Going above and beyond is a choice

Volunteers-At-Work-Sign-lgFor many years, I’ve gone on record saying that the reason you and I, as customers, consistently receive predictably poor customer service is because exceptional customer service is voluntary; employees don’t have to deliver it, and most don’t.

It’s true. While there are things that employees do have to do, providing exceptional customer service isn’t one of them. Instead, their focus is typically on protocol, processes, policies and procedures – the same types of things that managers tend to inspect. At shift’s end, whether or not a cashier’s drawer balances is the subject of tremendous scrutiny by her manager. But whether or not she delighted customers throughout the day by choosing to smile, make eye contact, use names, and add enthusiasm to her voice, may or may not come up.

For a cashier, balancing at shift’s end is a non-negotiable requirement. Choosing to express genuine interest in customers by smiling and making eye contact, however, is voluntary.

Six motivations to go above and beyond

University of Pennsylvania professor, Adam Grant, has conducted extensive research on corporate volunteerism. In this article, he describes six motivators that initiate corporate volunteering that also influence an employee’s choice to expend the discretionary effort needed to raise customer service quality from ordinary to extraordinary:

1. Pro-social; for the benefit of others: In the context of customer service, this means choosing to be helpful and delighting in the opportunity to serve others. This is always a voluntary decision made by the service provider.

2. Belonging; for the relationships: Employees look to build and strengthen relationships with others. This includes both coworkers and customers.

3. Self-enhancement; for the self-esteem boost: Employees, after developing and displaying their ability to deliver exceptional customer service, bask in the glow of compliments from peers, superiors, and customers – all of which reinforce desired behavior.

4. Self-protective; for the distraction: When employees lean in to their roles as service providers, choosing to consistently delight coworkers and customers by refusing to deliver transactional customer service, treating each customer like the one before, they view work as a positive outlet. This may serve to distract attention away from other aspects of their life that aren’t as positive or fulfilling.

5. Developmental; for the knowledge and skills: Employees look to acquire job knowledge and develop job skills that will increase their competency and, by extension, their marketability.

6. Career; for the job prospects: Employees who choose to expend the discretionary effort required to make lasting positive impressions on coworkers and customers anticipate that their initiative will be rewarded with opportunities for career advancement.

The extent to which these motivators are acknowledged and facilitated by management will influence an employee’s decision to take initiative at work, go above and beyond in the service of others, and commit to achieving other organizational priorities.

Designing jobs to promote above and beyond behavior

Job design may have a substantial impact on satisfying the above motivators. In his article, Professor Grant shares three job characteristics that have a substantial impact on employee motivations and contribute to a job’s desirability:

1. Task characteristics: The duties, tasks, and methods used to deliver products and/or services to customers that have a substantial, lasting impact on them. (Don’t assume that employees are aware of this impact. Frequently, employees do not see the connection between what they do day-to-day and the organization’s purpose.) Without purpose, job roles lack meaning. Employees have something to work on, but nothing to work toward.

2. Social characteristics: The structural features of a job that influence employees’ interpersonal interactions and relationships, allowing them to develop friendships and exchange support. When these social characteristics are enriched, jobs fulfill the desire for connection with others, which is a core motive in life and at work.

3. Knowledge characteristics: The aspects of a job that affect the development and utilization of information and skills, providing employees the opportunity to learn, solve problems, and acquire skills. A central desire of employees is to obtain and project competence at work.

Grant’s research suggests that employees with enriched task, social, and knowledge characteristics may feel grateful to the organization for providing desirable jobs and may reciprocate with stronger commitment to the organization’s purpose, goals, and objectives. And employees tend to repeat positive behavior, such as delivering exceptional customer service, when they engage in the experience with strong motives. When employees’ jobs are enriched, their core motivations of meaning, connection, and learning are likely to be satisfied.

Sustaining above and beyond behavior

According to the role identity perspective, the strongest predictor of long-term engagement in delivering exceptional customer service is the internalization of the employee’s role (relative to job purpose) into her self-concept. The repeated act of delivering exceptional customer service leads employees to internalize the particular role as a critical part of their identities.

Research shows that individuals are most likely to internalize a particular identity when company leadership values this behavior. Recognition, for instance, only motivates people when their efforts are important to the group providing the recognition. According to Grant, recognition in conjunction with managerial support is likely to sustain employees’ experiences of volitional, autonomous behavior, promoting internalization.

Beyond emphasizing the importance of desired behavior and recognizing it daily, leadership must model, not mandate, the behavior they expect from employees. In the absence of pressure, employees are more likely to feel personally responsible for their decision to provide exceptional customer service, which will increase the likelihood of internalizing their identity as an exceptional customer service provider. Besides, you can’t force an employee to care any more than you can force a customer to be loyal.

Ready, set, go above and beyond!

While I don’t expect for employees to volunteer their time in lieu of a salary at a for-profit enterprise, it’s not romantic to believe that you can create jobs and a work environment that encourages volunteer-like commitment and initiative.

Professor Grant’s research on corporate volunteerism informs customer service professionals about employee motivation that influences one’s decision to expend the discretionary effort required to elevate customer service quality from ordinary to extraordinary. Further, it examines the characteristics that, when incorporated into job design, promote a stronger commitment to the organization’s purpose. And, lastly, it suggests ways to sustain this effort including frequent recognition and positive role modeling by leadership.

Some readers will finish this article and say, “That was interesting” and return to business as usual. Others will seize the opportunity to explore employee motivation, shape enriched job roles, and create a work environment that encourages employees to take initiative and expend discretionary effort in the moment of choice.

And in doing so, they themselves will be going above and beyond.

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 credit: Daniel Ruesch Design

Casual indifference

TextingEmployeecolorThere is a phenomenon in the services industry (some might say, an affliction) that I’ll refer to as ‘casual indifference.’ Its occurrence is not rare. Casual indifference by uninspired employees toward the needs and expectations of customers is rampant.

Casual indifference is demonstrated by retail employees who pass within five feet of a customer and say nothing; or is reflected in the body language of preoccupied employees who’d rather look down at their texts than look up to be of service. Other times, it’s reflected in the robotic actions of bored employees who are content to simply process customers, treating each customer like the one before, until the end of their shift puts them out of their misery, at least until tomorrow.

I could go on (and so could you), but let me turn it over to Lee, a blog reader who passed along his own example of casual indifference:

“I have ONE big pet peeve at restaurants. I have searched on-line for etiquette for this pet peeve of mine, but cannot find any rules on it anywhere.

My ONE big pet peeve at a restaurant, is when we are finished our meal, the waiter will pick up the dirty plates, AND my plate of food to go in the same stack.

I just cringe when this happens.

My thought is this: pick up the dirty dishes in one trip, then my plate of food to go, in another trip. I know they are trying to save trips to the table, but there is just something about seeing my food on my plate in the waiter’s hand, along with the dirty dishes in the same hand.

Just a curious restaurant goer.”

I can think of many actions that restaurateurs would hope to inspire from patrons (e.g., positive reviews, referrals, repeat business, etc.), but ‘cringing’ isn’t one of them.

So, why would a waiter casually place a guest’s leftovers on top of stack of dirty dishes before schlepping them back to the kitchen to prepare a to-go box? Perhaps he (like the proverbial frog in a pot of water that’s getting hotter and hotter…) becomes acclimated, comfortable, desensitized, and indifferent toward cues that should signal that something’s awry? Maybe the waiter, in the midst of his transactional mindset, is doing his best to “turn and burn” his section, blissfully unaware of his blunder?

As tempting as it is to fault the waiter in this scenario, that would be misplaced blame. Years ago, I heard the statistician and quality guru, Brian Joiner, wisely say, “Blame the process, not the person.”

When managers ask themselves, “How did the process allow this to happen?” and then thoughtfully examine the related processes that may have contributed to an unsatisfactory result, a different picture often emerges.

In many cases where I have observed casual indifference, I have also observed ad hoc recruiting efforts, inadequate selection criteria, unstructured onboarding, insufficient training, inconsistent supervisory modeling, non-existent performance management, and undocumented (or undisclosed) standards. Given such flawed processes, employees are set up to fail.

If I were advising the restaurant in question, the first thing I would do is revisit the performance standards. In the absence of credible, documented standards, good is good enough. Can you imagine this restaurant, or any company, embracing “Good is good enough” as its credo or slogan? Once the standards (and expectations) have been set, documented, and communicated, every single process (from recruiting to performance appraisals) must reflect and uphold these high standards.

Next, I would remind restaurant staff that their jobs consist of both job functions; the duties and tasks associated with their job roles (e.g., seating guests, taking orders, completing side-work, etc.), and job essence; their purpose; their highest priority at work (e.g., anticipating customers’ needs, paying attention to details, displaying a sense of urgency, etc.).

Most employees define their entire job role solely in terms of job functions. And why shouldn’t they? Oftentimes, the feedback they receive from management (assuming they receive feedback at all) pertains strictly to their job functions. When employees focus exclusively on job function, their jobs may become routine, monotonous, and transactional. In work environments like this, employees tend to become disinterested in their work and indifferent toward serving customers.

