Whenever I speak of customer service I am reminded of how some people from north India, from the Hindi speaking belt of UP and MP pronounce it. They say, ‘Kasht-mar service’. Now ‘Kasht’ in Hindi means ‘difficulty’. And ‘Mar’ means to die. So the literal translation of ‘Kasht-Mar’ would be (Kasht-say-mar) meaning ‘die slowly with difficulty’. Not a very nice thing to say but that is what some people in the business of providing service seem to be saying to their customers (Kashtmars).

Customer service is about customers, not about the content, technology or industry in which those customers operate. This is a very important thing to understand and accept if one is not to fall into the trap of feeling that somehow our own industry is so unique that the lessons learnt in the airline, hotel, BPO, IT or hospital businesses are not applicable to us. If we deal with people, lessons learnt in any industry that have to do with people, apply to us and we would be very foolish to ignore them. Customers and people and people think holistically. When we experience bad service on board a plane we compare it quite happily (albeit sometimes unconsciously) to the overall service standard that we are used to in our own environment and feel proportionately bad about it. If we come from a country like Singapore where the quality of service is generally very superior we will tend to feel highly dissatisfied with bad service. But someone who comes from another country where service standards are generally pretty low, they may find the same service to be acceptable because their expectations are so low to begin with. When experiencing onboard in-flight service we don’t compare it only to our experience on other airlines. Even people who are flying for the first time feel dissatisfied with poor service. So lessons are transferable.

In my view great customer service is a combination of two things: a genuine desire to serve and some key things to do (tools). Let us look at each of them.

Attitude: Whenever I think of an attitude of great customer service I remember when I first went to Singapore in 1994. I was there to teach a course in teaming skills at GE Asia. I reached my hotel by about midday and having had lunch and rested, decided to go out in the evening to see the city. I came out of the hotel and stood at the curbside waiting for a cab. One came along in less than 2 minutes and then it happened. The driver pulled up, got out of the car, trotted (he didn’t walk, he trotted) around the back to where I was, opened the passenger door at the back and ushered me into the cab with a flourish. I realized that I was in the presence of something special and silently got in. The interior was spotlessly clean and smelled of some pleasant mild perfume. I sat waiting for the next act of the play. And there it was. He said to me as I was sitting in the cab, ‘That is today’s newspaper for you Sir and some water if you’re thirsty. I hope you are comfortable.’ I said that I was and thanked him. He shut the door respectfully, trotted (once again he didn’t walk) back to his seat and said, looking at me in the rearview mirror, ‘Where can I take you Sir?’ I replied, ‘I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to just sit here so that I can enjoy the experience of being in your car.’

I still remember this incident 16 years later as if it happened yesterday. The point is that he was an ordinary taxi driver who had never gone to a single training class in customer service. He was in a business where customers commonly have the least expectation of service and are only interested in not being deceived to pay more than their due. His customer is with him for probably the shortest time of any service; just the few minutes it takes to drive to the customer’s destination. And typically he would probably never see that customer again. Yet here was a man going out of his way to be nice to his customers and to give them an experience to remember. Why?
The only answer I have is, because for him service was about who he was. Not about who the customer was. Neither I nor anyone I know would expect, much less demand a taxi driver to get out and open the door for them, or keep clean drinking water (sealed bottle) and the day’s papers in the car or to keep the car in an absolutely pristine state. After all we are used to shabby taxis and as long as it is not horribly dirty we don’t give it a second thought. He did what he did because he saw his service as defining him, not because he thought the customer cared about it or wanted it or demanded it. It was his own pride in his work and his desire to serve.
Let me give you another example. In 1997, I lived in Bangalore and wanted to buy a Maruti 800 car. I called a number which I thought was the number of the agency which financed Maruti purchases. A lady answered and the conversation went like this:

‘Good morning, this is Citibank Car Finance. How can I help you?’
‘Good morning. I am looking to buy a Maruti 800 car and want to know if you finance it.’
‘I am sorry Sir, we finance only Opel Astra (four times the price), but if you hang on a minute I will get you the number of the company which does Marutis.’
Once again I knew I was in the presence of someone with that key attitude – the desire to win customers. So I waited. She came back on line in less than one minute.
‘Here’s the number Sir. And if you change your mind and decide to buy an Opel Astra, please do give us a call.’
She knew perfectly well that I was not an Opel Astra customer but she still said that so that I would not feel bad about not being able to afford an expensive car.

Once again the power of attitude.

So the first thing I would ask anyone who has to deal with any customer in any kind of business at all is, ‘Do you really want to do this job? And if you want to do it, how much do you want to do it?’
1. Is it an, ‘Ah! Here comes another one’, kind of thing?
2. Or is it a, ‘Well, since I am here I may as well get it over with.’
3. Or is it, ‘Another fantastic day for me to give some customers service they have never seen before. I love the look on their faces as if they can’t believe their own eyes and ears.’

Which one applies to you?

It’s really as simple as this.

Now how about if you are not the # 3 kind of person?

