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I’m listening…

Years ago, I sat next to an executive on a flight home to Denver. When he learned that I worked for Marriott, he mentioned that he had achieved Marriott Rewards Platinum Elite status after spending more than 75 nights in Marriott hotels around the world the previous year.

He began to praise the company and, specifically, the consistency of the product and service quality from location to location. While positive feedback is always welcome, I questioned him about problems he may have experienced or any areas in which we could improve.

He thought about it for a moment and replied, “Now that you mention it, there is one thing you can improve.”

He went on to rail against the inconsistency of Marriott’s package delivery process at its hotels. I can still recall the frustration in his voice as he recounted arriving late at night ahead of a morning presentation at the hotel and the staff being unable to account for the packages containing materials for his meeting that had been shipped in advance.

Invariably, after researching and providing tracking numbers and an hour’s worth of phone calls, denials, and finger pointing, the packages would surface in some corner of the hotel. Most of the time, they were being stored in the Shipping and Receiving holding cage and other times they were being held in the bell closet, behind the front desk, or in a sales manager’s office.

“Why can’t your hotels figure this out?” he asked. “It’s not rocket science.”

Fortunately, this conversation coincided with Marriott’s implementation of the GuestWare customer relationship management system and At Your Service® pre-arrival planning and “virtual concierge” program. These initiatives, among other benefits, improved the tracing of guests’ packages and prompted personalized, reassuring, and timely communication with hotel guests.

But this is not a post about process improvement. This post is about the importance of listening—REALLY listening—to your customers. If your goal is to differentiate your company based on customer service quality, consider these takeaways:

1. Solicit feedback from your customers. Most companies solicit feedback from their customers in ways that are more formal and less frequent (e.g., intercept surveys, focus groups, satisfaction surveys, etc.). I’ve found that there’s more integrity to customer feedback that is less contrived and more spontaneous. Look for opportunities to engage your customers that are less formal and more frequent.

2. Seek contrary evidence. While we all appreciate positive feedback, it’s difficult to elevate our performance without realizing the inevitable (and, in some cases, prodigious) opportunities we have for improvement.

3. Listen to your customers. This is not the same as soliciting feedback. It’s one thing to request feedback. It’s another to listen to the feedback in a non-defensive, non-prejudicial way with the intent to truly understand your customer’s perspective.

Here’s a memorable illustration of this lesson:

Part 1: Stew Leonard, Sr., of the renowned supermarket chain bearing his name, once received a written customer suggestion that his store should sell fresh fish. At the time, he was sending a van to Boston each morning to buy fresh fish. As soon as the van returned to the store, the fresh fish was prepared, sealed in plastic wrap on Styrofoam trays, and displayed in the seafood case for shoppers’ perusal.

He could have easily dismissed the suggestion but instead called the customer to inquire further. During that call, he learned that the customer defined fresh fish as being laid loose on ice (rather than sealed in plastic wrap on a Styrofoam tray). He thanked the customer for her feedback and decided to conduct a little experiment at the store.

4. Act on the feedback you receive from customers.

Part 2: The next day, he instructed his seafood department to display half the fresh fish wrapped in plastic as usual. The other half was to be laid loose on ice. One week into the experiment, he found that the fresh fish that had been laid loose on ice outsold the fish wrapped in plastic by a margin of 3:1 and that his gross sales of fresh fish had doubled!

In summary, be intentional about gathering feedback from your customers. Look for untraditional opportunities to engage them in conversations about their experiences (both positive and challenging) with your company’s products and services.

When you really listen to customers, you are expressing genuine interest in them. And by acting on their feedback, you are validating their perspective, reinforcing the relationship, and acknowledging their contribution to the success of your business.

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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