But when employees recognize the totality of their roles, which includes both job function and job essence, they are predisposed to provide exceptional customer service by anticipating customers’ needs, paying attention to details, displaying a sense of urgency, and serving customers in other ways.

And this is not just wishful thinking. It is possible.

You wouldn’t expect to encounter a preoccupied employee at Chick-fil-A, an unresponsive phone rep at Zappos, an indifferent salesperson at Nordstrom, or a discarded candy wrapper lying along Main Street, U.S.A. at Disneyland, would you?

These companies have set exceedingly high performance standards and their employees are acutely aware of them. Employees at these companies also recognize both their job responsibilities and their higher purpose at work: to create promoters; delighted customers who are less price resistant, have higher repurchase rates, and are responsible for 80-90 percent of the positive word-of-mouth about a company or brand.

So, while employees are responsible for their personal conduct and performance in the workplace, their managers are responsible for shaping employee performance by setting high standards, establishing processes that enable employees to delight customers, and communicating an employee’s entire job role.

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.

It’s 2015. Do you know where your customers are?

It occurred to me while reading through a list of 15 Customer Service Trends for 2015 assembled by Richard Shapiro, president of The Center For Client Retention, that nine of the 15 trends are related to omnichannel: a seamless approach to a consumer’s experience through all available shopping channels (e.g., mobile devices, computers, physical stores, etc.). It’s difficult to imagine a scenario whereby omnichannel is optional for those companies expecting to remain relevant with consumers in 2015.

I’ve read that omnichannel is the realization of social business and I believe that’s correct. But it must, as the above definition states, be seamless. The opposite of seamless is disjointed or faulty. Too often, this characterizes the consumer’s experience in attempting to communicate with an organization. As Richard observes in his article:

“When consumers post a question or complaint on a brand’s social media site, the days of asking them to call you are coming to an end. Consumers expect a response in the same channel of communication. If your brand has a Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. page and you invite consumers to interact, then companies truly need to respond; that’s the definition of interaction.”

In addition to the obvious social media channels and review sites, organizations must also treat channels used to acquire customer feedback, whether web-based or paper surveys, with the same sense of urgency. Too often, customers take time to provide feedback only to be ignored. (This is one reason customer satisfaction survey response rates are so low.)

Consider the following Twitter exchange I had earlier this month with @IHGCare, the InterContinental Hotels Group’s Twitter response team:

This is a good example of Richard’s observation above that “consumers expect a response in the same channel of communication.” If IHG had simply acknowledged or, better yet, responded to my original feedback (obtained via its web-based guest satisfaction survey following my stay at the White Plains, NY Crowne Plaza hotel on Oct. 22nd), then there would be no need for @IHGCare to ask me to email “details” of my experience to them a second time, six weeks later.

What’s even worse than failing to accept responsibility for a faulty channel that fails to capture, archive, and share a customer’s feedback, is to then imply that it’s the customer’s responsibility to duplicate his efforts by resending details of his experience through a different channel in order to assure “proper documentation” for IHG. Do you see the irony of this request? What happened to the original “documentation” provided six weeks earlier through the satisfaction survey channel?

More than likely, this lack of continuity is caused by two different work groups performing two different functions using two different systems. Of course, this defies the “seamless approach” that defines omnichannel and disregards the trend that “consumers expect a response in the same channel of communication” as cited by Richard Shapiro.

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.

Incorporate essence into function

Santa SignAn observation: 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 descriptions. 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 duties and tasks.

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. While examining daily operating reports, gross revenue reports, and period end or quarterly results, attention predictably shifts to the metrics aligned with job function.

It is, however, 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. For example, Nordstrom initiated a trend in retail customer service by having its sales associates walk around the sales counter to hand a customer her purchases rather than schlepping the bag over the counter after posing the ubiquitous industry farewell: “Receipt with you or in the bag?”

By doing so, Nordstrom was able to consistently incorporate job essence (expressing genuine interest) into a standard job function (presenting a customer’s purchases). As did customers, other retailers took notice and now you see competing department stores’ employees doing the same.

Here’s another example of incorporating essence into function that you’ve likely experienced without realizing it: Snapple, the beverage company, famously includes a “Real Fact” on the underside of its bottle caps. Real Fact #755 states: “There are more chickens than people in the world.” 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 third example I just encountered the other day: A Denver area shopping center posted break times for its seasonal Santa attraction using the following language: “Santa usually takes Milk and Cookie Breaks at 1:30 and 5:30pm…Sometimes he also makes a quick trip to feed the reindeer. Thanks for understanding that Santa is very busy!” By crafting verbiage infused with humor rather than defaulting to sterile words to convey the same message, this shopping center chose to deliberately incorporate essence (appropriate humor) into a function (posting Santa’s break times).

