Service so subtle

service-heroics-copyToo often, exceptional customer service is associated with breathless, over-the-top actions by employees that capture headlines such as Ritz-Carlton’s Joshie the Giraffe, Morton’s Steakhouse airport delivery, or Frontier Airlines’ pizza order. While these illustrations are memorable and inspiring (not to mention, a lot of fun for the employees involved), they are inaccurate representations of what it means to provide exceptional customer service.

I agree that “wowing” customers is gratifying and, oftentimes, leaves a lasting positive impression on them. When this is elective, it allows employees to display initiative and exercise creativity by performing outside the constraints of a defined job description. It’s liberating for employees and challenges the likelihood that they will describe their jobs as predictable, boring, and monotonous. But when these “service heroics” are required in order to compensate for a flawed process or service model, as author Anne Morriss notes in her book Uncommon Service, “The cape gets heavy.”

Most examples of exceptional customer service, however, do not involve leaping tall buildings in a single bound. They’re much more subtle than that. Exceptional customer service is the difference between recklessly jamming a coat into a coat check closet and cossetting the coat by flattening its lapels while hanging it between coats. It’s the difference between indifferently schlepping a shopping bag over the counter and walking a customer’s purchases around the counter to hand her directly. It’s the subtle difference between responding to a customer request with “No problem” versus “Certainly” or “Right away.”

If you really want to elevate the quality of customer service that you provide to your customers, don’t look to emulate the heroic feats of Ritz-Carlton, Morton’s Steakhouse, or Frontier Airlines. Like a salesman who neglects daily prospecting while awaiting a return phone call from that “big fish” he’s been courting, this is not the best use of your time and energy. Instead, focus on subtle service enhancements like expressing genuine interest in your customers by asking questions, paying attention to detail, or displaying a sense of urgency. These are example of little things that will leave BIG impressions.


The two images above of the gingerbread house are from my holiday card this year. The first image is on the outside of the card. And the second image is on the inside panel. The difference is subtle (though more dramatic at full size) and reflects the message printed inside the card (and the point of this blog post): The difference between ordinary and extraordinary really is that little “extra.”

Happy Holidays from snowy Colorado!

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.

Illustrations by Aaron McKissen.

The best customer service book of all time

7-habits-197x300In 1989, Stephen R. Covey’s perennial book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was published. It must have resonated, having sold more than 25 million copies in 40 languages throughout the world.

Over the past decade or so, when I’m asked for business book recommendations and suggest this title, I detect disappointment and a casual dismissal of the book. A qualifying question usually follows: “Yes, but isn’t there a more recent book you’d recommend?”

So, what’s the priority? Is this person interested in the best business book published within the past two years or the best business book, period? If it’s the latter, then that book is indeed Covey’s 7 Habits.

Bookstores like to categorize books. You’ll find Covey’s book in a variety of sections, including: Self-help, Management, and Business. Although I’ve yet to see it stocked on the Customer Service shelves, it easily could be. In the past, when blogging or conducting Q&A sessions, I regularly find myself linking to lessons from 7 Habits. Below are some examples of how the topics explored in Covey’s book naturally align with customer service:

Foundational Principles:

Paradigms – the way we perceive, understand, and interpret the world. It’s easy to see how this applies to customer service. Have you ever made an assumption about a customer or co-worker that turned out to be inaccurate? Or, have you experienced conflict with a customer or co-worker that resulted from a misunderstanding? If so, you’ve witnessed paradigms in action firsthand.

Principles – natural laws that cannot be broken. Covey lists several examples of principles, including: quality, excellence, and service (the idea of making a contribution). Covey distinguishes between principles and values, saying that principles are not values. For instance, a group of employees who are indifferent toward serving customers can share values, but they are in violation of the fundamental principle of service.

P/PC Balance – a paradigm of effectiveness that is in harmony with a natural law. In this model, “P” stands for production and “PC” stands for production capability. Covey uses the timeless Aesop fable of the goose and the golden egg to illustrate the point that if you neglect “PC” (the goose), then “P” (golden eggs) will suffer. As it applies to customer service, if you neglect or take for granted “PC” (customers), then “P” (referrals, sales, revenues, profits, etc.) will irrevocably suffer.

The 7 Habits:

Habit 1: Be proactive – accept responsibility for our results in life. If we take an assessment and don’t like what we see, then we have the freedom to choose our response by exercising one of four human endowments (or gifts): self-awareness, imagination, conscience, or independent will. As this applies to serving customers, it magnifies the importance of accepting personal responsibility and taking action. Service is a verb and, as such, requires initiative and a willingness to expend discretionary effort in the moment of choice.

Habit 2: Begin with the end in mind – to start with a clear understanding of your destination. As it applies to customer service, it’s an awareness of one’s purpose or highest priority at work. When I poll five employees with the same job title about “what they do” at work, those lists are notably similar. But when I poll the same five employees about “why they do it,” those lists are remarkably different. When employees are unaware of their highest priority at work, they tend to myopically focus on job function (the duties and tasks associated with their job roles). This produces customer service that is transactional and uninspired.

Habit 3: Put first things first – to prioritize based on what is important and not urgent. The emphasis here is on preparation, relationships, and results, rather than reacting to crises with a focus on “things” and “time.” Too often, employees put second and third things (like duties and tasks) first. If you’ve ever felt like an interruption in an employee’s (task-focused) day, then you know what I’m talking about. Conversely, when service providers tune the world out and the customer in, they’re putting first things (customers) first.

Habit 4: Think Win-Win – a frame of mind that constantly seeks mutual benefit. It’s an approach to human interactions that is high in courage (a conviction to one’s values) and consideration (interest in the long-term welfare of others). This approach conveys an abundance mentality, the paradigm that there is plenty out there for everybody. The opposite of Win-Win is Win-Lose, a mentality steeped in contest and adversarialism whereby there is a winner and a loser. If you’ve ever observed an employee going toe-to-toe with a customer rather than making an exception or accommodating a reasonable request, then you’ve observed this paradigm in action. Too often, employees recoil and become defensive (Win-Lose) when an exception occurs rather than recognize that exceptions create opportunities to provide exceptional customer service (Win-Win).

Habit 5: Seek first to understand and then to be understood – this principle is the key to effective interpersonal communication. What happens most often is that people seek first to be understood and, in doing so, unwittingly devalue the opinions and perspectives of others. Many customers refuse to share critical feedback with service providers because they think their comments will be ignored or, even worse, the employee will retaliate. All businesses can improve their service quality by posing this simple question: “If there was one thing we could do (to make your insurance claim easier, to make your hotel stay more pleasurable, to make your dining experience more enjoyable…), what would that one thing be?” Of course, you then need to capture these responses, implement suggestions as feasible, and take reasonable steps to communicate service enhancements that resulted from customer feedback.

Habit 6: Synergize – the realization that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is the belief that 1 + 1 = 3 or more. It’s not your idea or my idea. It’s a better idea, a third alternative. When service providers think in terms of mutual benefit and listen with the intent to understand rather than formulate a response, then they can achieve synergy with a customer. I recently inquired at TUMI headquarters about the repair of a 14-year-old garment bag that was finally starting to show its age. TUMI’s current warranty required me to pay for the cost of the repair. My suggestion was that TUMI cover the cost because its warranty had changed since I originally purchased the bag. Ultimately, TUMI chose a third alternative by shipping me a brand new garment bag. Wow!

Habit 7: Sharpen the saw – the act of renewal in order to create an upward spiral of continuous improvement. Organizations that sharpen the saw are always looking for ways to improve. And while many improvements emerge from inside the company (Think: Google and Apple), customers and competitors can provide unique insight that can elevate product and service quality.

While there will always be a steady stream of recently published business books to assist in our professional development, it would be a mistake to dismiss Covey’s 7 Habits as passé merely because of its 1989 copyright date. If it has been a while since you’ve read the book, consider “sharpening the saw” by giving it another read. And if you’ve never read the book, then you owe it to yourself and those whom you serve to do so.

Have an opinion about Covey’s 7 Habits? Please share in the comments section.

Walk a mile (or just stand and wait) in your customer’s moccasins

SueWhoever is responsible for the Chicago O’Hare International Airport TSA clearance should be forced to endure the gauntlet himself. This may be the only way for him to fully appreciate the utter frustration, chaos, and absurdity that I (and thousands of others) experienced on Oct. 20, 2014.

While en route to Denver, I passed through the United Airlines Premiere lane at O’Hare. With my drivers license scanned and boarding pass stamped, I was then forced to enter a circuitous line that merged with a second line where passengers took turns joining a third and final line (containing both Premiere and non-Premiere passengers) toward one of two TSA baggage scanning checkpoints; the final hurdle separating travelers from Terminal B – and their flights.

I recognize that at some point, United’s responsibility stops and the TSA’s starts. Still, how does United Airlines respond to agitated customers who paid $1,400 for a First Class ticket, paid $39 to obtain Premiere access, or who earned the benefit of speedy security clearance by flying two or more weeks out of every month for the past 12 months or more – only to be relegated into a mass of humanity resembling the Depression-era black-and-white bank run photos?

I waited in this labyrinth, stamped boarding pass in hand, for 25 minutes as it inched toward the final checkpoint. (It occurred to me during one particularly painful stretch that I was moving no faster than the stationary Brachiosaurus skeleton in Concourse B.) Tensions between passengers escalated at the juncture where the two lines merged. Most passengers understood the situation and allowed others to merge into the main line. Other passengers behaved poorly, practically groping the traveler ahead of them to close the gap needed for others to join the final line.

When I was within about 20 passengers of the final checkpoint, a TSA officer opened another newly staffed checkpoint. Instead of manually directing passengers from the final line (most of whom had been waiting for 25 minutes or more) to the newly opened lane, the TSA rep casually assumed his previous post on the terminal side of the checkpoint. Chaos ensued as passengers who had just cleared the boarding pass checkpoint immediately headed to the newly opened lane, displacing passengers who’d cleared the same checkpoint 25 minutes earlier.

I don’t blame the passengers for this chaos; I blame the process or service model that’s in place to enable O’Hare airline passengers to pass efficiently from the main terminal to the secured portions of the airport. I also blame the inadequate training or protocol that guided the actions of a seemingly aloof TSA rep who conveyed indifference toward the plight (and schedules) of his “customers.”

The best way to test the effectiveness of a particular process is to experience it firsthand as a customer. And I don’t mean observe it from a comfortable distance, jotting down notes, while sipping a holiday drink from Starbucks. As the American Indian proverb suggests, in order to genuinely appreciate the experience of another, “walk a mile in his moccasins.”

This is great advice. I guarantee that whoever is in charge of the TSA clearance process at O’Hare would come up with plenty of efficiencies as he crept along from one line to the next.

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.

Set the tone for exceptional customer service!

Customer Service - Modern copyFor years, researchers have studied disconnects between sender and receiver in electronic communications. It’s challenging to convey emotion and tone, for instance, via email or chat without the benefit of cues such as facial expressions, hand gestures, or vocal tone.

One study examined overconfidence over e-mail by comparing the perceived and actual ability of participants to communicate effectively. The results indicated that participants who sent e-mails overestimated their ability to communicate by e-mail and that participants who received e-mails overestimated their ability to interpret e-mail. Furthermore, participants who sent e-mails predicted about 78 percent of the time that their partners would correctly interpret the tone. However, the data revealed that only 56 percent of the time the receiver correctly interpreted the tone. As further noted, the receivers in the study “guessed that they had correctly interpreted the message’s tone” 90 percent of the time.

Earlier this year, Software Advice, an online firm that reviews customer service software, published a new study, based on responses from more than 2,000 consumers, that examines the impact of a support agent’s tone and language on customer satisfaction. Its research revealed that almost two-thirds (65%) of consumers actually prefer a casual tone in support emails, and that nearly half (49%) didn’t even find emoticons or colloquialisms to be inappropriate. This sentiment changed dramatically when consumers were denied a request, however, suggesting that customers expect help desk agents to adapt their tone to the situation.

A recent example supporting these findings that made national headlines was the chat conversation about a mishandled book order between a customer and an Amazon customer service representative. The conversation was unique in that the customer and Amazon CSR assumed the roles of Odin and Thor from Norse mythology. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a look. (Important: Notice that the Amazon CSR is invited into the role-play by the customer – and not the other way around.)

More than anything, this research reveals how our assumptions about the appropriateness of our electronic communications may undermine our effectiveness at work. So, first and foremost, self-awareness is key. Beyond that, consider guidelines that will contribute to the effectiveness of electronic communication, such as:

  • Always add a brief greeting rather than jumping right in to the business at hand. It can be as simple as opening the message with “Greetings” before getting down to business.
  • Use appropriate grammar, spelling, capitalization, and punctuation.
  • Avoid using ALL CAPS, which may be perceived by recipients as shouting.
  • Moderate use of exclamation marks.
  • Use caution when adding emoticons, such as smiley faces.
  • Avoid using all lower-case letters as well, which may appear overly casual or unprofessional.
  • Avoid colloquialisms such as “What up?” or “bro”.
  • Avoid using abbreviations or industry lexicon that may be misunderstood or not understood at all.
  • Always end a message with a brief farewell that conveys gratitude for the opportunity to serve and invites further communication/clarification (in other words, does not assume the issue has been fully resolved). Again, it can be as simple as “Thank you for bringing the matter to our attention. Please let me know if you have further questions or concerns.”

Misunderstandings are inevitable in the cryptic world of computer-mediated communication. But you can reduce the odds of (unwittingly) offending your customers by: obtaining a credible assessment of your ability to accurately convey or interpret written communication; raising your awareness of the impact of tone and language in electronic communication, and; establishing and adhering to guidelines that will set the tone for exceptional customer service!

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.

Your dentist knows if you’re flossing

Woman flossingI know I’ve done it. I acknowledge the importance of flossing and commit to my dentist that I’ll floss twice daily over the next six months between cleanings. Then, as my appointment nears, I’ll realize how inconsistent I’ve been and make a special effort to floss in the days preceding my visit.

During my oral exam, not wanting to put me on the defensive, Dr. Gates will generally ask me a non-threatening question such as, “So, how have you been doing with your flossing?”

That’s when I say something convincing like, “Uh… Can you repeat the question?”

Dr. Gates already knows the answer.

Next week is Customer Service Week and, similar to my flossing analogy, the customer already knows if you’re serving.

Even if service providers rise to the occasion in the shadow of a prominently displayed Customer Service Week banner, customers know the truth: Customer service across industries is pretty average – and that’s being generous.

Despite the hoopla, banners, and buttons lauding the importance of customers and customer service, the reality is that many customers at participating companies will remain underserved next week, as they were last week, and as they will be in the weeks to come. Besides, shouldn’t every week be Customer Service Week?

Customer service is not a campaign. It’s a commitment. Some companies will spend more time and effort staging events in preparation for Customer Service Week, October 6-10, than they will spend celebrating customers and delivering exceptional customer service during the remaining 51 weeks of the year.

And, despite the frenzied effort to compensate for inconsistency, just like Dr. Gates, customers will know the truth.

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.

Photo credit: BigStock Photo

J.W. Marriott’s approach to serving customers

J_Willard_MarriottWhen asked about his approach to work during an interview, the late J.W. Marriott, Sr. said, “There aren’t these two opposites, work and play, one bad and the other good. It’s having a vision of the way things ought to be, and then making them that way.”

Keep in mind that Mr. Marriott’s “work” – from the time he opened his first 9-seat root beer stand in 1927 until his death in 1985 – consisted of serving customers. Having spent two decades with Marriott, I had an opportunity to see this philosophy manifest firsthand in the direct service of tens of thousands of customers.

Although I retired from the company in 2006, 21 years after his death, my customer service philosophy continues to be shaped by the founder’s words. Let’s examine just four of them from the quote above:

Work: Work is inevitable. (Drudgery is optional.) Work consists of what we HAVE to do. In the context of a job role, this usually means executing the job functions (duties and tasks) for which we’re paid by possessing job knowledge (WHAT to do) and/or demonstrating job skills (HOW to do it).

Play: Play, in the context of a job role, consists of the opportunities people have to perform outside of their job descriptions, reflecting job essence: their highest priority at work. Too often, people view work and play as dichotomies – at opposite ends of a spectrum. Work, as defined above, is associated with what you HAVE to do in order to pay the bills. And play is seen as what you ELECT to do when you’re not at work. But this is a narrow and limiting definition of play.

Vision: Vision provides direction. It informs decisions. It answers the question of WHY employees do WHAT they do, HOW they do it at work. Companies that define and share a credible vision don’t just give their employees something to work on. They give them something to work toward.

Making: “Making” is a verb. It requires action. Before something is made, there is decision to make it – a decision born out of initiative and a willingness to expend discretionary effort in the moment of choice. Pro quarterback, Russell Wilson, made this point when he said: “Dreams don’t come true. Dreams are made true.”

Mr. Marriott was spot-on in observing that every job role consists of two parts: work (job function) and play (job essence). He also understood that a clearly defined, shared, and credible vision would drive constancy of purpose. Finally, he recognized that exceptional customer service doesn’t happen by chance. It happens by choice.

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.

Photo credit: Marriott International

You’re not entitled to a gratuity

The Envelope PleaseEarlier this week, Marriott International announced a campaign, called “The Envelope Please” to encourage the tipping of housekeepers. Envelopes will be placed in 160,000 hotel rooms in the U.S. and Canada. The name of the housekeeper who cleans the room will be written on the envelope along with the message: “Our caring room attendants enjoyed making your stay warm and comfortable. Please feel free to leave a gratuity to express your appreciation for their efforts.”

[Full disclosure: I enjoyed a 20-year career at Marriott International.]

When questioned about how much to leave in the envelope, Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson suggested $1 to $5 per night, depending on room rate, with more for a high-priced suite. Personally, I would have preferred he’d said, “$1 to $5 per night, depending on the quality of service received, with more for exceptional service quality.”

Consider these two terms:

Gratuity: something given voluntarily or beyond obligation, usually for some service

Entitlement: the condition of having a right to have, do, or get something

To me, when you attach a gratuity to a room night and rate, it implies that if you stay over as a guest of the hotel for a night or more, then you are now expected to place a sum of money in the envelope for the housekeeper – regardless of the room’s cleanliness or the housekeeper’s attention to detail. It becomes an entitlement.

This is a slippery slope. It suggests that guests who leave less than the recommended gratuity (or *gasp* nothing at all) – based on their perception of service quality received from their housekeepers – are “cheapskates” or worse… Or, guests are guilted or shamed into leaving an undeserved tip. (I can think of many last impressions that Marriott would like to leave with its guests, but “shame” isn’t one of them.)

My position on gratuities is that guests are not obligated to offer them and employees don’t have a right to receive them. Gratuities should be discretionary and based solely on the performance of the service provider. Attaching a sum of money to a room night and rate suggests an obligation for the guest and an employee’s right to receive an entitlement. The above definition of “gratuity” clearly states the opposite: Tips are given voluntarily or beyond obligation.

All of that said, I think the envelopes are a great idea. I just would have preferred that Marriott quietly place them in guest rooms as a prompt for guests to, at their sole discretion, offer a gratuity as a reflection of housekeeping service quality received rather than length of stay and rate paid.

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.

Photo credit: AP Photo/A Woman’s Nation

When it comes to social customer service, most companies are hacks

Annoyed customer copyHenry David Thoreau observed: “For every thousand hacking at the leaves of evil, there is one striking at the root.”

I thought about how this quote applies to many companies’ social media strategy. These companies are breathlessly “hacking at the leaves” of customer acquisition with their social media strategies rather than artfully honing in and “striking at the root” of customer retention.

Over the past several years, a majority of my attempts to provide feedback to brands on Twitter – pertaining to a recent product or service experience – were completely ignored. According to this blog by social media strategist, Jay Baer, I shouldn’t be surprised. (In the article, Jay cites research by Maritz Research and Evolve24 that revealed, of 1,298 Twitter complaints, only 29 percent were replied to by the companies in question.) In my case, when I returned to the company’s Twitter page after not hearing back, I saw that while they ignored my feedback, they found time to post a promotional tweet about their exceptional product or service quality.

Whenever a company uses a social media channel like Facebook or Twitter to blast a promotional missive to its legion of anonymous fans or followers, it’s largely “hacking at the leaves” of customer acquisition. Will someone really click on the link, access the discount code, and purchase the product? Perhaps the company’s analytics suggest that, on occasion, someone does. But are the recipients of these marketing messages really qualified prospects or, better yet, actual customers?

You might say that if they’re fans or followers, then certainly they’re qualified prospects or actual customers. Otherwise, you reason, why would they choose to follow the brand’s account in the first place? But look at your own behavior. Are you a qualified prospect or current customer of every brand you follow on social media? I follow Ferrari but I assure you that I’m not a qualified prospect. I also follow numerous coffee, wine, and beer brands that I’ve never purchased. I’m a fan of fast cars, coffee, wine, and beer, but that doesn’t make me a qualified prospect or current customer of these brands.

Now, here’s the irony: In each case when I reached out to brands on Twitter, it was clear that I was a customer:

  • In one case, I expressed disappointment in the way a local Xenith rep failed to deliver pre-ordered football gear in time for the start of the 2014 season. What I expected: Empathy. What I got: Silence.
  • In another case, I brought the unprofessional behavior of a supervisor to the attention of Smashburger. What I expected: Interest. What I got: (imagine the sound of crickets chirping)
  • In a third case, I shared a photo of an improperly made pizza with Papa Murphy’s. What I expected: Problem resolution. What I got: Nothing.

