Radical Customer Service: A Contrarian View For Winning The Customer Wars


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The winners in the war for customers and customer satisfaction will be those that go against the trends, and do things DIFFERENTLY, and can differentiate themselves.
When it comes to customer service principles, use of social media, and customer engagement, it’s easy to follow the crowd. There are a lot of people out there saying the same things and providing the same guidelines.

However, it may be that going in the opposite direction to what others are doing, and challenging orthodox thinking can yield better business results. In this article, originally published on The Customer Service Zone as “Eleven Pillars Of Radical Customer Service” we look at how to go about going against the flow, and standing out in a crowded business space. Linked titles will provide additional information on that item.

So long as you do what everyone is doing in customer service, you have no chance at using customer service as a competitive advantage. The basic principle behind radical customer service is simple, and applies to many other areas in business.

When you see everyone moving in one direction, and saying the same things, in all likelihood, the common knowledge it appears everyone agress with is either wrong, or sufficiently wrong to lead you in the wrong direction.

Consistent with this principle, here are ten tenets or pillars to help you make more effective decisions about your customer service strategies.

1) Question Everything

Forsake the “common and accepted wisdom” about customer behavior, or at least look at that wisdom with a critical eye. The important question to ask: Does this apply to OUR customers? That’s because most customer service wisdom is too generic to apply across the board.

2) Forsake ALL Customer Service Research Published By Major Research Companies

By the time you see the customer service research by major research compannies, it’s been spun, and distorted many times. Ignore the soundbytes about the research. Often this research is faulty, and without seeing the details of how the research was done, what questions were asked of consumers, you have no way of assessing its validity.

3) Understand The Say-Do Gap

Survey takers, and customers say many things about what they WILL do, but most times we don’t know what they actually do. We know enough from Psychology to know that there’s often huge gaps between what customers say they’ll do in hypothetical situations, and what they do in real life. This tends to overstate the importance of customer service to the bottom line.

4) Do Not Assume, Without Direct Evidence, That Investing In Better Customer Service Will Improve Your Bottom Line
Often the companies that are consistently rated as the worst companies for customer service are immensely profitable. Claims of the causal relationship between customer service quality and profits confuse correlation with cause. The reality is that the value of customer service to a business depends on the industry, niche, and above all, the expectations of their specific customers and potential customers.

5) Don’t Be Overly Concerned About Negative Comments About You On Social Media

The huge majority of social media posts receive NO responses from others, and that applies to Facebook, LinkedIn and blogs. It’s not a good thing to receive a lot of negative comments, but keep in mind two things. People pay far more attention to the opinions of those they know in “real”life, and much less attention to comments from strangers. Remember that responding to negative posts and tweets isn’t the answer, since it’s far more likely the readers of the original complaints will NEVER see, let alone read your attempts to address the complaints.

6) Social Media Is Not The Answer For Providing Better Service, and Neither Is Technology

Good customer service is a people to people affair. It’s tempting to believe that social media, or the newest technology will improve service levels at little cost to the company. All it does is provide a scalable way to provide POOR customer service. In fact, if you deliver poor service on the phone, and in person, you’ll do the same on social media.

7) The More Customer Contact Channels You Use, The Worse Your Service Levels Will Be

It’s simple. If you cover more contact points, without adding more staff and resources, you spread your existing resources thinner. The result? Service that’s worse.

8) You Don’t Have To Be Where The Customers Are, Because When It Comes To The Internet, You Are Already There

Your customers are on the Internet. So are you via your website, email, etc. The myth of being where the customers are in terms of social media comes from the old saying: “location, location, location”, which refers to the importance of CONVENIENCE in a physical world. On the Internet, you can’t be everywhere. There are hundreds of social media platforms where your customers are. They will find you if they want you. It’s trivial for a customer to go to your website, and they will do that. No need to be everywhere when you can already be contacted at the click of a mouse button.

