Creating “Freestyle” Customer Service Experiences

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It made business headlines this past summer. The most popular brand in the world focused on the experience, not just their long-famous product. Coca-Cola introduced their “Freestyle” vending machine. Their ad copy described it as “all packaged in an innovative and interactive fountain experience.”

It was designed with help from Ferrari! Step one, pick your favorite Coke beverage—Fanta, Sprite, Minute Maid lemonade, CokeZero, etc. Step two, pick your favorite flavoring. Want a raspberry Coke, a peach Fanta or a coconut flavored lemonade? There are over 100 combinations. A plastic cup is filled with ice and your special concoction.

By watching patterns Coca-cola is able to introduce new products tailored precisely to customers’ latest whims.

Now, here is the best part. At the end of the day the new “Freestyle” vending fountain electronically sends all the combinations chosen to the R&D unit at Coca-Cola headquarters. By watching patterns Coca-cola is able to introduce new products tailored precisely to customers’ latest whims. Who knows, a revolutionary new Coke product may be coming to your zip code soon! So, what’s the point? If the Coke vending machine down the street can do that, what will your customers expect of your service?

Hassle-free Service

Let’s examine two other service metaphors. USAA is the highly popular financial services company to a special market niche—active or retired military and their families. They introduced in January, 2010 an iPhone application that let’s their customers (members) deposit a check anytime from anywhere. The customer endorses the check, takes an iPhone photo of both sides, and sends it to USAA for instant credit. And, America’s e-marketplace, eBay, introduced in November, 2009 a new IPhone app that lets you buy and sell from anywhere using your cell phone. In the first month, some guy bought a $75K antique Corvette probably while waiting in the parking lot for his wife to come out of Wal-Mart. eBay estimates new revenue from the app of over a half-million bucks in the first sixty days.

Customer expectations have been rising for years. Customers want service faster, cheaper and without a hassle. They want to interact with their chosen provider when and how they choose. But, with the advent of technology and telecommunications advances plus “just in time” manufacturing, they have added “have it your way” to their service expectations. Long gone are the Henry Ford-like sentiments that communicate: “the customer can have any color they want as long as it is black.” The more organizations offer a wide array of service choices and channels, the more all of the “one-size fits all” approaches look way out-of-date.

Freestyle service means rethinking the time-place-process of how you interact with and deliver service to customers. What would it do if your customers had a $20 webcam and a Skype account to communicate with you live but remote? How would it change your service quality if you completely rethought the place service occurred? How would your business change if all the processes were completely reinvented. A hospital in the Midwest is experimenting with a magnetic plastic card tied to the parking lot that tells the admitting office computer to generate the paperwork as soon as the patient’s car enters the hospital parking lot. Is there an application of that concept for your work?

In today’s fast moving world customers are not used to waiting. They want everything FedEx fast and Amazon.com easy. Don’t stay literal; get creative. Challenge every assumption about your offering. Explain your service offering to a group of elementary school age children and get their advice on how to turn it into a really cool tool. What new application does their answer suggest? Look at your organization through the lens of some other great service provider. How would Nordstrom, Ritz-Carlton, Best Buy, Progressive, UPS, Lexus reinvent your service experience?

Innovative Experiences

NetFlix did not pattern themselves after Blockbuster Video, their biggest competitor. They looked at Amazon.com. Netflix is growing as fast as Blockbuster is declining. Bass ProShops did not see Bubba’s Bait and Marina as their role model, they looked at Disneyworld. As the old saying goes, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always gotten.” And, your customers’ expectations are not only increasing; they are dramatically changing.

What can you do to pleasantly surprise your customers? A dry cleaner gives high volume customers a card good for “emergency service.” Forgot to go by the cleaners and get your clothes before they closed on Saturday afternoon? The card has the owners home and cell phone on the back with a simple note that reads: “If you ever need Sunday emergency service, just call me and I will meet you at the store to retrieve your clothes.” Even if a customer never used it, think of the great peace of mind of knowing you could if you needed it. Great service includes freestyle thinking about novel ways to serve.

Are you learning your customers’ preferences to turn that insight into tailor-made experiences?

BMW took freestyle to new heights with their Mini Cooper. New owners got adoption papers when they plunked down a deposit to buy a new Mini. It came with a means to go on line and watch their specific Mini being “born” on the factory assembly line. Lately they made news with their special billboards in major cities that respond to a radio chip embedded in the owner’s key fob (that logoed gizmo dealers like to put on your key ring). Ride by the billboard and it will flash, “Hi Susan, nice day for your red convertible” or any message Susan chooses. The Aflac duck has teamed up with Hallmark cards to create a unique birthday card that screams “Aflaaac” when you open it.

Are you learning your customers’ preferences to turn that insight into tailor-made experiences? Would “have it your way” describe your customer service today? If not, it might be smart to get busy finding ways to make every customer feel as if he or she is your only customer. Freestyle is not only service that frees customers from the typical constraints they dislike, it is also service with style!

Chip Bell
Chip R. Bell is the founder of the Chip Bell Group (chipbell.com) and a renowned keynote speaker and customer loyalty consultant. Dr. Bell has authored several best-selling books including The 9 1/2 Principles of Innovative Service and, with John Patterson, Take Their Breath Away. His newest book, Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experiences Through Innovative Service, will be released in February.

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