bought from you. First, take responsibility: “I'm sorry that it broke.” Second, don't point the finger--that is, don't say, “We buy that part from a supplier.” Third, put the customer in control: “When would like the replacement by?” Fourth, under promise and over deliver: Send it at no additional charge via a faster shipping method than necessary. That's the way to create legendary customer service.

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TRUE - Customer Service

What is the absolute test of a truly customer focussed business?

It’s when things go ‘wrong’ and, for whatever the reason, as buyers, we don’t get what we expect and we feel let down. That’s when we experience what customer service really means…

On a daily basis, we come across three types of businesses which claim that customer service is paramount.

The “OSTRICH” business
You know these businesses – head in the sand. They don’t even want to know that you are dissatisfied. In fact, you are made to feel insignificant and worthless, and that you are being disruptive and difficult for feeling you haven’t received good service.

In practice, their philosophy seems to be: “Don’t you know how lucky YOU are dealing with US????”

The “TEFLON®” business
Nothing sticks to these people. It’s always someone else’s fault and they can’t do anything about changing the situation. Quite often this is a thinly disguised tactic to get rid of you and not bother to investigate any shortcomings. Habitually, their complaints process is designed to protect them rather than to identify deficiencies and shortcomings in their delivery systems and people. Everything is done for them, not for the customer.

The “SERVICE” business
These businesses always deliver. And even on the rare occasions when delivery falls below your expectations, they freely apologise, and then actively engage you in the process of diagnosing where it went wrong, so they can improve their processes and systems. They simply will not accept ‘sub standard’ service delivery, and they will always do something about it.

So, what can we do when we come across “Ostriches” and “Teflons®”? Firstly complain and complain again until you are satisfied. Keep complaining. Don’t accept being ‘fobbed off’. As a nation, we actively promote shoddy service by accepting it. Don’t. We can change it when we won’t accept it.

And then vote with your feet. If you are not convinced that they have changed, take your business elsewhere. Between us, as buyers, we can take millions of pounds of business away from companies every single day. Let’s do it! Let’s take it to businesses which employ people who want to deal with customers like us and who know how to treat us.

What makes me laugh is those businesses that have let you down will spend millions of pounds in advertising trying to get you back! All they had to do was get their staff to want to help when we bought and later when we first complained! How much would that have cost?

And then, most importantly, tell you family and friends, neighbours and colleagues about your experiences. It’s much more compelling when we listen to the experiences of people close to us, rather than receiving mail shots, television adverts and those unwanted inserts in magazines!

It is so much better learning from each other and saving ourselves the hassle of having to deal with businesses which deliver bad service.

Your site makes for very interesting reading! Hope you like how it works and welcome to any and all that visit this site

In other words check their perception of the problem carefully first, and wherever possible jointly craft a solution based on that. It is only a little mind shift, and I know it may not always be possible, but as with so many things, it is the approach at the outset that counts in the end.

I think one thing that companies miss big time is the fact they need to listen to what the customer has to say.

Listening serves several functions. The first is the company may actually learn something. The second thing that happens when the CSR acutally listens is the customers temperature goes down. The more they listen the lower the temperature.

That is important because when customers are upset and tempers hot, they don't tend to be rational. You can't be rational and logical at the same time. So when someone is upset and "hot headed" the worst thing to do is to try to solve the problem then.

Learn to listen to them talk. As they talk the temperature comes down. Once their temperature is cooler, they become more rational and open to listening to you.

Listening is not to be confused with activity. Companies today are too quick to try to solve problems. Speed is expensive. Many times just listening to the customer and taking your time to solve the problem will lead to lower costs and higher levels of satisfaction.

Learning to "listen with purpose" can do more to reduce customer service costs than just about anything a company can do.

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"You're either part of the problem or part of the solution".

This is almost a truism, and, I suspect, like most truisms, it is rarely analysed. In reality it often leads to an argument about what the problem is long before the solution is even in sight. For some reason the United Nations comes to mind ...

In a customer service situation I think it is more helpful to alter it to "You're either part of THEIR problem, or part of THEIR solution"

In other words check their perception of the problem carefully first, and wherever possible jointly craft a solution based on that. It is only a little mind shift, and I know it may not always be possible, but as with so many things, it is the approach at the outset that counts in the end.

Good,Very Good,But I think it can be better.

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Actually, the 'tire being returned' story actually happened, but it happened to Home Depot, according to their official business biography which I read when I worked for the company. Apparently, a dude walked in with the tire, demanded his $250 back, and the head customer service guy for the company happened to be at that store that day, and as a point to everyone politely asked the guy how much he paid, and refunded him the money. Then he hung the tire up for everyone to remember how to deal with customers, no receipt no problem. Basically $250 for a great story he could tell for the next 20 years. But, recently even Home Depot has changed their tune on returns. Too many people were becoming professional scammers and living off the Home Depot dime. Now, no receipt, no cash, etc. But, the tire thing did happen.

please read clifford Marshall's books on customer service

If you point the finger, then three of your other fingers are pointing back at you (try it and see).