9) Train And Empower (And Trust) Your Customer Service Staff

This is one of the few area where a lot of customer service experts and advocates have things right. It’s absolutely impossible to benefit from customer service strategies without empowering staff to make decisions ON THE SPOT when dealing with customers. Make their authority levels clear. Train them to understand the customer service principles that apply. If you don’t trust them to do the right thing, you are hiring the wrong people, or not paying them enough, or YOU are the problem.

10) Stop Trying To Delight Your Customers

Unless you are in the hospitality industry at the high luxury end, don’t worry about delighting your customers. Do it if you can when it costs nothing. Customer are desperate for top quality basic customer service. Do that, and do it well, and you’ll stand out. Besides, when you delight your customers, you simply raise their expectations. They get used to what you did last time and the time before to delight them, and it’s power to delight fades and disappears. It’s not a sustainable customer service strategy, UNLESS your clientele is the luxury market.

11) The Winners In The Customer Service Wars Will Be The Companies In Each Sector Or Niche That Focus On Doing ONE Customer Service Thing Really Really Well

Focus. For example, imagine the profit leverage a company will get if it decides to provide customer service JUST on the phone, BUT it guarantees a response time of two minutes, no holding, and resolves problems on first call? Get that kind of reputation about a single customer service channel or strategy and you differentiate yourself from all the competitors who are doing a lot of things badly.

Robert Bacal
Robert began his career as an educator and trainer at the age of twenty (which is over 30 years ago!), as a teaching assistant at Concordia University. Since then he as trained teachers for the college and high school level, taught at several universities and trained thousands of employees and managers in customer service, conflict management and performance appraisal and performance management skills.


  1. Pretty much agree with all 11 of your points. Some, like a) knowing and leveraging the difference between what customers say vs. mean. vs. do and b) awareness that much of the customer research done by major companies will offer solutions that are just north of commoditization, are really critical My principal ‘add’ would be on point #9. It’s not just the responsibility of front line service staff to be more customer-focused and provide a more positive connection and set of experiences – it’s part of the role of everyone in the enterprise, in part because there are major stakeholder-centric cultural issues at play when service is poor or average.. If centricity isn’t already built in to the enterprise DNA, not much that is strategically service-related succeeds.

  2. Hi Robert: I agree with some of your points, but am not sold on others.

    1) Question everything. Good advice, though hard to do. You’re right to call out ‘common and accepted wisdom.’ Other candidates for questioning in biz-dev: ‘immutable truths,’ ‘laws’, ‘It is widely known that . . .’ ‘few would dispute . . .’ And honesty compels me to add to this list ‘principles,’ ‘tenets,’ and ‘pillars.’

    2) Forsake all CS research . . . actually, I’m more skeptical of how others spin it, which frequently involves cherry picking a particular finding, and putting shockingly or amazingly in front of it, then linking to a webinar landing page that explains why their product/service is the panacea.

    3) Say/do gap – yep, agree!

    4) Assuming improved CS will augment profits. Agree. But I’m troubled that larger profits seems the knee-jerk motivator for anything a business does. Businesses can – and should – consider other reasons for investing in improved customer service. Those include maintaining high-value customer relationships, and behaving fairly and ethically.

    5) Don’t be overly concerned . . . First, it’s impossible to define what ‘overly’ is, so I’m not sure how this would be put into operation. And speaking anecdotally, and not based on research, I do pay very close attention to online reviews posted by strangers. I have my own filters for what I take seriously, but if a person I don’t know posts a well-worded complaint about something that matters to me, that creates concern. If a vendor seems tuned in and sincere in fixing the problem, that makes a difference. I’m not seeking perfection.

    6) Social media is not the answer . . . that suggests that some companies believe it is, which I don’t dispute. But most companies I work with haven’t shared that belief with me. They use social media as a CS tool, and I believe it’s essential for positive customer experience when it’s used correctly.

    7) More channels = worse service. Possibly. But how would you know it was the fault of more channels, and not the result of faulty implementation, lack of attention to detail, poor training . . . or something else?