Well, you have two choices; change your job or change yourself.
Changing your job may neither be feasible nor is it easy to find a job where you don’t have to deal with people. There are such jobs, like feeding crocodiles in a zoo, but not so many fall vacant unless the feeder slips into the pool. So like it or not you are going to have to deal with people. So what should you do?

Here is what you should do:

1. Stand before a mirror and tell yourself, this is the BEST job that I could possibly be doing because I have an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life. Now what is more worthwhile than that? I was in the airport in Hyderabad and wanted to use the washroom. I entered the room and found that the toilets were being cleaned. The man doing the job saw me and said to me, ‘Please give me a minute Sir.’ Then he not only cleaned the toilet but he sprayed air freshener and then took some tissue and dried the toilet seat. Did that make a difference in my life? You can bet it did and I ensured that I gave him the biggest tip he would have received in a while. Though going by his attitude and quality of service it would take a shamelessly stingy person to pass him by without emptying their pockets into his hands. Once again I don’t think that man ever saw the inside of a Customer Service Training class. So stand before your mirror and tell yourself, ‘I want to make a difference in someone’s life today.’

2. LEAD: Listen, Empathize, Accept Responsibility, Do Something

a. Listen: Listen to the customer. Listen to what they are saying and to how they are saying it. Sometimes it is not the words of the customer but his tone of voice or his body language which gives the one who listens well, the real message.

b. Empathize: Put yourself in the customer’s shoes. How would you feel if someone did to you what you or someone in your company did to your customer? The reason it was done is immaterial. That he had to suffer is what the customer is conscious of. Let me give you an example. I was in San Francisco at the Marriot, having arrived there by a late night flight at midnight. I had asked for a non-smoking room as I am allergic to cigarette smoke. When I went up to the room almost at 1.00 am I found it reeking of cigarette smoke. I complained but the person at the front desk told me that they did not have any other room. I was furious but there was nothing I could do so I slept as best I could. Next morning I had to leave early for work. When I returned, I was met at the lobby by the hotel manager who took me up to another room, this one smelling sweet and asked if I liked it. I said that I did. She then asked if she could have my luggage moved there. I agreed. Then (only then) did she say to me, ‘Sir, I apologize for the problem you had last night. We had booked a non-smoking room for you but unfortunately it seems that the guest had someone else in the room who smoked and so the room smelled of cigarettes. We did not realize this until too late and there was no other non-smoking room available last night. I blocked the first room that fell vacant this morning and here it is. My apologies once again.’ The beauty of this response was that she first solved my problem and then (only then) gave me the explanation for what happened. It was clear that they were empathetic about my problem. They did not try to brush it aside or pretend that it was not really a problem nor did they try to justify or explain it. They addressed it and solved it and then explained why it had happened, once the problem had been solved.

c. Accept responsibility: Accept the fact that the problem of the customer is really your problem. This is something that we don’t see too quickly and act as if the problem has nothing to do with us. It is our problem because it is causing our customer to be dissatisfied. And a dissatisfied customer is very much our problem. So own your responsibility and don’t send the customer to someone else. This is one of the biggest aggravations that customers face; being shunted from person to person and having to repeat their story over and over.

d. Do something: Take action. You take action. Don’t tell the customer what to do. You go do it. And then let him know what you are doing and how it is going to solve his problem. Reporting periodically is essential for customer satisfaction. People don’t like to be left in the dark. So tell them.

3. Pre-empt problems: It is a known fact that in most cases it is the same things that tend to go wrong again and again. So identify the three or four major things that tend to go wrong most often and have preset responses for them. In order to do this it is essential to document what happens in your customer interactions so that you can correctly identify what goes wrong most often. Preset responses take away the stress from the interactions and ensure the fastest recovery from failure. Research shows that customers who had a problem that was solved well are more satisfied than those who did not have a problem at all.

4. Moments of Truth: Identify and monitor your moments of truth. A ‘Moment of Truth’ is defined by Jan Carlson, ex-CEO of Scandinavian Airlines, who first used this phrase in the context of customer service as that moment when a customer or a potential customer comes into contact with any aspect of your operation and has an opportunity to form an opinion. If you know what that point of contact is and can control the interaction such that the customer’s experience is positive then you have a winning operation. If you either don’t know what your moments of truth are or where they occur or have no control over them, then you have a losing operation. It is as simple as that. However knowing moments of truth and controlling them is a matter of rigorous measurement and documentation which most organizations are unwilling or unable to do and so they blunder along and create dissatisfied customers and lose business and in some cases go under.

Conclusion

Great customer service is about concern; being genuinely concerned for the customer. It is about pride in your own operation and your own identity; wanting to be the best. It is about wanting to add value to people’s lives; about seeing value in serving. It is about being a shrewd business person; recognizing who pays you and ensuring that he/she is not just happy to do so but simply delighted that you are there to serve them. Great customer service is the only guarantee for survival and growth and the only insurance and hedge against bad times. Customers don’t remember what you did. They remember how they felt. That is the key.