Soft is hard

April 22nd, 2014

800px-SmashBurger_logoI’ve been a Tom Peters fan since being introduced to his teachings in my first management role at Marriott International more than 20 years ago. Frequently contrarian and counter-intuitive, Peters often says: “Soft is hard and hard is soft.”

This applies to “soft skills” such as listening or customer service that are often discounted as less important than “hard skills” like budgeting and other technical, job-specific skills.

Last night I attended the “soft opening” of a local Smashburger fast-casual restaurant. In the restaurant world, a soft opening refers to the discrete initial opening of the store (usually for employees’ friends, family, and invited guests) in the days preceding the grand opening – which is promoted and open to the general public.

As my family and I placed our orders, retrieved our soft drinks, and seated ourselves, I observed an enthusiastic workforce made up of newly-hired employees and seasoned Smashburger veterans – all working together to iron out the wrinkles ahead of the grand opening on April 23rd.

About this time, I was reminded of Peters’ quote and thought to myself, “This soft opening is hard work!” and I reflected on the equal importance of both soft skills (e.g., eye contact, smiling, energy in one’s voice, etc.) and hard skills (e.g., menu knowledge, operating the register, preparing a Spicy Jalapeño Baja hamburger to standard, etc.).

Think about it: If I had been greeted by an energetic employee and made to feel welcome but my hamburger was undercooked, I would be less likely to return. Likewise, if my hamburger was prepared perfectly but I felt like an interruption while placing my order, I may not return. It’s critical that employees do both: execute job function (hard skills) AND demonstrate job essence (soft skills).

Soft openings are hard work. Harder still are routine, everyday openings where customers are more demanding and less tolerant of mistakes. The way to win during these day-to-day encounters with customers is for managers to recognize that “soft is hard ” and constantly reinforce the totality of every employee’s job role, which consists of BOTH job function AND job essence.

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

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The Effortless Experience

April 10th, 2014

EffortlessExperienceEarlier this year, I read the book The Effortless Experience by M. Dixon, N. Toman and R. DeLisi.

The authors compiled some terrific research – really enlightening stuff – but in their zeal to write a provocative book that challenges conventional thinking, they’ve lumped every conceivable customer service action into the category of “delight” (which they translate into breathless, over-the-top service).

Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the book (and gave it a 5-star review on Amazon). I just thought it got much better after Ch. 1 – where the authors worked awfully hard trying to persuade readers that “delighting” customers was somehow a poor use of their time and energy.

Perhaps you’re familiar with the customer service maxim to “treat every customer as though he/she is your grandparent”? Well, I put a slightly different spin on that. I think about serving customers as I would serve any other person in my life whom I value (friends, neighbors, children, spouses…).

With this in mind, consider the following paragraph from Ch. 1:

“But as powerful and compelling as (legendary customer service) stories are, what if you checked back with those same customers a year or two down the road to see how much more business they’re bringing you? Because the data shows that in the aggregate, customers who are moved from a level of ‘below expectations’ up to ‘meets expectations’ offer about the same economic value as those whose expectations were exceeded.”

Imagine applying this logic to your marriage: “Honey, from now on I’m going to focus on meeting your expectations as opposed to exceeding them. I read this great new book called The Effortless Marriage and I’m now convinced that there’s no real value to exceeding your expectations by ‘delighting’ you with love notes, roses, and that sort of nonsense. So, what’s for dinner?”

In The Effortless Experience, the authors rebuke those service providers who “delight” their customers (for example, by expressing genuine interest in them or providing them with pleasant surprises) as misguided. Instead, the authors advocate for reducing customer effort. As most reasonable customer service professionals understand, it doesn’t have to be one or the other (delight customers OR reduce customer effort). It can be both.

In fact, as a customer myself, I’m “delighted” whenever a service provider reduces the effort I have to expend during a transaction. And I’m sure I’m not alone.

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Entitled customers

April 9th, 2014

Entitlement - Arrogant copyDuring a recent interview, I received this question:

How do you handle customers who, once they’ve been “delighted,” now expect that level of service and even feel entitled to it?

