Three Truths of Exceptional Customer Service

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Most people don’t choose to deliver poor customer service; they just don’t choose to deliver exceptional customer service. Most are content to simply occupy a customer service role and execute their job functions, blissfully unaware of the opportunities they forfeit daily to demonstrate exceptional customer service behaviors.

Awareness is key. People don’t know what they don’t know. So, it’s important to spend time discussing exceptional customer service: WHAT it is, HOW to deliver it, and WHY it is vital – the essence of one’s job role – their highest priority at work.

When I discuss WHAT customer service is, I always share the following Three Truths of Exceptional Customer Service:

  1. It reflects the essence – the most critical aspect, the highest priority – of every service industry employee’s job role.
  2. It’s always voluntary. An employee chooses to deliver exceptional customer service.
  3. It’s FREE! In most cases, it costs no more to deliver than poor or indifferent customer service.

The first Truth above begs the question: “If exceptional customer service is my highest priority at work, HOW do I deliver this quality consistently?”

Without getting into the technical aspects of delivering exceptional customer service [e.g., serve from the left, with the left hand, walking forward (counter-clockwise) and clear and pour from the right, using the right hand, walking forward (clockwise) in food service], it’s vital to reveal the totality of every service provider’s job role, which includes BOTH job function (duties & tasks) and job essence (an employee’s highest priority at work). Job function refers to the technical aspects of a job role which vary from one job to another. Most employees are intimately aware of this dimension of their job role, possessing adequate job knowledge and demonstrating sufficient job skills. In other words, they are prepared to reliably execute assigned transactions.

Job essence, however, is unique. Whereas most employees are well-versed in the technical requirements of their job role, very few are aware of job essence – their highest priority at work: WHY they do WHAT they do, HOW they do it. In fact, if you ask five employees with the same job role, individually, WHAT they do and HOW they do it, their answers will align. But if you ask these same five employees, individually, WHY they do it, their answers will vary. It’s important that all employees are aware of job essence and know their WHY at work: their single highest priority (e.g., to create a delighted customer who will be less price resistant, have higher repurchase rates, and will serve as an unpaid marketer by recommending the company to friends and family).

Once employees are aware of their job essence, whether or not they choose to demonstrate it is voluntary. I once told a client this and watched as his body language changed. His eyes narrowed as he leaned forward across the conference table. His voice lowered as he retorted, “Not around here. In my building, exceptional customer service is mandatory!”

I disagreed but, in his defense, most general managers would say the same thing: “Of course exceptional customer service is not optional. We don’t permit employees to provide substandard customer service quality!” In theory, they’re right. But in practice, they’re kidding themselves. The reason that you and I as customers rarely experience the “exceptional” customer service quality that these business leaders claim is mandatory is because it’s voluntary. An employee chooses to make eye contact, smile, or add enthusiasm to his voice.

Can you recall a recent interaction that you’ve had over the phone or face-to-face with an employee who you sensed was bored or indifferent toward serving you? Of course you can. It happens all the time – even in work environments where exceptional customer service is “mandatory.” Employers can mandate many aspects of an employee’s job role: the protocol required to complete a task, the employee’s dress code and grooming standards, or the time the employee begins or ends her shift. But they cannot mandate the attributes that influence whether or not customers receive exceptional customer service quality.

An employee’s personality, disposition, uniqueness, creativity, or engagement level is determined by the employee, not his employer. He chooses to smile. He chooses to make eye contact. He chooses to add enthusiasm to his voice. He may even choose to use humor or provide a pleasant surprise. You cannot force an employee to display any of these behaviors any more than you can force a customer to be loyal. So, while employers can’t mandate these attributes, they can hire for them. That’s why companies like Chick-fil-A and USAA Insurance that consistently produce the highest levels of customer satisfaction also invest the most in their employee selection efforts. Leaders at these companies are not kidding themselves. They recognize that employees choose to provide exceptional customer service (or, as is often the case, choose not to), and they establish their employee selection criteria accordingly.

While it takes more time and rigor to identify job candidates who are likely to display the desired behaviors that will uphold the company’s performance standards and reflect its purpose; its highest priority, it is time and money that is well spent. When job candidates who are inclined to display exceptional customer service behaviors are placed, the positive impressions they make during every customer encounter are FREE! A legion of loyal customers who become unpaid marketers, trumpeting the company’s service quality to others, is built over time for FREE!

How much does it cost to express genuine interest in a customer or to anticipate their needs? Does it cost more to display a sense of urgency, to be observant, or to pay attention to detail? Do you pay your employees more to smile, to make eye contact, or to add energy to their voice? Of course not. These qualities, in addition to most actions associated with exceptional customer service, are FREE!

Remember, people don’t know what they don’t know. Have a conversation with your current employees as well as job candidates that, when placed, will become a reflection of your organization’s service culture. Make them aware of these Three Truths of Exceptional Customer Service. Doing so will not only enlighten them, it will start a conversation about the WHAT, HOW, and WHY of exceptional customer service. And besides actually serving a customer, there may be no better use of your time at work.

Illustration by Aaron McKissen.

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