Leverage the One Marketing Element That Eclipses All Others

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We’re all bombarded with marketing messages. We can’t escape them. So we turn them off to live without “ad-stress.” Yet one marketing element consistently breaks through the clutter: heroic customer service. Service that screams, “We care about you.” Service that turns mere customers into proactive advocates. And service that, contrary to common perception, companies can cultivate.

This type of customer service transcends niceties employees commonly display—smiles, courtesy, interest in customers and similar acts reflecting human nature without exacting a cost on the employees—to reach two elevated planes of employee behavior. The first, a high ambient level of customer concern, encourages empowered employees as a group to go outside typical service boundaries to help customers, despite employee costs such as extra time, effort and aggravation. The second is when individual employees rise above even these elevated service levels to perform heroic acts that leave customers breathless—and convert them into viral marketing agents.

And she kept running for almost 10 minutes, until we reached the right terminal and gate, where she triumphantly deposited me (with more “Holas“) to hobble onto the plane.

To me, the term, “heroic,” means breaking the plane by applying substantial amounts of energy and/or ingenuity to resolve difficult customer issues that applying standard procedures won’t resolve. Surprisingly, it’s not all that rare—at least, not for those businesses commonly engaged in customer service issues. And they’d be yet more common if more companies would cultivate high ambient levels of customer service that serve as springboards for heroic service deeds.

Consider these two examples I encountered.

I had to travel from Minneapolis to Madrid to keynote a conference several days after having knee surgery. Despite serious ingestion of pain pills, the pain in my leg escalated to agony during the Madrid-Newark return leg. A solicitous Continental Airlines flight attendant took notice; asked if she could help; promptly cleared a bulkhead seat with more legroom and even helped move me and my baggage. Unusual airline service for most airlines, but not for Continental, which has a high ambient service level. But then the flight attendant kicked into hero gear. Because we were arriving late, she asked if I had a tight connection in Newark and then asked the captain to radio ahead for flight status and gate. Bad news. I might make it on two legs but not one. But after several minutes of scheming, she devised a plan.

She got me off the plane first and helped me up the gateway to a waiting wheelchair, attended by a woman who was fully apprised of my situation. But not just any woman, I realized, when we did an end run around the immigration line and she loudly called out, “Hola,” to the customs agent. The guy whisked me through, and it was off to the head of the customs line, another round of “Holas” and a virtual wave-through. At which point, she started running behind the wheelchair, with me pulling my suitcase alongside like a side-car. And she kept running for almost 10 minutes, until we reached the right terminal and gate, where she triumphantly deposited me (with more “Holas“) to hobble onto the plane.

Big winner

She got the tip of the century. I wrote a letter of commendation for the flight attendant. However, Continental was the big winner. I started flying Continental whenever I could, domestically and internationally. Plus, far beyond my own fares, I’ve directly influenced many colleague, friends and family members to fly Continental—and indirectly influenced many more by retelling this story in journal articles, blogs and conference presentations. Now, thanks to Web 2.0, any customer can share stories like these to great affect, and many do.

The second example involves my company’s DSL provider, Qwest. Because of the way we prefer to access our server while traveling, High-Yield Methods requires a complex connection between Qwest and our ISP. When we tried to switch ISPs, the whole thing blew up on us, leaving us without email or web access for two days. The ISP’s techs claimed they weren’t getting the right signals from Qwest’s modem. Qwest was testing the signals independently and getting the right readings. But finally, the ISP techs threw up their hands and said they couldn’t help unless Qwest “fixed” things. So we called Qwest for a simpler modem that would force us to accept reduced scope remote access.

When the Qwest tech arrived, I recounted the story, to which he colorfully told us to “forget that”: “I’m not leaving until you’re up and running on the right modem.” After hours of patient negotiation, he got the ISP folks to admit it was their problem—and he then walked them through their system until he could identify which of their settings were incorrect. After five hours, we were up and running with our remote access intact. What an amazing guy.

Qwest, which was decidedly “customer averse” before the arrival of an enlightened CEO who cleaned house, has continually reinforced this hero’s work with excellent service. Hence, we’ve consolidated every telephony service possible with Qwest. Plus, we “viral market” its services, both directly and by citing Qwest in customer service articles and blog entries. And again, thanks to Web 2.0’s democratization of media access, any customer can take a story like this and spread it far and wide.

I could cite many more cases of service staff going far beyond the expected, leaving me bonded to their companies. And we frequently see our clients rewarded by their employees’ “above and beyond” deeds. But they all have one factor in common: They occur in companies already maintaining high ambient service levels.

The following chart suggests ways your company can attain a high ambient customer care level—and encourage behavior above and beyond even your already elevated standards.

Phase Step Description
Raise ambient service level. Instill management’s customer values to the company as a whole High customer care standards start at the top with senior management. And they don’t take root unless management proactively “spreads the word.”
Provide values training. New employee training should position the customer as top dog. That message should be embedded in all subsequent training and in management communication.
Provide more than sufficient skills training. No matter how well delivered, service that doesn’t resolve customer issues promptly disappoints customers. One-call resolution should be the standard, with exceptions infrequent. On the employee side, inadequate training leads to morale problems that adversely affect s treatment of customers.
Empower customer-facing employees. Research shows “dealing with empowered employees” at the very to of the customer wish list. Service staff should not have to “ask permission” of supervisors except in rare cases. Not trusting employee judgment is another prime source of morale problems.
Clarify and communicate service processes. Ad hoc service policies lead to one disaster after another. Although empowered employees do need some discretion, documenting options, including the business policies and considerations for each option, helps assure customers of consistent service—and helps employees make good decisions. Designing and documenting base processes helps train staff quickly and accurately.
Compensate for desired behaviors. Managing a service function to achieve maximum contacts per hour delivers about the worst customer service imaginable. Yet, many companies continue to compensate this way. Use your process documentation to determine what actions most contribute to customer goals (such as one-call resolution) and award variable compensation accordingly.
Cultivate heroic service. Leverage peer approval and recognition. Peer approval and recognition stimulates “over-the-top” service behaviors. We’ve had success collecting each rep’s three or five best contacts of the week, on a weekly basis editing the list down to the five or 10 best overall, then distributing back to reps the citations (that can go into employee files). Each individual citation could be an entry in a monthly drawing.
Educate staff in the positive outcomes produced by excellent service. Very few service reps know the cost of acquiring a new customer—which is also the base cost of losing one. Knowing, for example, that it can cost retail auto dealers up to $1,000 to acquire a new customer will motivate many to pull out all the stops to prevent losing one or to cement a relationship. Likewise, understanding the power customers hold in our Web 2.0 environment can be a powerful motivator to perform heroic acts that can rebound all over the Internet—and turn a doer of good deeds into a local hero.
Give management recognition for heroic service. This is a mean to two powerful ends. First, the opportunity to be singled out by management for excellent performance will motivate many to jump though hoops on customers’ behalf. But giving this recognition also elevates the importance of the service function on the corporate ladder, which is an incredible morale booster.
Empower service staff to the max, then set limits. Not surprisingly, service employees often “pull up short” because they’re unsure of how far they can go. Rather than disempowering them, giving staff clear boundaries actually empowers them to go as far as they’re permitted to resolve a customer issue.

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