To me, the best illustration of this dynamic is frequent flyers. When airline customers first join a frequent flyer program, it’s incumbent upon them to accumulate a significant chunk of miles (usually 25,000 within a calendar year) before attaining status that entitles them to privileges such as priority boarding and waived baggage fees.

While in the process of acquiring status in the airline’s frequent flyer program, these customers dutifully wait in line and pay to check their baggage. But once they achieve a certain status – especially elite status, such as United Airline’s 1K – these same passengers become annoyed, even indignant, when having to wait in line or being denied an upgrade to First Class.

I’m not sure what the remedy is for an entitlement mentality, but I can say this with certainty: Don’t extend perks or privileges to premium customers that you cannot consistently honor. For example, if an airline designates an exclusive station in the terminal for premium passengers to check-in for their flights, then it had better be adequately staffed.

If it’s not and the line of spring breakers moves faster, then you have a problem.

How would you respond to this question?

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Illustration by Aaron McKissen.

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Making “delight” stick

March 28th, 2014

Pleasant Surprises copyDuring a recent interview, I was asked, “How long does the effect of ‘delight’ (on a customer) last?”

The value of exploring a question like this is that it forces us to examine those variables that contribute to creating lasting positive impressions for our customers. If this knowledge can be captured and then reflected in an organization’s service models, then its employees can be intentional about providing memorable customer service consistently, over time, by design rather than inconsistently, here and there, by chance.

This was my response:

The effect of “delight” varies depending on the person (expectancy), the degree of delight (intensity), and the situation (urgency). For instance, I was delighted when a barista served my double espresso with a 4-oz. glass of chilled sparkling water as a palate cleanser. I later learned that, for some espresso aficionados, this “delighter” would have been an expectation. And there are many different ways to delight – from offering a sincere and specific compliment to delivering service heroics. Both acts will leave a lasting positive impression, but they differ in intensity. The situation matters too. If my chiropractor can see me right away (without an appointment) for a routine adjustment, that’s fine. But if I’m experiencing acute pain in my lower back and my chiropractor can see me right away, then I’m delighted!

At the time, I was quite pleased by the assonance of the three categories that emerged: expectancy, intensity, and urgency, but recognize that consumer behavior is far too complex to fit neatly into three categories – even if they do sound alike.

How would you respond to this question?

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Illustration by Aaron McKissen.

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Where to focus: product or customer?

March 17th, 2014

Promoter 2 copyOver the weekend I received an email from a New Zealand consultant who is working with a bus tour operator to transition from a product focus to a customer focus. For a bus tour operator, a product focus emphasizes the travel itinerary and mode of transportation for the current trip, whereas a customer focus considers the traveler’s experience throughout the current trip with an eye toward future trips. The consultant’s question dealt with how to move an organization from a product focus to a customer focus.

My reaction to this question is why not value both the product and the customer?

For instance, I appreciate when a bus tour operator pays attention to the product—the travel itinerary and mode of transportation for the current trip. I want the company to take into account the route (e.g., traffic patterns, road construction, and weather) and the bus itself (e.g., safety, seating capacity, cleanliness, etc.) when making tour preparations.

At the same time, I recognize when a bus tour operator considers the customer—and the totality of her experience with the goal of creating a promoter (a delighted customer who is less price sensitive, has higher repurchase rates, and is responsible for 80-90 percent of the positive word-of-mouth about a company or brand). I want the company to value the entire customer experience (e.g., website, reservations, payment, pre-tour communications, reception, tour, amenities, comfort, etc.).

It doesn’t have to be a zero-sum proposition, one or the other. It can be both. Intellectually, this makes sense. The bus tour operator needs a scenic route, a reliable bus, and a knowledgeable tour guide. It also must pay attention to its customers’ experiences with company personnel, policies, and protocol. The problem I tend to encounter most often is that companies become so immersed in their products that they lose sight of their customers—and the totality of their experiences with the product or service in question.

