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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.

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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