Practicing the Art of Uncommon Courtesy

Every business activity affects the customer either directly or indirectly. The first step toward improving customer service is to develop a service attitude and to turn our attention to making customer satisfaction our top priority. Policies that restrict our ability to respond are out. Innovations that enhance our responsiveness are in.

Launch a Customer Revolution

Tom Peters (In Search of Excellence), in his new book, Thriving on Chaos: Handbook for a Management Revolution, summarizes his ten customer "prescriptions" by directing us to "Make a customer-obsessed revolution. Routinely look at the smallest nuance of the tiniest program, policy and system through the customer's eyes -- that is, as the customer perceives it, not you. Make champions of change in support of the customer, not guardians of internal stability, the new corporate heroes in every function."

Two policies exemplify the customercentered organization -- and you've heard them before:

Rule #1: The customer is always right.

Rule #2: If the customer is "wrong," see Rule #1.

Quantifying the logic behind these policies helps to resolve our natural resistance to this old saw. We all agree that repeat trade is the key to business success. A simple device provides a way to add potency to this idea, a principle which Peters calls "Treat the customer as an appreciating asset." He suggests that we apply this three step formula:

  1. First, estimate the ten-year or lifelong value of a customer, based upon the size and frequency of a good customer's average purchase.
  2. Then multiply that number by two, to take into account the word of mouth factor.
  3. Finally, multiply the new total by the average number of customers served per day by your sales, service or other front-line person or group. The result is the lifelong value of the "customer portfolio" that that individual or group deals with each day.

Peters says, "If you look at customers in this or a related way, you are likely to take a new view of hiring, training, compensating, and spending on service support systems (tools that aid the customer serving process)."

Creating Service Excellence

Let's take a look at some other guidelines and tools that will ultimately result in a high customer service level:

  • Recognize the fact that employee relations mirror customer relations. If management (and other employees) solve employee problems, employees solve customer problems. It's a simple concept to preach, but not easy to practice.
  • Create an awareness of the importance of customer service in the minds of employees. Teach the need for satisfled customers from an employee's perspective: the customer is the ultimate paymaster.
  • Define and implement specific and challenging performance standards, coupled with high performance expectations.
  • Develop and implement the training programs and support systems (motivation, communications, and operations) needed to teach, reinforce and carry out the expected behaviors.
  • Provide tangible and intangible recognition and rewards for exemplary behavior. Make people feel important and appreciated. Appreciated people are appreciating assets. Create heroes. Use the H.E.R.O. formula: Honor Excellence -- Reward Originality.
  • Appraise customer service performance. Use quantitative measures to monitor the effectiveness of service and personnel policies, programs, and procedures. Share customer reactions with the entire organization.

To build personal accountability and open communications:

  • