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Exceptional customer service is not a zero-sum game

Bell1 copyLast week, I delivered customer service training to the staff of a New Orleans hotel. During a table group activity midway through the class, a participant suggested providing complimentary coffee in the lobby each morning as a way to pleasantly surprise hotel guests.

In response to his suggestion, I overheard another employee say, “If we give the coffee away, then we won’t get pay raises.” Although I did not expose the comment to the rest of the class, it reveals a common misperception among employees: that exceptional customer service is a zero-sum game, whereby, if customers win, then employees lose.

If you believe the Bain & Company research that delighted customers (promoters) are less price-sensitive, have higher repurchase rates, and are responsible for 80-90% of the positive word-of-mouth about a company or brand, then clearly businesses are disproportionately rewarded for exceptional customer service quality. And this tendency is further validated by the  American Express 2012 Global Customer Service Barometer research report that, for the second straight year, found that two thirds of consumers surveyed stated that they are willing to spend an average of 13 percent more with companies they believe provide excellent customer service.

Complimentary coffee may or may not be the best way to delight your customers. The point is that, as you uncover those “little extras” that resonate with your customers, you offer them with the understanding that what benefits customers likely benefits the organization—and its employees.

Here’s a way to motivate skeptical employees who think about providing exceptional customer service in zero-sum terms: Share the above research and remind them that their discretionary effort (doing more than expected) prompts customers’ discretionary spending (spending more than expected).

And since consumer spending and demand are positively correlated, this can benefit employees through increased hours to schedule, overtime wage premiums, eligibility to participate in company-sponsored benefits, job stability, career advancement opportunities, etc. In a hotel setting, guests may further reward exceptional customer service by offering increased tips, referring friends and colleagues, leaving favorable reviews at websites like or, or choosing to purchase ancillary services such as spa treatments or recreational activities.

Oftentimes, the “expense” (whether expending dollars or discretionary effort) required to improve the customer’s experience turns out to be an investment in exceptional customer service that ultimately benefits customers, companies, and employees alike.

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Pre-order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin (AMACOM Books, June 11, 2013)

Illustration by Aaron McKissen

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.
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