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 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 on-board 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.
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 rear passenger door 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 so many 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 (in a 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 or would pay for 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 Maruti.’
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 online 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.
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 that.
Now how about if you are not the # 3 kind of person?
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. Like it or not you are going to have to deal with people. So, what should you do?
Here is what you should do:
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? Convince yourself and then go to work.
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.
Let me give you my final example. It was 1995. I was teaching a 3-day leadership course for a major IT multinational. The course was in Bombay. This was before the name of the city was changed to Mumbai. It was July. Not the best time to go to Bombay unless you love flooded roads and incredible traffic jams. But when you are lean, mean and hungry, you do what you need to do. I was and I did. I flew Indian Airlines (before its name was changed to Air India) and because if you wanted to fly that is what you flew. There were no other domestic airlines. I landed in Bombay under threatening skies. A cab driver came to pick me up from the airport and we drove to my hotel which was not too far away. As I got out of the car, he asked me, “When do I need to pick you up to bring you back to the airport Sir?” I told him, “At 5.30 pm on Day 3.” He thanked me and left. I checked in to the hotel. That night the skies made good their threat and how? It rained non-stop for the three days that I was there. The whole city was flooded and there was knee-deep water in the streets and traffic was one massive gridlock. It appeared that all those stuck in the traffic jams would spend the rest of their lives in their cars.
On Day 3, as I walked through the hotel reception to my class, I requested them to keep my room as it didn’t look like I would be able to go anywhere that day. I finished my day and as I came to the reception, on the way to my room, who do I see there? The cab driver. He was standing there with a rolled-up umbrella in his hand, totally soaked from head to toe. I was astonished. I said to him, “How are you here? In this rain? You are soaked? Why didn’t you use the umbrella?”
He said to me, “Sir, I came to take you to the airport. The umbrella is for you Sir. Please come, let us go.”
“How can we drive? The street is flooded and there is a traffic jam all around!”
“I know the back roads Sir. Don’t worry. I will get you to the airport. But I have a request. I must apologize to you Sir. I couldn’t bring my car for you because it has a petrol engine and can’t go in water as deep as this. So, I borrowed a diesel pickup van from my friend. If you don’t mind sitting in the van, I will get you to the airport in time for your flight.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. My judgement told me to stay put. I had the hotel room. I was not in a hurry to get home. I wasn’t even sure if Indian Airlines was flying on schedule. But there was no way that I was going to refuse to go after this man had gone to all the trouble on my behalf. I picked up my bag and got into the cab of the pickup and we drove through the flood waters, with a bow wave before us. It was like being in a boat. When we got to the airport, I tried to give him Rs. 100 as a tip. He refused. “It is my duty Sir,” he said. You don’t need to pay me anything. I told him that I was not paying him out of a sense of duty but as a small gesture of my vast appreciation for his effort. He still refused. I had to use all my skills of persuasion for him to eventually accept this token of my appreciation. He left with a smile on his face. Indian Airlines cancelled the flight and since there was no way to return to the hotel, I spent that night on the floor of Bombay airport, warm in the glow of my experience of absolutely heroic customer service, once again from someone who had never heard of a Customer Service Course. Indian Airlines on the other hand gave me many examples of staff who had attended many such courses, with no appreciable effect. It is not about the course. It is about the person.
So, stand before your mirror and tell yourself, ‘I want to make a difference in someone’s life today.’
To help you to focus on customer service, here is a tool you may like to use.
LEAD: Listen, Empathize, Accept Responsibility, Do Something
Listen: The first thing is to 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 their tone of voice or body language which gives the one who listens well, the real message. In GE there is a process called Voice of Customer (VOC) which is part of the Six Sigma Quality Initiative where customers are regularly invited to come in and talk about how they experience GE’s service. The focus in this meeting is not on giving explanations or making excuses. Just on listening carefully to what the customer has to say about his experience. This conversation then becomes the basis for addressing pain areas and enhancing the level of service.
Empathize: The second is to 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 they had to suffer is what the customer is conscious of.
I was in San Francisco at the Marriot, having arrived there by a late-night flight at midnight, having flown across the country from Hartford, CT. I was teaching a 3-day course for AMA International starting at 8.00 am the next morning. 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 had 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.
Accept responsibility: The third thing is to 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. 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. I am sure every single one of us has faced this, especially where there is an automated response system. Press this button or that and listen to free music while you wait. And every once in a while, a disembodied voice tells you, “Your call is important to us. Please wait awhile for our Customer Service Representative to attend to you.” You want to say, “If my call is really important to you, talk to me.” But you know that nobody is listening, and nobody cares.
There is almost a reflex tendency in most people to give explanations for failed service. We go off into telling people why they are suffering. Believe me, they don’t want to know why they are suffering. They want their suffering to stop. And they want you to make amends. If you don’t do this and tell them all the reasons why they must suffer, it only makes them angrier and more frustrated. So, accept responsibility. It is your problem, because the customer is your customer. It is really as simple as that.
Do something: Finally, take action. You take action. Don’t tell the customer what to do. You go do it. And then let them know what you are doing and how it is going to solve their problem. Reporting periodically is essential for customer satisfaction. Don’t just disappear over the horizon. Tell them what you are doing to help them. People don’t like to be left in the dark. So, tell them.
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. 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.
I have always maintained that the quality of customer service depends on what you define as the boundaries of your customer interaction. When does someone become your customer? When does the customer interaction start? When does it end? Does it start when someone calls your office or drives past it or sees your delivery van or website or billboard? Does it start when someone buys your product or service? Where and when does it end? Does it end when the person picks up the package or buys the ticket or the service is delivered to him in some way? Or do you also include their use of your product or service in your definition? I am not going into a detailed discussion of all these, but I want to flag them for you. The quality of your service will depend on your definition.