I cannot stress this point enough: In every case, it was evident that I was a real, live, paying customer! And in one case, I even offered indisputable photographic evidence. Still, no one bothered to acknowledge my feedback.

It’s well documented that current customers are infinitely more valuable than the anonymous masses of prospective customers to which companies market. According to Gartner, 80 percent of future profits will come from 20 percent of existing customers. Research by Bain & Company revealed that increasing (existing) customer retention rates by 5 percent increases profits by 25 to 95 percent.

Additionally, existing customers are much easier to sell. Market Metrics determined that, while the probability of converting an existing customer is 60 to 70 percent, the probability of converting a new prospect is only 5 to 20 percent. It just makes sense that consumers are more receptive to companies they already know and trust as customers.

Even so, it seems that a majority of companies would prefer to bombard hoards of anonymous prospects with promotional messages than respond to their current customers’ feedback. With all the evidence supporting the value of existing customers, it’s mystifying that so many companies choose to squander resources “hacking at the leaves” of customer acquisition rather than directing them toward “striking at the root” of customer retention.

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.

Does your company have a slogan or a purpose?

CVSHealthMany companies have slogans that look good on websites, banners, and buttons, but often these slogans have little credibility among customers or employees. They are simply a set of words brainstormed at an ad agency that usually promise more than employees are prepared to deliver, and result in less than customers expected to receive.

CVS Health has a slogan: “Health is everything.” Last Wednesday the company stopped selling cigarettes and tobacco products at its 7,700 retail pharmacies. Although the decision to remove tobacco products from its stores will cost them an estimated $2 billion in annual sales, CVS Health chose to stay true to its commitment to people’s health. It chose to honor its highest priority: health is everything. CVS Health reinforced its credibility with employees and customers alike by staying true to its stated purpose.

I love this example because it illustrates an important point I make during my customer service presentations: Without a clearly defined purpose, there is no exceptional customer service. Most companies ensure that employees possess job knowledge (WHAT to do) and demonstrate job skill (HOW to do it), but then leave job purpose (WHY they are doing it) to chance. Whenever you leave 1/3 of anything to chance, it usually doesn’t end well.

This explains why most companies provide ordinary, routine, and transactional customer service: Their employees are given something to work ON and dutifully execute the mandatory functions of their jobs, oftentimes producing satisfactory results. But extraordinary companies aren’t content to give their employees something to work on. Like CVS, they opt to give employees something to work TOWARD.

Zappos, the online retailer, gives its employees something to work toward by guiding their actions with the purpose: “To provide the best customer service possible.” And the behavior of employees of the Mayo Clinic is shaped by the purpose: “The needs of the patient come first.” These employees not only possess job knowledge and demonstrate job skill, they also reflect job purpose.

I’m confident that the great majority of people who read this post, can clearly articulate WHAT they do at work and, if asked, could demonstrate HOW they do it. I’m less confident that they will have the same clarity around their highest priority at work, the organization’s purpose – WHY they do WHAT they do.

If you’re skeptical, just ask your employees/coworkers. My hunch is that if you ask five employees with the same job role WHAT they do, 80 percent of their responses will agree. However, if you ask these same five employees WHY they do WHAT they do, 80 percent of their responses will differ. This exercise serves as a litmus test to determine whether your company has a catchy slogan or an enduring purpose.

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.

The X’s and O’s of customer service

Xs and OsWith the start of the 2014 NFL football season, I got to thinking about how customer service is like football.

Two nights ago, my 11-year-old son and I analyzed game film from his season opener last weekend. Our observations weren’t terribly surprising or original: Block until the whistle sounds on offense and, on defense, wrap up when tackling, contain the outside corners, and keep the receiver in front of you.

These observations could make up the pre-game instructions for any youth league coach or, quite possibly, a football coach at any level. These are really the basics – the X’s and O’s – of football. It’s widely acknowledged that even with all the bells and whistles (from fancy uniforms to elaborate playbooks), the team that does the best job blocking and tackling usually wins the game.

In face-to-face customer service, “blocking and tackling” consists of smiling, making eye contact, and adding energy to one’s voice. By doing so, service providers express genuine interest in serving their customers and distinguish themselves from those who are content to simply go through the motions, treating each customer like the last customer.

So, if you provide service to a customer (or, internally, to someone who does), remember the X’s and O’s of face-to-face customer service: smile, eye contact, and vocal energy. Doing so is a winning strategy that will leave a lasting positive impression on most 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.