Is Your Customer’s Experience Warm Enough to Give You a Competitive Edge?

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In today’s tough economy, ensuring that your customers’ service experience is warm enough is critical to bringing them back for more. Evaluating the temperature of the experience you provide for customers focuses on the “warmth” of that experience.

For example, my wife and I were traveling on a recent Sunday evening after watching one of our children play soccer in North Carolina. I suggested we stop for dinner prior to 10:00 p.m. just to make certain we could find a good place after a long day of travel. Around 9:30 p.m. my wife called around to find a place that was still open. The gentleman answering the phone at the Longhorn Steakhouse at exit 74 on I-85 assured her they were open, suggested we take our time and promised her they would be waiting for us even if we arrived a bit after their 10:00 p.m. closing time.

In customers’ eyes, the people they interact with represent the organization’s commitment to the customer experience.

We were warmly welcomed to the restaurant and seated immediately; one of only two tables occupied at that late hour. Stephen our server approached to welcome us, take our drink order and reinforce their desire to serve us. The food was great and the service warm as well as outstanding. Stephen was a superb service professional and made sure we had a fantastic experience.

Experience as a differentiator

We know that customers today have many choices and their experience is typically the most significant determinant of how they will view their interaction with an organization. Customers have developed highly sophisticated and sensitive “radars” for early warning about the good, the bad and the ugly of service experiences. In customers’ eyes, the people they interact with represent the organization’s commitment to the customer experience.

One of the major determinants of success with the customer experience is the “temperature” of that experience. People play a key role in temperature but so do the many other signals an organization sends to its prospects and customers, such as:

  • What kind of people we select
  • What type of processes and procedures make it simple or ridiculous to serve the customer
  • How fast and effective are we at solving customer problems
  • How truly accountable everyone in the organization is for the customer (and employee) experience

These are all big time signal emitters that customers translate into real measures of the warmth of their experience.

When you look at the definition of warmth in the really big dictionary you find great words like affection, understanding, kindness, helpfulness, sincerity, thoughtfulness, care, hospitality, compassion and generosity.

If you think about great service experiences in your life you can begin to see what a wonderful filter the concept of service warmth provides. Think about a Disney experience and many of the “warmth words” above come immediately into your mind. How about a trip to Stew Leonard’s? Again many of those “warmth words quickly come into view.

We know that the people customers interact with are a huge factor in their evaluation of the experience. So, how warm are the people your customers interact with?

Service warmth begins with attitude. The great news about attitude is we all get to choose ours! The bad news about attitude is it can be significantly influenced by the attitude of leaders and by how leaders treat employees. Employees listen to what leaders say AND they remember what leaders do!

Let’s examine the other major elements that comprise a warm service experience: hospitality, understanding, sincerity, compassion and kindness.

Hospitality

Hospitality begins with a warm greeting that quickly demonstrates to the customer they are appreciated and can be at ease with your organization. Much of my service learning comes from the extended time I spend on the road speaking and consulting. One of the greatest examples of hospitality I have seen comes from a leading hospitality organization—Marriott. They work hard to let their guest know how appreciated they are and how pleased they are when they return. To display enough “service warmth” a greeting must be refreshing, delightful, pleasant and genuine. Marriott’s folks seem to have mastered this technique!

Chip Bell and I arrived at the Marriott Hotel in Rocky Hill near Hartford, Connecticut, after a late-evening delayed flight. As we came through the lobby entrance the front desk clerk announced, “Where have you boys been? I waited up for you, but it is way past my bedtime.” The affable sparring was coming from the front desk supervisor, Lillian Koster. We felt home! Her greeting was, as always, genuine and delivered with an approach that was signature Ms. Lillian. Not only did she make us feel like home, she showed unmistakably that she truly cared!

Understanding

We turn up the warmth on a customer’s experience by showing them unmistakably that we understand and appreciate them. Understanding doesn’t just come from customer surveys or customer research. Understanding comes from instilling the value of knowing your customer into everyone from the front line to the President. Making customer intelligence a priority for the organization and recognizing those employees who excel at being scouts for the organization cements this value into organizational DNA. What signals do you send when the customer realizes you are working hard to learn about them and demonstrate your knowledge? You are sending signals that create loyal customers who return often and tell all their friends about you.

Understanding doesn’t just come from customer surveys or customer research.

I am a huge fan of the Façonnable brand of men’s clothes. In addition to being a brand typically available in the men’s clothing section of most Nordstrom stores, the 50+ year old French high end tailored clothing company opened four self-standing Façonnable stores in the U.S. But, this story is not about their product. It is about the people who deliver a super warm experience that wraps around the product.

Nick Caballero is a salesman at the Façonnable store on fashionable Fifth Avenue in New York City. If you could pay a visit to Nick’s Rolodex, you would get a peephole into the man’s obsession with understanding his customers! You would not likely find entries with just contact information and clothing sizes. You’re likely to find notations like: “writes books on customer service, enjoys Southwestern food, loves Argentinean pinot noir, has five kids, always call the cell, favorite color is blue,” etc. This is way more than your usual customer profile;

Nick is like a super-sensitive electron microscope trained onto a particular customer’s makeup that gets the DNA map needed for a super warm customer experience. “John, I found a perfect shirt for that jacket you bought last April,” the voice mail says with the excitement of a kid opening a birthday present. “I went ahead and shipped it to you along with a tie I thought would match. If it doesn’t work for you, just put it in the mailer I sent along and return it as you get a chance.” Not only is the perfect shirt perfect, it is obvious Nick has sent time thinking about my preferences.