In Disney, they have a Vice President for parking lots. Now that may sound strange, but it has to do with Disney’s philosophy that to give you a great experience at Disney Land from the time you enter their parking lot to the time you leave, safely on your way home, is their responsibility. This is how it works. When you drive into Disney’s city block size parking lots, you leave your car and get into a shuttle bus to go to the entrance. As you get on the bus, you hear this announcement. “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls; welcome to Disney. You are parked in Goofy 1.” You will hear this announcement thrice during your trip to the entrance. Once when you get on, once midway in your journey and once just before you get off.
What is unique about this announcement?
It addresses the main customers of Disney, your children. It repeats thrice which is the best way to ensure that people notice what you are saying to them. And it uses Disney characters to name parking lots.
You buy your tickets; you go in and you have a great day. You take all the rides and watch the sights and eat and walk around and take lots of photos. It is now late evening and you return to the shuttle bus station and wonder which bus to take. “Where did I park my car?” That is when one of the little ones pipes up, “Goofy 1.” Children recall the Disney characters that they are so familiar with. The wisdom of the announcement.
When you reach your car, you discover that you had left your lights on. Entirely understandable, as you arrived that morning with a car full of excited little ones, all screaming about what they want to do in Disney. Now, you have a whole lot of tired and sleepy little ones and your car is dead. But as you stand there, contemplating the futility of life, you will notice a PRE-PRINTED sticky note on your diver’s side window glass. The note reads, “We came by and saw that you left your lights on. If your battery is dead and you need a jumpstart, please call this number.” Imagine your state. It is that moment which decides what you think of Disney’s service. Not all the rides or sights or food. But their proactivity in dealing with a problem that was not even their own. But then, they consider it theirs, because you are their customer. And you are their customer, not only when you entered the park but until you have gone safely home. This is so important to them, that parking lots is an entire business vertical. That is what makes service great. It is how you define the boundaries of responsibility.
To be able to give service to your customers that you become the Gold Standard in their perception against which they judge every other service provider, you need to monitor your ‘Moments of Truth.’ I want to share with you one of my favorite stories and the origin of the term, ‘Moment of Truth’. I quote from Wikipedia:
“Jan Carlzon (born June 25, 1941) is a Swedish businessman. He is most noted for being Chief Executive Officer of SAS Group from 1981–1994 At the time Jan Carlzon took over the helm of SAS, the company was facing large financial difficulties and losing $17 million per annum and had an international reputation for always being late. A 1981 survey showed that SAS was ranked no. 14 of 17 airlines in Europe when it came to punctuality. Furthermore, the company had a reputation for being a very centralized organization, where decisions were hard to come by to the detriment of customers, shareholders, and staff. He revolutionized the airline industry through an unrelenting focus on customer service quality. Within one year of taking over, SAS had become the most punctual airline in Europe and had started an ongoing training program called Putting People First developed by Claus Møller of Time Manager International (‘TMI’). The program was focused on delegating responsibility away from management and allowing customer-facing staff to make decisions to resolve any issues on the spot. Jan Carlzon said at the time: “Problems are solved on the spot, as soon as they arise. No front-line employee has to wait for a supervisor’s permission.” These changes soon impacted the bottom-line as well and the company made a profit of $54 million in 1982.”
Ian Carlzon coined the phrase, ‘Moment of Truth’, in relation to Customer Service and defined it 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.
This is a very clear definition and shows how everyone in the organization is responsible for customer service. It also underlines two things: that frontline staff must be empowered to take decisions without fear to ensure that customers are satisfied and that means that the system must not punish a wrong decision by a frontline staff, as long as it was taken with the intention of satisfying a customer.
If you punish employees for taking decisions, which in their opinion were right, then they will stop deciding and send the customer from one person to another, which is what we see in most cases. Empowerment means that the employee knows that as long as they take a decision in the interest of pleasing a customer, the organization will stand behind them and will support the decision, even if it was wrong and cost the company some expense. This doesn’t mean that your manager will not sit with you to understand why you did what you did and explore what else you could have done. But he/she will not reprimand you. Instead you will be praised and officially appreciated for keeping the customer first. Every employee must know this and must act with this confidence. Otherwise frontline employees will cover their backs and the customer will be given the royal merry-go-round ride.
To be able to monitor and control Moments of Truth you must know where they occur, and you must be able to record and measure them. 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 to do and so they blunder along and create dissatisfied customers and lose business and, in some cases, quite understandably, go under. The most significant fact is that most Moments of Truth happen at the periphery of the operation in places which are manned by the most junior, least qualified and mostly ignored members of staff. They decide your fate. It is your security guard, your receptionist, sales representative, bus driver, telephone operator, webmaster, helpdesk, the state of your waiting areas, washrooms and cafeteria, the person who delivers your product to the customer and many such people, who give your customer or potential customer a taste of your customer service. In many cases, these people may not even be on your official roles and may be contract employees because you have outsourced these activities. Yet, they are your face. The customer sees them as your representatives and their interaction with the customer, decides your fate. The customer doesn’t ask the frontline employee he is dealing with whether he is a direct employee or an outsourced contractor. He doesn’t ask, he doesn’t care. So, pay close attention to them, train them, value them, appreciate them, make them team members in spirit, even if not in letter. If not, you, not they, will pay the price.
Great customer service is about concern. It is about 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 businessperson; 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 you made them feel. That is the key.