Borrowing inspiration from Stephen Colbert, I’ve titled this post to point out the insufficiency of conclusions that have been drawn by me and others as they pertain to the art and science of customer service.
Customers are moving targets in terms of needs and preferences and their sophistication increases exponentially with advances in technology. Travel websites alone have armed consumers with pricing information previously unavailable to them. And blogs containing “insider information” to level the playing field have emboldened consumers looking to gain the upper hand during their next negotiation.
The best we can really do is to create a snapshot of what the customer is currently looking for and then race to develop solutions to meet or exceed that need.
For instance, most companies believe that consumers overwhelmingly prefer live phone service to self-service. And I’m sure at one time they did. However, according to a Harvard Business Review article (July/August 2010) titled Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers, recent data show that customers are, in fact, indifferent toward this choice.
The article was based on a large-scale study of more than 75,000 people who had interacted over the phone with call-center representatives or through self-service channels such as the web, voice prompts, chat, and e-mail.
It concluded that call-center reps should focus on reducing the effort customers must make to resolve their problems as opposed to “delighting” customers by exceeding their service expectations. (I would agree that if I was unable to access my e-mail account, my preference would be to have access quickly restored as opposed to receive a handwritten thank you note from the service rep in the days following my call.)
In addition to reducing the effort customers must make, the article suggested that call-center reps “should anticipate and head off the need for follow-up calls, address the emotional side of interactions, minimize the need for customers to switch service channels (e.g., move from web-based support to phone support or vice versa), listen to and learn from disgruntled customers, and focus on problem solving, not speed.”
So far, so good.
But then the article stated that, “exceeding (customers’) expectations during service interactions…can do little to increase loyalty.”
Zappos, for one, has built an intensely loyal customer base in part due to its strategy to exceed expectations by quietly upgrading delivery in order to pleasantly surprise customers with the unexpected early arrival of their purchases.
The article also contended that telling frontline reps to exceed expectations is “apt to yield confusion, wasted time and effort, and costly giveaways.” That may be true if a supervisor says to her staff, “Good morning. Today, I’d like you all to exceed customer expectations. Have a nice day.”
A competent supervisor, however, recognizes that a bit more explanation is needed.
For instance, she might say, “Today I’d like us to make a special effort to exceed customer expectations by expressing genuine interest in the caller.” Or propose, “Today I’d like us to make a special effort to exceed customer expectations by conveying authentic enthusiasm to the caller.”
She could then further clarify by asking her team questions such as, “How would you define expressing genuine interest/conveying authentic enthusiasm?” and “What are some ways that you currently express genuine interest in/convey authentic enthusiasm to callers?”
Through participation, her team could identify numerous ways team members currently express genuine interest in/convey authentic enthusiasm to callers. The supervisor could also share her own ideas based on her unique background.
And these customer service behaviors, when demonstrated, tend to leave a lasting positive impression on customers and inspire their loyalty.
When I used to travel frequently as a national trainer for Marriott International, I booked my travel through phone reps at American Express Travel as opposed to using web-based options in large part due to the reps’ tendency to demonstrate these types of customer service behaviors.
For instance, they would comment or ask questions pertaining to the amount of travel I was planning, the cities to which I was traveling, and the purpose of my trips. (And they weren’t being nosy or wasting my time with irrelevant blather.)
They were interested. They were engaged. They were exceeding my expectations of travel agents—and cementing my loyalty.
Contrary to the HBR article’s contention that exceeding expectations is “costly,” it costs nothing to exceed expectations by expressing genuine interest or conveying authentic enthusiasm. And it costs little to “delight” customers by providing pleasant surprises—as in the case of expedited shipping by Zappos.
Even Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos, claims that whatever Zappos spends in expedited shipping charges, it saves in marketing expenses. That’s because Zappos has created a legion of loyal customers who tell friends, colleagues, family members—and anyone else who will listen—how great the buying experience is at Zappos.
So, while it may be true that customers value when they do not have to expend much effort to resolve an issue or make a purchase as revealed by the HBR article, there are other ways to create loyal customers.
And to suggest that delighting customers by exceeding their expectations isn’t one of them is just plain wrong.
Okay, I have acknowledged that customer service is a dynamic mix of art and science that continually evolves and that my conclusions (and others’) are likely insufficient. And I’ve provided an overview of the HBR article and pointed out aspects with which I agree and disagree.
Now it’s your turn to contribute to the discussion. How do you respond to the article’s conclusions? (And your perspective doesn’t have to be foolproof. Few are.)