An example: My wife and I have purchased bedroom sets from Pottery Barn Kids for each of our four children. The last items purchased were a navy blue desk/hutch, a full size bed, and a nightstand for our son—all in January 2014. The nightstand arrived with a nickel-plated handle matching the handles on his 5-drawer dresser, but the desk arrived with flat silver-plated handles that didn’t match either of the other pieces.

So I called PBK, mentioned the inconsistency and was told that replacement handles/screws would be sent. About a week later, UPS delivered a packet of nickel-plated hardware but it contained cams and cam screws rather than the requested handles/screws. So, I called back and spoke with a rep who said he’d have the correct hardware shipped the following week.

After four weeks, I called back to check on the handles. Following a lengthy hold, the rep came back on the line and informed me that my request had been denied because the desk only came with flat silver-plated handles. He apologized that no one from PBK had bothered to contact me regarding the denial of my request and then began to end the call when I interrupted saying, “That answer is unacceptable. If you can’t send me three nickel-plated handles and six screws for the desk (because it only comes in flat silver), then send me three nickel-plated handles and six screws for the 5-drawer dresser.”

As I often do in such situations, I asked the PBK rep if he thought my request was unreasonable. He didn’t. I then asked him if he recognized the absurdity of PBK denying my request. He did. He confirmed my shipping address and assured me that he would take care of it. That was more than two weeks ago. As of today, more than seven weeks after my initial call, I have yet to receive the handles/screws requested. In its rigid adherence to product protocol, PBK lost sight of its customer.

Whether a bus tour operator, furniture retailer, or some other business, a myopic focus on one’s product or service without considering the totality of the customer’s experience may reduce customer satisfaction, curtail customer loyalty, and limit business success. The opportunity lies not in determining whether to focus on the product or the customer, but in choosing to value both.

Update: I’m pleased to report that on 4-21-14, after pestering the company president, I received the long-awaited nickel-plated handles and screws I requested in late-January.

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Illustration by Aaron McKissen.

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Poor customer service is unsustainable

February 24th, 2014

Lady JusticeThis is the seventh post in a series that will explore a set of questions I received from participants during a recent webinar on the topic of customer service.

Question: A recent study by Bloomberg Businessweek showed that companies with the worst customer satisfaction had better performing stocks. How can we justify the cost of customer service?

I have two thoughts regarding this question, both of which can be attributed to Stephen R. Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. My first thought is that Time Warner Cable and other companies that willfully subordinate customer service quality to profits are in violation of principles – natural laws that are timeless and self-evident – such as justice, fairness, integrity, honesty, service, quality, and excellence.

Cecil B. deMille observed of the principles contained in his monumental movie, The Ten Commandments, “It is impossible for us to break the law. We can only break ourselves against the law.” Profits that are earned in violation of principles – natural laws – are unsustainable. If you don’t believe me, just ask Bernie Madoff, Jeffrey Skilling, Dennis Kozlowski, Bernie Ebbers or Martha Stewart.

My second thought is rooted in Covey’s theory of Production (P)/Production Capability (PC) Balance. While the P/PC Balance theory may sound boring, it’s quite interesting – and quite true. Essentially, it’s the principle behind the popular Aesop’s fable of the goose and the golden egg. As you might recall, the greedy farmer, in his attempt to achieve great wealth quickly, killed the goose (PC) that laid the golden eggs (P). Alas, there were no reserves of golden eggs…only a dead goose.

Every business can take shortcuts (including customer service) in the near term and, as a result, look better financially. Over time, however, companies that violate principles and exploit customers (PC) in their myopic pursuit of profits (P) learn, as did the greedy farmer, that this strategy is unsustainable.

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Illustration by Aaron McKissen.

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Can exceptional customer service be taught?

February 19th, 2014

Enthusiasm new copyThis is the sixth post in a series that will explore a set of questions I received from participants during a recent webinar on the topic of customer service.

Question: Is the ability to create delighted customers something that can be taught or something that is inherent in the employee’s personality?

I recently taught this principle to a group in Hollywood, CA. Anyone can be taught to incorporate job essence (behaviors that help to achieve one’s highest priority at work) into her job functions (the duties or tasks associated with one’s job role). In fact, once operationalized, employees will be reflecting job essence in the course of executing job function.

As an example, consider written communication such as email or chat in a contact center environment that relies exclusively on the verbal component of communication. By deliberately infusing written responses with positive language, employees can incorporate essence (positivity) into job function (email responses). Rather than saying (in relation to order status), “Your order won’t be ready until…” saying, “Your order will be ready on…” Or, instead of saying (in relation to product returns), “You need to write your return number on your package,” saying, “Please be sure to include your return number on your package.” (Source: Osram Sylvania’s Positive Language Guidance)

Of course, job essence is often spontaneously reflected in one’s job performance (and, I agree that certain people are predisposed to this behavior). For example, certain employees naturally convey authentic enthusiasm during their interactions with customers – and their passion is evident to the customer. Other employees naturally express genuine interest in their customers by making eye contact and asking them questions – and their warmth is felt by the customer.

Both conveying authentic enthusiasm and expressing genuine interest in customers are examples of reflecting job essence. Savvy companies employ predictive recruiting assessments to screen applicants for these desired behaviors and, as a result, improve the likelihood that their employees will display such behaviors during their interactions with customers.

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Illustration by Aaron McKissen.

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Balancing service quality and volume

February 17th, 2014

Customer Service - Modern copyThis is the fifth post in a series that will explore a set of questions I received from participants during a recent webinar on the topic of customer service.

Question: How do you balance providing “above and beyond” customer service with being efficient with the volume of inquiries you receive? In some cases the extra effort will simultaneously take additional time, so how do you know when the cost is outweighing the benefit?

An effective employee uses her judgment and discernment to regulate the time spent on customer inquiries. When volume is up, she spends less time on each individual query. When volume is down, she’s free to add that “little extra” to the customer service she provides. Regardless of volume, she recognizes that it often takes no more time to provide exceptional customer service than not. For instance, it takes no more time to convey authentic enthusiasm for serving customers by adding energy to one’s voice or to express genuine interest in customers by “smiling into the phone.” These behaviors enhance the quality of one’s customer service without added cost or time.

Recall that exceptional customer service is often unexpected by customers. In a contact center environment, customers expect for their inquiry to be addressed, but may not expect “above and beyond” customer service. When it does occur (or, more accurately, when circumstances enable it to occur), because it was unexpected, customers may be pleasantly surprised and form a lasting positive impression of the service experience.

In response to the cost outweighing the benefit, this occurs any time the servicing of one customer displaces the satisfaction of another. If you’ve ever stood in a line of customers while the service provider carried on a personal conversation with the customer being served, then you know what I’m talking about. The customer being served might be “delighted” that the employee expressed genuine interest in his latest vacation and the well-being of his grandchildren but if this comes at the expense of the satisfaction of the five customers standing in line, the cost may have outweighed the benefit.

This doesn’t mean that the immediate transaction needs to be rushed and the customer be made to feel like an interruption. It simply requires the employee to understand the tactical nuance of regulating her customer service in a way that best serves all customers. And if this cannot be done without making customers feel rushed, then the service model must be revisited. Perhaps more staff is required to field inquiries or improved self-service options are needed to better accommodate demand?

How do you balance customer service quality and volume?

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Illustration by Aaron McKissen.

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Can exceptional customer service be automated?

February 14th, 2014

Assembly Line Color copyThis is the fourth post in a series that will explore a set of questions I received from participants during a recent webinar on the topic of customer service.

Question: What is your opinion on automating responses to email inquiries based on content included in the inquiry to improve response times? Is it actually helpful or does it cause more trouble than benefit?

I have a bias against automation because it’s often impersonal, and exceptional customer service cannot be impersonal. That being said, I recognize that there’s a tradeoff between personalization and response time. Each company has to decide for itself its own performance standards. Many companies opt for the efficiency that comes with automated responses. Other companies may choose to sacrifice response time for a more personalized response. I’m not here to judge. Each company must simply honor its own service standards.

