How to Provide Superior Customer Service
authors Noah Taft | September 4, 2017
Allow me state the obvious: It’s hard, if not impossible, to develop long-term brand loyalty without decent customer service. Whether you’re a showroom or manufacturer that sells physical products, or a designer who sells a beautiful vision, you’re unlikely to grow your business without positive word-of-mouth. In today’s social media-saturated world, poor customer service can tarnish your brand faster than you can say, “Why don’t I have repeat business?”
So how do you deliver stellar customer service on a daily basis? How do you ensure everyone on your team takes care of customers at an award-winning level? There are myriad resources out there that can help – a veritable cottage industry of books with oh-so-catchy titles, as well as entertaining motivational speakers who love to talk in acronyms and present their amazing 10-step formula for killer customer service.
Unfortunately, most of these resources focus on tactics and helpful hints, yet completely miss the most important foundational element required to ensure consistently superior customer experiences. This element lies at the heart of every company known for great customer service. Any guesses?
Before I reveal this critical element, I’d like to share a story…
About 12 years ago, I flew into Florida the evening before an important business presentation. As bad luck would have it, the airline lost my luggage, and in it, my power suit. There was no way I could walk into a corporate meeting the following morning wearing shorts, flip-flops and my Hawaiian shirt. While doing that would certainly make a memorable impression, I suspect it would not have been the right one. So, fighting panic, I cabbed it to the nearest mall, where I was lucky to find a Nordstrom’s. The only problem was that it was past 6 p.m., and the store had just closed.
I did the only sensible thing a person can do in my situation, I peered through the glass door and then pounded on it, hoping against all odds that someone inside would take pity on me and let me in to quickly purchase a suit off the rack. Amazingly, a Nordstrom’s salesperson heard me and came to the door. But unlike most stores these days, instead of saying, “Sorry, we’re closed,” he asked me if it was an emergency. When I explained my situation, he concurred that time was of the essence and promptly opened the giant store just for me.
Pinching myself to ensure I was not dreaming, I followed this caring salesperson to the men’s suit department, where he expertly took my measurements and began helping me find a suit. When I apologized for keeping him late, he just smiled and assured me it was not a problem. He was just happy to help me out of a jam. After several minutes of searching, he found me a fine suit, but a challenge remained: I’m blessed with short legs and a long torso, so unless I wanted to look like Peter Dinklage in Kit Harrington’s clothes, the suit definitely needed tailoring. “No worries,” said the salesman, “our tailor is about to leave, but I’m sure he’ll stay to help you out.” And with that, he tracked down the tailor who, just like the salesman, was happy to oblige.
I couldn’t believe how selfless these Nordstrom employees were behaving. But wait, there’s more: Just as the tailor finished marking and pinning the suit, my cell phone rang. It was the airline. They had found my luggage and were in the process of delivering it to my hotel.
Well, now I didn’t need the suit, but I felt awkward having to tell this to the salesman and tailor, especially after all they had just done for me. But I never had to. Having overheard my end of the conversation with the airline, they understood the situation perfectly. True to their ingrained spirit of selfless customer service, they congratulated me on having located my luggage and graciously let me off the hook. No need to buy an expensive suit if I didn’t really need it now, they said.
Incredulous, and quite grateful, I thanked them profusely for their kindness and understanding. No worries, they said, it’s what their job is all about. The salesman then gave me his Nordstrom’s card and told me that if I’m ever in Florida again and need some nice clothes, to give him a call. I thanked him, but noted that I don’t know when that would ever happen, because I live in California. He responded that I could then perhaps go to a local Nordstrom’s, where I’m sure to get the same kind of personal service.
A CULTURE OF ‘ASPIRING TO YES’
Clearly, I had experienced “way beyond the call of duty” customer service. I’d heard about Nordstrom’s reputation for empowering its employees to take care of the customer, but if this hadn’t personally happened to me, I wouldn’t have believed it. The result? While I’ve never bought a suit at Nordstrom’s, I’ve certainly shopped there since then. Moreover, I have told the above story countless times to family, friends and associates. If that’s not a recipe for generating repeat business, I don’t know what is. That fine department store inherently understands what many companies do not: World-class customer service begins and ends with culture. A culture of “yes.” Or, more accurately, a culture of “aspiring to yes.”
Every employee in that Nordstrom’s store was clearly indoctrinated with a company culture dedicated to doing whatever they can within reason to satisfy customer needs. This culture emanates from the top down, with every level from CEO to janitor drinking the same Kool Aid. It permeates every department in a company because that is the nature of culture. It is, quite simply, what makes a company tick.
Whether you’re a showroom, manufacturer or design firm, the true nature of your customer service always starts with culture. If it’s a culture of aspiring to yes, then you have the DNA needed to develop a reputation for great customer service. If it isn’t, well, it’s kind of like me playing the piano: As someone who can barely carry a tune, it doesn’t matter how hard I practice, I will never play at Carnegie Hall. I simply don’t have the intrinsic stuff necessary to attain such heights. I could eventually become adequate at playing, but world class is out of the question.
To provide consistently superior customer service, it’s important to note that a culture of yes must permeate everyone in a company, not just those in the customer service department. If you’re a manufacturer, the operations and production team must also share the culture, or you’re left with a company that speaks nicely and may offer really cool-looking products, but does not deliver. If you’re a showroom, you need your purchasing department to care just as much as those putting in face time with customers. And, equally important, yet often overlooked if you’re a showroom, is your choice of vendors. A line you carry may have striking designs, but if it doesn’t share your culture of aspiring to yes, you’ll spend way too much time disappointing customers. On the plus side, you’ll become increasingly talented at coming up with excuses for late deliveries, poor communication and/or product quality issues. But if your vendors don’t share your “customer first” culture, you’ve hitched your customer service reputation to the wrong wagons.
Years ago I made my first sales trip for California Faucets, along with Fred Silverstein, the company’s founder. We had just signed up a new dealer showroom and the owner had handed us a purchase order for displays. Fred heartily shook the owner’s hand and quipped: “Thank you for your business. I can’t wait ’til we screw up.”
The showroom owner stared at Fred, wondering if he’d lost his mind. Truth be known, I wondered the same thing. Fred smiled and told the gentleman that, while California Faucets provides exceptional customer service, we still live in an imperfect world and that, despite everyone’s best efforts, mistakes will occasionally happen. Whether it’s a manufacturing issue, incorrect order or faulty installation due to a plumber ignoring instructions, there will come a time when the showroom has to call customer service for help. It is precisely in that moment that the showroom owner will know what kind of a partner he is working with.
Fred knew deeply that what you do for customers during stressful moments is the ultimate litmus test of whether or not you truly aspire to yes. Execution is important, but attitude is everything.
A final note: When asked by someone to explain the Bible in one sentence, a great sage once said: “Treat others as you yourself want to be treated.” The rest, he noted, is commentary. The same goes for customer service. Aspire to yes and empower your team to satisfy the customer within reasonable guidelines. The details and challenges will no doubt vary from company to company, but if the cultural foundation is there, the rest is, indeed, commentary. ▪
Noah Taft is senior v.p., marketing & sales and principal of California Faucets, a custom manufacturer of faucets and accessories for the kitchen and bath. Taft is also co-principal of Dezi Home, a new accessory company.