    8) You don’t have to be everywhere online . . . yes – I think you’re on to something there, but I think you will make a lot of social media consultants unhappy with the threat to their billable hours.

    9) Trust and empower your staff . . . Fully agree. You must have been listening in on two calls I made to customer service “helplines” today.

    10) Stop trying to delight customers . . . This one troubles me. I know you’re not suggesting that only wealthiest of the wealthy can ever expect to be delighted with a product or service, but that’s what this amounts to. And I don’t think there’s any reason that consumers of the most prosaic goods and services can’t walk away from a transaction with the feeling that they received treatment that was ‘over the top.’

    11) Winners in CS Wars will be ones that focus on doing one thing really well. Disagree on this one. First, I don’t understand the war metaphor. CS – or at least CS done the right way – supports corporate strategy. CS Wars suggests that this is some sort of disconnected, stand-alone thing. Second, I think companies that are successful at CS have to do lots of things well. Would anyone say that an airline that has the lowest percentage of lost passenger luggage ‘wins the CS war’ if their flights are not on time, their reservation system suffers chronic downtime, and their cabin service is horrible? Or even if they were just plain average?

  3. Michael, thanks for the comment. I am of two minds when it comes to customer service being the responsibility of all.

    On one hand, I see that

    a) everyone should embrace the idea that customer service to “internal customers” is important, and is required in order to service externals.

    b) that executives and managers are responsible to creating the culture and demonstrating through their actions that customer service is what the company is all about.

    On the other hand, I question whether it’s wise to consider everyone responsible for customer service, in a business and personnel sense. Not all people are hired who have the skills because they have other non-customer skills essential to the enterprise.

  4. Andrew, thanks for your excellent comments and taking the time to type all that in. Let’s see….

    2) Yes, I agree on the spin. The problem is that one can’t know what the spin is or even whether the methodologies used were appropriate. I know of several major names working for customer research orgs calle analysts who consistently mistate their own research findings going way beyond the data in obvious ways. Whether ignorance of spin, I can’t say;.

    4) Agreed. It shouldn’t always be about the money, but it often is. The larger the company the more the money seems to count. I believe customer service quality is the “right” thing, a conduct my business oriented towards that value. But I don’t have shareholders.

    5) Online reviews: I also read reviews of my books, but my point is more towards the power of online comments to damage the business. I think it’s overblown, AND besides that, you can’t do anything do undo damage from public skewerings by individuals, unless you’ve really screwed up. That’s because you can’t guarantee the people who saw the criticisms will see your response.

    7) More channels…you don’t know whether more channels causes a specific company to worsen in customer service. BUT, I can tell you that many companies don’t staff properly and end up spreading their resources much more thinly across channels. Frankly, I don’t think you need multiple contact methods and presence, let’s say, on most major social media platforms. They’ll find you if they want you.

    10) Delight. The power of delight depends on the sector/niche is my point. My sense is the higher the price, the more customers demand. My point actually is that delight becomes more and more elusive, since customers habituate to whatever level you are at, and end up not delighted by what delighted them before. So, you get a “delight race”.

    11) One thing well. I agree on the “wars” word. Bad choice on my end. When I say “do one thing well”, I mean from the customer end. So while it takes tons of stuff for an airline to run ontime, if an airline can run ontime 99% of the time, that’s ONE huge thing they do well, even if it requires many sub-systems to be cooridinated in a system.

    Phew. You’re making me work……

  5. Robert –

    Guess I should have been clearer in my comments. Your post was focused on customer service; but my reference to employee commitment goes beyond just the service component of customer experience. It refers to the entire customer journey and the entire customer life cycle. It also extends to optimizing the employee experience and emotional connection to the company, product and service value proposition, customers, and fellow employees. This is what I define as employee ambassadorship, and it is all about enterprise cultural stakeholder-centricity and value delivery. This is where the strategic differentiation and customer loyalty war is truly won.


  6. Michael, You are probably being clear, but I can’t get my head around what you are saying.Maybe a concrete example would help.

    Let’s say the company has an accounting department that never faces or is directly involved with customers.