What powerful statements you make, Guy, especially numbers one and nine. The same concept applies to creating a meaningful, healthy work environment.

When professionals can't articulate the core values of a firm, or how those values are integrated into their daily work, then the failure rests squarely on the shoulders of firm leaders. Firm leaders should be expected to make the firm climate, in addition to making rain. It all starts at the top.

If leaders are truly committed to creating a climate that delivers superior work and customer service, they will find a way for the 'pointer' (as you call him or her) to be heard and values as an important contributor to their climate.

Implementing an Ombuds program is an effective way to 'listen to and engage' professionals in these kinds of discussions. This is especially true for professional service firms, law and CPA firms, where there might be some reluctance to giving honest feedback.

This isn't just a 'nice to do' either. Studies suggest that professionals are 200% more likely to be energized by their work and deliver better customer service in firms where core values are considered critical.

Thanks for shedding light on this topic.

Dina Beach Lynch, Ombuds

I completely agree with tenet #9. It goes without saying that customer service is undeniably a reflection of a company's brand - which brings me to the whole phone customer service issue and the stir that Paul English has caused around the automation of customer service and his plea for a human on the phone - yet never really offers a solution. Companies cannot afford to solely depend on live customer service agents, there has to be other alternatives that are just as good if not better. Companies like Brookstone and 800-FLOWERS take that into consideration and offer great voice-automated customer service which I believe is an area that Paul unfortunately leaves out.

A very clear set of points. I think that we are entering a new era of consumer taking even more power away from companies with inferior customer service. My most blog entry talks about my woes with Cingular Wireless and what I am doing to take back my rights.


Too broad and too generic. You can say most of this for almost any aspect of a business. I was hopping for mention of specific tools, workflows, scenarios instead of generic "be good" advise.


Though you may want an answer from Guy, I think I'll provide my version too. :P

From a perspective of great customer service, you were right. From the perspective of your manager (whether it be at the store, district, state, whatever), you probably shouldn't have.

Good stores and companies often replace products for the customer if it's completely the customer's fault for the reason you mentioned - to avoid bad press. I would say it's likely that the woman you replaced the calculator for will come back to Staples again.

I shop at Sharper Image because they have such a great return policy and will always happily accept anything for any reason. Plus, they don't make me bother with receipts and those other annoyances.

From the customer service perspective, you definitely did the right thing. :)

- Douglas H.

Dear Guy,

I am a big fan of your blog. This post hits the a nerve. I can recommend this guidlines to every company. The company where I work takes customer care very serouisly and it is a big success.

What about "bad" (i really don't like this word) consumers. I worked in a Staples, and someday i had a woman in wanting me to replace a calculator with a broken screen, physical dommage. Eventually i replaced it even knowing that it was her fault, i said to myself that day that the bad-mouthing wasn't worth a calcutor. Do you think i was right?

Jayanth, I don't mean to sound like a wise guy, but have you ever heard of ignorant bliss? I can't tell you how many times we have done client work where the employees were happy as can be and believed that their customers were equally satisifed only to learn that was not the case. Sorta of a perception and reality check. Just think of some really big companies that are no longer in business. More times than not their employees were happy due to nice salaries, generous bonuses, etc., but, their customer base was disatissfied.

Hi Guy,
Nice writeup as usual. However don't you think, if your employees are happy, you have customers happy? What do you say on this?

W.P Wily,

You're in a tough situation. If it has already gotten out of control, you can't do very much besides stop it completely. My suggestion would be to add something to your on hold message saying "We are not able to assit customers with products other than -your product name-." A good thing to consider looking into is one of those pay-for-Windows support services and referring customers will problems to them. You can probably arrange where you get a percentage and if you can assure your customers that the company's service is good, then you'll be set.

Best of luck,
Douglas H.

My 'lesson from the trenches' of software customer support is that you should never treat your customer as an idiot. Treating him as an idiot gives you simply idiotic responses to which you can only reply with one syllable sounds. Treating your customer as an intelligent human being with an alternative perspective to your software than yourself, the CEO, the software engineers is a true eye-opener.

Guy, I'd like to hear some thoughts on how to reconcile points 4 and 6 with the real world of software support. We sell an Internet product with a 30-day free trial and free support. Being Internet software, you have to have your Windows Internet connection working in order to use our software (duh), and know some basic Internet stuff (like your mail server names).

You know what we were getting in our support queue? Tons of people who have no idea how to get their Internet connection working. More alarmingly, most of them did not have a clue as to whether they would need our product, but downloaded and installed it anyway so they could use our free support to get their Internet working. What the heck do you do now?

I started pointing some of the more obvious abusers to Windows pay-for-help services, and all I got was complaints back about not honoring our free support offer. Windows Internet support is a black hole, I can't spend all day helping freeloaders! HELP!

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