customer service

I once heard of a family-owned retail chain CEO who would make random appearances in his stores. Nearly every time he visited a store, he would exhort the staff, “Treat the customers like gold.” This CEO understood a very important principle:

The experience customers had with his staff would determine the success of his company.

This principle is true for every industry. If a company’s customers aren’t happy, it’s only a matter of time before that business fails. Customers don’t want to hear about constraining processes, company roles or departmental divisions.  They only care about getting their needs met in an emotionally gratifying manner.  More significantly, your customer’s experiences of how you meet their wants and needs become your company’s reputation.

Operating business from customer-centric perspective takes humility and courage.  It requires us to expand our focus beyond just our internal operating procedures to see ourselves through our customer’s eyes.

Adopting this view requires a company to embrace changes to pretty much everything— vision, mission, culture, operational practices, leadership brand, performance expectations, and even measurement systems.  Jeff Bezos and his team at Amazon demonstrate this graphically with the empty chair they periodically keeps open during meetings. They honor that chair, the customers, as the most important voice in the room.  For companies like Amazon, customer focus is not a slogan, it is a way of doing business and everyone up and down the organization knows what service should feel and look like to the customer.

Moment of Truth

A moment of truth occurs every time your organization interfaces with a customer.  Customer-centric organizations act purposefully and intentionally to shape that experience.  Below we list some attributes that define that moment of truth:

  • Trusted advisor—adding value in every interaction.  The Google Apps for Business team provided this experience for us.  When we migrated our company emails to Google, Sal Gonzalez became our trusted advisor, guiding us through each step of the process.  We encountered a “Wow” experience which gained our loyalty and advocacy of Google.
  • Listen with empathy—listening to understand the customer request.  Sometimes it is just as powerful to illustrate what not to do.  Every time I call my bank, it takes a minute or two for them to get the account information they need before hearing my request.  This is followed by asking if they can sell me other services “that I might need.”  After all of that, they finally get around to addressing my question. Such practices, unfortunately, earned this bank a place on the Hall of Shame list.[i]
  • Collaboration—refusing to allow company silos to negatively impact the customer.  The Container Store just implemented a new voice-driven communication between employees, which they describe as “Siri without the phone.” It allows communication within and across stores through expert groups to address customer questions.  With the new technology, Container Store bridges stores across geographies together to provide superior customer service.
  • Empowerment—making decisions in the customer’s best interest.  Southwest Airlines embraces decision-making at the customer interface level, believing that those nearest to the customer can best assess a customer need.  Southwest employees have a reputation for being upbeat and fun, which likely is fueled by the authority and responsibility the management team grants to every employee.
  • Customization—treating each customer uniquely.  Starbucks is renowned for personalized service.  One barista in Chicago took that to new heights when he became a “latte pen pal” to the spouse of a repeat customer.  The customer served as currier between the barista (who sent fun questions on her latte cup) and the wife (who wrote back on the cup) over a period of four month.  At the end of that engagement (and lots of entertainment), the two met and Starbucks had gained a lifelong fan.[ii]
  • Proactive—anticipating unspoken and future needs.  Recently, I stayed at a hotel in Boston that served fresh coffee in the lobby rather than providing coffee machines in the room.  When I asked the clerk what time coffee became available, he gave me the answer and promptly asked, “Would you like us to deliver a pot of coffee to your room instead?”
  • Measurement systems—tracking the quality of customer experiences.  Zappos, a company well known for exceptional customer service, seeks to create a “wow” experience for the customer with every interaction.  As a distinction, they don’t reward their customer service representatives for short “talk times,” but recognize quality conversations.

This principle really is simple—companies that put customer-focus at the center increase customer retention, and of course customer loyalty causes revenue growth. Customer loyalty comes from an emotional connection between a customer and a company, and that emotional connection can only happen when companies add value to the customer by providing a great experience.

What customers want isn’t really a mystery. They simply want a company that says, “We will earn your business by the way we run ours—by keeping the customer’s best interest at heart.”


[i] See the 2013 Hall of Shame: