Elegantly Adaptive Service


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Early one morning I was in my side yard and walked up on a huge elaborate spider web complete with its designer-tenant. As I approached the artwork, the spider began to vibrate the web sending early morning dewdrops everywhere. The next morning the web was gone without a trace. However, spread between two nearby trees was a brand new web just as elegant as the first one.

A friend was checking out of a Ritz-Carlton hotel early one morning. Half-asleep, she noticed the ever-smiling clerk kept leaving the counter to go elsewhere with each step of the transaction. It was then that my friend embarrassingly realized she was at the concierge counter, not at the check-out counter. She apologized for making the clerk do extra work. “Don’t be silly, Ms. Cook,” said the very patient clerk. “You can check out wherever you like.”

Today’s stressed customers are weary of inflexible, one-size-fits-all, bureaucratic service. They know adaptable service because they have witnessed it elsewhere. And, as their economic worries mount, their tolerance for rules-R-us rigidity plummets. Show them indifference toward their plight and you inviting them to exit forever along with their funds. It pays to demonstrate the adaptability of a spider that starts a new day by constructing a new web.

1. Examine Service Processes Through Customers’ Eyes and Emotions.

As products are tangible forms, service is intangible feelings. The customer who returns a malfunctioning blender will focus the brunt of their anger toward the object–“This dang thing you sold me!” But, if malfunctioning service provokes anger—the slow line, the long hold time, the tardy doctor—all manner of uproar is thrown directly at the frontline service person. Service processes need to be understood not only through the lens of what customers are experiencing…moment-to-moment…but, on what emotions are likely being surfaced by those experiences.

2. Conduct Forensics on Departed Customers

It may be a challenge to get raw candor from the customer who is heading out the door, never to return. But, circle back a few weeks later, hat in hand and with an obvious plea for honesty and you may gain a few insights into the cause of their exodus. Start the conversation with a bit of mia culpa. Then prime the pump by putting on the table some areas you know need improvement. If customers believe you are sincere in your quest for improvement they are more apt to help you solve the “where’d we go wrong” puzzle.

3. Hardwire Preventive Maintenance into Service

Airlines do not wait until there has been a plane crash to conduct preventive maintenance on their fleet of planes. But, too often service happens just that way. We take things for granted right up until lousy service costs us an important customer. Hold frequent meetings to assess what can be improved about the way service is delivered. Remember that customers are constantly changing and they experience service processes in ever-changing ways. Today’s fad can quickly become tomorrow’s antique. It is vital to remain perpetually vigilant for ways to make the service more comfortable for customers. Additionally, the views of the front-line scout, expert on the terrain of the customers’ experiences, must be regularly mined to gain up-to-the-minute customer intelligence that is imperative to customer-centric improvement.

4. Let Customers’ Needs Rule Organizational Procedures

Remember that great diner scene from the movie Five Easy Pieces when Jack Nicholson tried to order a plain omelet with a side order of wheat toast? He ran straight into: “No side orders,” “Only what’s on the menu,” “No substitutions” and “I don’t make the rules.” His solution was creative, but expensive: “I’d like a plain omelet with a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast—hold the chicken, hold the butter, hold the lettuce, bring me a check for the chicken salad sandwich, and you hadn’t broken any rules.” Procedures are essential since they bring important discipline and consistency to service delivery. And, some procedures must take precedent over a customer’s request—the patient who would rather skip their meds today; the guest who would like to speak to the chef in the kitchen. However, smart organizations are willing to adjust regulations whenever possible to meet special customer requests. They put customers first; not procedures.

We hired a man to power wash our house and driveway. With our very long driveway and lots of leave stain, it was going to be a full-day’s job. “When do you all leave for work and get home,” he asked. “I want to make sure I come after you leave and finish before you get home so you don’t have to listen to my loud machine.” When we asked if he wanted a check at the end of the job or was he planning to send us a bill, he instantly answered, “Which would you prefer.” He did a great job. But, his service was as elegantly adaptable as a new spider web. And, how did we react to his remarkable top service? All our friends now have his business card!!

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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