Sincerity

Today customers are presented with more choices than ever before and have access to much more information. Most customers today enter into a customer experience heavily armed with data regarding the product or service they are about to purchase. Even though customers are more knowledgeable than ever, it is the warmth of their experience that is the most significant impact on their loyalty. Customers look for sincerity signals in their interaction with organizations, including processes, procedures and people who demonstrate genuineness, honesty and authenticity. Much is at stake here because sincerity is most often a foundational element for trust. We know from all those lectures we heard from our parents as teenagers that trust is hard to earn and easy to loose!

Ron Skipski is a superintendent for EDiS, a construction company headquartered in Wilmington, Delaware. EDiS had just completed a project to renovate an old home and transform it into the headquarters for a company I’ll call AB & C. Ron had been the superintendent on that job. In the middle of a second project EDiS had with AB & C, a heavy weekend snowstorm triggered an opportunity for Ron to perform an unexpected miracle. Even though Ron was not assigned to this new project, he remembered the company had no snow removal service contract and was likely facing a Monday morning challenge. And he still had the key to the fence surrounding the lot. Late Sunday afternoon he personally cleared the lot for a powerful “Monday morning surprise.” Ron’s genuine desire to serve turned the “service warmth” of AB & C Company’s experience to high!

Customers can quickly ferret out promises that are less than genuine and practices that border on dishonest. Starbucks has a sign near the espresso machine promising a “perfectly made beverage” or they will make your drink again. Their people are trained to react quickly should a customer remark their drink is not “right.” There are few questions about their request other than questions to help them remake the drink exactly to the customer’s expectations. And if it takes more than one remake to get it right, so be it! Starbucks has made a promise and they stand behind it. Much like L.L. Bean’s guarantee; “Our products are guaranteed to give 100% satisfaction in every way. Return anything purchased from us if it proves otherwise at any time. We do not want you to have anything from L.L. Bean that is not completely satisfactory.” Try returning something and enjoy the amazingly warm return experience!

Compassion

Customers do not expect organizations they deal with to be perfect but they do expect them to know how to fix problems. Service recovery requires empathy and consideration. Most service recovery situations begin with an upset if not angry customer. We know from research that a satisfactory solution will not be found if we can not coax the customer out of their negative emotional state so we can work with them on an appropriate solution. Demonstrating empathy, not sympathy, for the customer’s dilemma and the hurt they are feeling is a vital step to moving them into a different emotional place where recovery can be successful. Often some consideration is appropriate for the pain we have inflicted upon the customer.

Demonstrating empathy, not sympathy, for the customer’s dilemma and the hurt they are feeling is a vital step to moving them into a different emotional place where recovery can be successful.

This can be a dangerous area if the organization has not planned well for service recovery and thoroughly trained employees. One other key ingredient necessary for success here is empowerment. The Ritz Carlton is famous for their extraordinary service yet they are just as famous for their amazing approach to service recovery. Every Ritz Carlton hotel employee who has completed their initial training is empowered to spend up to $2,000 per guest to make things right f there is a problem.

A route to bankruptcy? Not so. Their statistics show that employees rarely come close to the $2,000 limit in service recovery situations. However, employees get the message that they are empowered and show appropriate consideration quickly to solve guest problems in a way that increases the “service warmth” of the guest’s experience. What signals does this approach send to employees and guests—signals about genuine caring and trust! These are the signals of increasing service warmth.

Kindness

Ask an employee of Publix, Nordstrom or Ritz Carlton for help finding something and you will be personally escorted by them to the appropriate destination. Anybody could do that, of course, but these three organizations have employees that perform this simple act of kindness consistently in all of their many locations. Three key components of kindness are thoughtfulness, consideration and helpfulness. This element of service warmth can quickly raise the temperature of the customer experience when consistently executed. It does take a certain personality and a bit of training to deliver on a promise of kindness but it is a critical ingredient for the kind of service that brings customers back again and again.

Dave Lockin, Fleet Manager of Hennessy Automobile Companies in Atlanta practices the kindness tactic with all his customers. When my mother wanted to replace her 2000 Buick with 56,000 miles on it, I called Dave to find a suitable vehicle for an 86-year-old driver. Dave has two vital talents: he knows GM cars and he knows how to quickly get on the other side of helpfulness through his warm Columbo-like pursuit.

After a brief outline of my mother’s interests (as well as a brief assessment of her 86 year old driving skills) and Dave’s skillful probing for details, it took Dave a few hours to locate the perfect vehicle in his vast inventory. He scanned and emailed me the vehicle window sticker so I could describe the features to my mother. The kindness tactic is not just about great questions, dramatic listening, and a superb memory. It must be embellished with an “all about you” treasure-hunting approach to acting on what you know. When I informed Dave that my mother lived two hours away in Montgomery, Dave exhibited his helpful and considerate spirit with a solution: “That’s not a problem. I’ll deliver the new car to your mom and drive her trade-in back. I’ll get the blue book appraised value and send her a bill. She can just write me a check and drop it in the mail.” My mother is very happy with her new car. She is also very happy with her son!

What customer experience signals are you sending?

The first step in determining your level of warmth might be to carefully examine the signals customers are receiving from their experience! Do you treat your employees the way you would like them to treat your customers. What attitudes did your employees select and bring to work today?

How would you evaluate the critical elements of service warmth—hospitality, understanding, sincerity, compassion, kindness—as they are perceived by your customers through their experiences with your company?

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