And it’s possible to do both: incorporate personality into automated responses. A great way to do this is by infusing appropriate humor into “standardized” responses. I recall a bank’s voicemail system that concludes a long menu of options by saying, “If you’d like to hear a duck quack, press 7.” The auto attendant is predictable, but the “duck quack” option is unexpected and refreshing.

Hilton’s theWit Hotel Chicago bucks convention by offering guests a wake-up call featuring the voice of the city’s most notorious mobster: “Hey you dirty rat. This is Al Capone reminding you to get your rotten bones outta that sack. Now get it moving. I’ve got an overdue Valentine’s Day gift for Elliot Ness I gotta deliver. Heheheheh!” The call is automated, but the message leaves a lasting positive impression.

In the same way, automated email responses (especially when tailored to content included in the original query) can share unique knowledge (troubleshooting resources), use appropriate humor (“It’s Valentine’s Day. I’ll follow up with you more completely after I dislodge Cupid’s arrow from my keyboard!”), provide a pleasant surprise (promo code), or in some other way mitigate the impersonal effect of an automated response.

Automation is often necessary to service the volume that results from consumer demand. Most reasonable customers understand this and make allowances accordingly. The key for customer experience professionals is to be intentional about designing automated communications that will meet customers’ needs and leave lasting positive impressions.

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Illustration by Aaron McKissen.

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When essence is imbedded in the process, it occurs reliably

February 13th, 2014

snappleThis is the third post in a series that will explore a set of questions I received from participants during a recent webinar on the topic of customer service.

Question: How can you incent or encourage voluntary behaviors that get to customer delight if it’s not part of the expected job function?

If done properly, job essence and job function can be one in the same. Let me explain… Job function consists of the duties and tasks associated with one’s job role. Job essence is an employee’s highest priority at work. For most service industry employees, their highest priority at work is to create promoters – delighted customers who are less price sensitive, have higher repurchase rates, and are responsible for 80-90 percent of the positive word-of-mouth about a company or brand.

While employees consistently execute the mandatory job functions (duties/tasks) for which they are paid, they inconsistently demonstrate the voluntary job essence (service behaviors) for which there is little or no additional cost to the employer. Why do you suppose that is? Possibly it’s because their duties and tasks are clearly outlined in their job description. Job function is what they were hired to do. It’s what they’re paid to do. And there are often quotas and other metrics associated with job function. When employees do receive feedback at work from their immediate supervisor, it likely pertains to job function. It’s no wonder employees consistently execute these mandatory job functions.

Job essence, on the other hand, is not generally recorded in one’s job description. While job essence may have come up during the onboarding process, during an orientation video, or in a speech by a company executive, that’s often where it stops. During the examination of daily operating reports, gross revenue reports, and period end or quarterly results, attention predictably shifts to the metrics aligned with job function.

It is possible to incorporate job essence into job function so that it occurs reliably, over time, by design rather than inconsistently, here and there, by chance. Here are two examples, one product and one service: Snapple, the beverage company, famously includes a “Real Fact” on the underside of its bottle caps. Real Fact #719 states: “A strawberry is not an actual berry but a banana is.” Did you know that? I didn’t – until now. By including these Real Facts, Snapple incorporates essence (sharing unique knowledge) into a function (the bottling process) and, I suspect, has sold a lot more ice tea and lemonade as a result.

And here’s a service example: Our family just celebrated my oldest son’s 13th birthday at a Japanese steakhouse. In addition to preparing the meal, the teppanyaki chef entertained his guests by flipping an egg into his hat and inviting diners to catch small pieces of broccoli tossed from his spatula. By entertaining his guests, this chef successfully incorporates essence (using appropriate humor) into a function (the cooking process). As a result, Mt. Fuji earns a higher average check than most of its local competition.

How can you incorporate job essence into job function?

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

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