Last week I was interviewed for a customer service podcast. The host has authored several books on the topic and has an excellent reputation as an industry thought-leader. During the interview, I was asked for my definition of customer service, which I shared:
Customer service is a voluntary act that demonstrates a genuine desire to satisfy, if not delight, a customer.
The host took exception to the word “voluntary”, stating that, in his mind, it’s not voluntary – and he cited his support staff as an illustration saying that, if properly screened and trained, employees have no choice but to provide exceptional customer service. But I disagree with that. Employees choose daily – even minute-by-minute within their workdays – the extent to which they will offer exceptional customer service.
At one point the host used the term “optional” in place of “voluntary.” I agree that exceptional customer service is not optional, but it is voluntary. During the screening process, for example, you can tell the applicant that exceptional customer service is not optional; it’s a requirement of the job. What will the applicant say? “I agree!” And then, during the onboarding and training processes, you can reinforce that obligation, repeating that exceptional customer service is not optional; it’s a requirement of the job. Again, what will the employee say? “Of course!”
And yet, you and I (as customers) are continually underserved by service providers who are indifferent toward us as customers, many of whom simply go through the motions until their next break or the end of another monotonous workday when they can finally leave and go do something they enjoy.
And why are we underserved? Because exceptional customer service is always voluntary. Employees don’t have to deliver it – and most don’t. But what do these employees have to do? They have to execute their assigned duties and tasks – whether that’s driving a bus, making a sandwich, or sacking groceries. I’ve seen plenty of employees executing these job roles without smiling, using eye contact, adding energy to their voice, or expressing even a hint of interest in me as their customer.
In my book, I write about seven exceptional service behaviors. Here are three of those behaviors: express genuine interest, offer sincere and specific compliments, and convey authentic enthusiasm. What do each of these three behaviors have in common? Here’s a hint: look at the adjectives that describe each of the three behaviors. How is it even possible to require or mandate that employees be genuine, sincere, and authentic? That’s right – it’s not possible. Employees choose these behaviors. Can you imagine forcing employees to smile, or compliment customers, or be enthusiastic? Seems cringeworthy to me.
Last Thursday night following the podcast interview, my 6th grade daughter, Kennedy, came downstairs after taking a shower. By coincidence, she mentioned to me that, beforehand, she taped vocabulary words for her test the following day to the outside of the sliding glass doors to her shower so that she could review the definitions while showering.
I thought about her behavior in light of my earlier debate with the podcast host relating to the voluntary nature of exceptional customer service. Of course, studying (in order to achieve academic excellence) is not optional, but the extent to which you’re willing to prepare is voluntary, elective, and discretionary.
Kennedy’s behavior is the very definition of taking initiative and demonstrating a willingness to expend discretionary effort in the moment of choice. That’s the difference, in my opinion, separating ordinary students (of which there are many) from extraordinary students (of which there are few, relatively speaking). And the same applies to service providers: 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.
New! Cascade the lessons from Delight Your Customers throughout your department, division, or entire organization. Order the Delight Your Customers Companion Guide by Steve Curtin and Brian O’Neill.
Watch the 90-second book trailer.
Illustration by Aaron McKissen.