    How would they act as employee ambassadors (and how not) that reflect what you are saying?

  7. Lots of good info in your post and the responses. Obviously, as the author of five best-selling books on innovative service, I would like to speak to you point: “stop delighting your customer.” I agree with the premise if you define “delight” as you do–taking what customers expect and adding more.” It can elevate their expectations for what happens next. It is the sentiment (and research) that led Matt Dixon to focus on The Effortless Experience. However, there is another angle on this discussion that has had little exploration–service ingenuity (I call it value-unique) versus service generosity (value-added).

    The power of innovative service done well is that it is simple, unexpected, and appropriate. It captures the eliminate of surprise. Think of the thrill of the “free prize inside” the Cracker Jacks box–a prize that was financially worthless but emotionally priceless! It has the compelling draw of a Vegas slot machine with its variable ratio programming (with a hat tip to B.F. Skinner). It is a service experience customers would not have likely predicted. And, our research shows that it has such a profound impact on customers, it dramatically alters their emotional connection, affinity for the service provider and clearly moves the economic nettle.

    Upgrading me to first class is a delight; having the pilot personally thank me for my million miles while handing me his business card with a handwritten thank you note on the back is stunning. Bringing me a complimentary go-cup of coffee at the end of my breakfast at a diner is a delight; pronouncing it as “our gift to you” is stunning. Putting a cold bottle of water in my vehicle’s cup holder after service maintenance is a delight; making sure there are two Hazelnut K-cups (my favorite) for the Keurig machine in the waiting area is stunning. Providing me the magazines I enjoy in the waiting area of the doctor’s office is a delight; giving me a complimentary Starbucks card with a flashy machine to go five doors down for coffee when my physician is unexpectedly delayed is stunning.

    From a employee engagement side, encouraging employees to “surprise” customers can add a whimsical component to a labor force weary of “adding more.” It also signals a relationship of trust, not obedience. Getting employees involved in generating simple surprises can be a strong team building, brand building experience. Bottom line, value-unique experiences are not the realm only of luxury hotels with their capacity for over-the-top service heroics.

    There is obviously a limit to generosity. You can value-add your way to bankruptcy. There is no limit to ingenuity. And, service with imagination changes the calculus of the customer relationship creating/nurturing a customer eager to be an advocate, not just one that comes back again or buys more or trust more. If you are interested in reading more not his topic, check out my books–Kaleidoscope: Delivering Innovative Service That Sparkles, Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experiences Through Innovative Service, The 9 1/2 Principles of Innovative Service, Take Their Breath Away (with John Patterson), and Service Magic (with Ron Zemke).

    Thanks for starting this conversation.

  8. Robert –

    In progressive companies like Southwest Airlines, even accountants can be rotated to customer-facing roles for purposes of training and stakeholder-centric continuity They are either trained, or learn, to be customer-focused. If not directly interacting with customers, employees, irrespective of function or location, should have components of customer sensitivity and customer value delivery written into their job descriptions. Why? So, that initiatives and decisions are carried out with the both the customer’s and the enterprise’s best interests in mind. As part of my CX consulting experience, I’ve attended employee meetings where, even if not front line, customer value was always addressed as a central objective.


  9. Thank you Chip, particularly for the breadth of examples you used to explain the point. It helps a lot in my understanding.

    I can certainly see what you are saying, and I really like your point on the whimsical nature and employee fun.

    PS. I knew Ron online before his untimely passing. Wish he was still with us.

  10. Thank you, Robert! I particularly appreciate your reference to Ron Zemke. He was a great busines partner for a number of years and a brilliant thinker. We wrote four books together–two in the “Knock Your Socks Off Service” series. His ground breaking book , Service America, is deemed to be the start of a deliberate focus on the management of service in this country.
    I miss him a lot!

  11. Hi Gents…

    (Customer- Centricity)…

    I was hoping hoping any of you could assist me in unpacking issues that would impact on the ability of a business to implement a more customer-centric approach.


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