Service providers are trained to respond to customer needs. Experienced specialists of services ranging from waste collectors to Ferrari repairmen see their jobs as procedural, and preferably invisible. That is a good start: nobody likes unrestrained taxi drivers giving free parental advice along the ride. But there is a problem: customer-facing employees must either be terrible or spectacular to stick in the client’s memory. And in today’s market, being remembered means differentiation from competitors in the same industry as well as up- and downstream, lateral and seemingly unrelated sectors. Pharmacy operators never feared online bookstore Amazon, yet here we are.
Firms that approach their basic functions re-actively soon find that they are wastefully perfecting details that nobody notices. They train people to answer phones before the third ring. They win price wars. They transfer complaints to top managers. But eventually, they reach what Michael Porter calls ‘the limit of productivity’, and marketing guru Seth Godin ‘the race to the bottom’: you cannot do it any faster or cheaper. There are no more budgets to squeeze, hours to add or tasks to streamline. The pedal is on the metal, and the resulting speed is seldom fast enough.
But people do not choose airlines for punctuality or software for server-uptime. Emotion guides even the most valuable purchases, which is why promoting army helicopters is as glitzy as launching cardiovascular medication. Data is easily forgotten, surprise is easily remembered. Memory is a function of emotions. Let us play a mind-game: by the time you finish reading this article, you will remember the date of former General Electric CEO Jack Welch’s retirement for the rest of your life, because we will embed that data into a context of emotions you already have.
A simple example for emotions in service is when hotels place chocolates on pillows, an act without a need: nobody does it at home, or calls housekeeping when it is missing. The fact that chocolates don’t quite belong on pillows is the point—the guest spots something on a spotless bed, realizes it is chocolate and feels happy. An unmemorable hotel room becomes a surprise and then a happy memory. Of course, companies selling automation or audit services cannot send dessert with orders. Is there a way to turn their service into a memorable experience within reason and cost? As it turns out from our Total Customer Focus™ program, there are many.
1. Observe customers’ accepted struggles
Customer service must address residual frustrations that clients bring into discussions, whether they come from the firm’s own switchboard or a coffee spill. The context of such ‘accepted struggles’ can be far-reaching. In his autobiography Jack, Jack Welch lamented the unexpected cancellation of his retirement party on September 11, 2001. Few cases come with such emotional weight, but service firms can add significant value by spotting and removing irritations with no added cost. Think of the first establishment that lowered one urinal somewhat, adding a memorable ‘wow!’ to men’s room visits for children and some grown-ups. Drilling holes five inches lower costs nothing. Equipment manufacturers create empathy-based extras when they complement paper manuals with searchable digital copies, or provide clients with video recordings of repair jobs.
2. Anticipate what comes next
Observation is a great start but it has its limits. If you want to beat your competition, you must fulfill needs that have not arisen yet. Pillow-treats aim at such future needs: complimentary chocolates make guests have more patience with internet passwords and room-service waits. For such pro-active service, companies must understand the customer the way hotels know that most people arrive there tired and annoyed. But once a service develops the habit of pondering, discussing and modelling client behavior along the full life cycle of the services provided, they can open a whole new dimension of customer satisfaction, engagement and loyalty. My favorite example is German truck and bus manufacturer M.A.N. and their bouncy driver seats, which save chauffeurs lots of boredom and back problems. Anticipation-based solutions may cost more than observation-based ones but pay off eventually.
3. Know something they don’t, and share it
A decade of Total Customer Focus programs taught us about the typical mistakes of customer service. One is assuming information symmetry: thinking that if something is obvious to the specialist, so it is to the client. Not so: few hospital patients have medical degrees. Mapping what experts call ‘knowledge gap’ and sharing what escapes the customer is a powerful way to add unexpected value. Agencies that attach travel tips to flight tickets know this, as do pharmaceutical firms that invite customers to online knowledge bases. Collecting, organizing and publishing such information doubtlessly requires time and money, but the rewards are considerable. You reading this blog might be one example.
If you want to explore how to surprise your customers and be remembered for life, view the infographic on “The Service Revenue Secret: “Wow” your customers!” and discover the framework that will help you build systematic proactivity in your practice or organization.
Gabor Holch, Associate at Global Partners Training