Managers have an opportunity to consistently elevate customer service quality by deliberately incorporating essence into function in the workplace. Doing so will produce exceptional customer service reliably, over time, by design, rather than – as often occurs – inconsistently, here and there, by chance.

How can you incorporate job essence into job function in your world of work?

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.

You must water the plants

watering-can-1Several years ago, after presenting multiple half-day training classes over four days, I was disappointed to hear my client say on the way to the airport, “Well, now I can check that off my list.” True to her word, all of the follow-up activities we energetically discussed over meals during the week fell by the wayside as her attention shifted to the next priority on her list.

Without follow up, training employees is like throwing seeds on rock: it doesn’t take root or produce much fruit. In one well-known Stanford University study, in the absence of follow up, within 30 days participants forgot 95 percent of what they were exposed to during a training seminar.

Contrast the above client experience with the following message I received last Friday from a client, Paul, who did follow up:

“Steve, you’ll be happy to know that we’ve kept your customer service message alive throughout the year. From May – July we invited all employees to do a 6-week, self-paced training program that I put together, based on the session that you did for us last February (I already told you about that). It was voluntary, but I am happy to say that we had an 80% participation rate, and we set up an award for the Division(s) with the highest participation rates. Two Divisions achieved 100% participation, so they won a nice lunch out. Then, in August, we ran a fun customer service contest where we had employees submit their best customer service stories. The seven winners got cash prizes, and their stories were distributed (via email) to all employees. We categorized their stories based on the customer service behaviors that you focused on during our Annual Sales Conference in February.”

There’s a saying in the world of training and development: “You must water the plants.” Not only is it important to have fertile soil (open minds, receptivity) in which to “plant” new ideas, those new ideas and behaviors, once taught, must be revisited, nurtured, and honed into improved performance.

Otherwise, the lessons, like seeds on rock, will not take root. Over time, they will simply dry up and blow away.

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.

Accept your customers, warts and all

1024px-Bufo_bufo_2_(2005_07_11)November has been a hard month for me healthwise. Every October, I dutifully schedule a flu shot. Most years, that’s sufficient and I’m generally flu, sore throat, and cold free throughout the winter months.

This year, beginning the week of October 20, I developed a chest cold that escalated to pneumonia the first week of November. During that time, I’d taken a battery of prescription and over-the-counter medications to combat my symptoms. Although I’m now feeling much better, I have a lingering cough that’s been tough to shake.

Yesterday, I struggled through a one-hour teleconference peppered with involuntary coughs. Even my mute button couldn’t keep up. Afterward, I stopped by my local Albertsons supermarket to pick up a few things for dinner. Although I’d recently taken a 12-hour dose of cough suppressant, I continued to cough – sometimes simply as a reflex to breathing.

When I arrived at the register, I unloaded my cart onto the conveyor belt. As the cashier rung up and bagged my groceries, I placed them into the cart. After I loaded the last bag and swiped my credit card to pay, the cashier handed me my receipt saying, “You should cover your mouth when you cough so that you don’t spread germs. I’d appreciate it.”

I was stunned. Here I was accepting a receipt for my purchases and instead of saying “Thank you” or “I hope you feel better soon,” the cashier chose to scold me. I don’t recall saying anything as I turned away. My mind was busy playing back the previous four minutes to identify when I may not have covered a reflexive cough into my hand or sleeve, as I usually do.

A little background: There are four major supermarkets and one natural foods store with six miles of my home. And I drive past three of them to get to Albertsons (I think they have the best meat department, in particular). My wife is more practical than I am. She usually drives to the nearest supermarket to our home, King Soopers. A quick peek at our budget suggests that our family spends about $18,000 a year on groceries. I estimate that half of that spending ($9,000) goes to Albertsons.

Always resist the temptation to correct customers’ inevitable foibles. It’s inappropriate to reprimand a customer for failing to cover his cough. Similarly, it would be improper for a waiter to admonish a restaurant guest for chewing with her mouth open. And it would be bad form for a restroom attendant to rebuke a customer for neglecting to wash his hands.

Be accepting of your customers, regardless of their flaws and shortcomings. Instead of judging their behavior and admonishing them, apply this advice from the Greek philosopher, Plato: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

They will appreciate it and just may reward your understanding with another $9,000 in business next year.

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: Wikipedia

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.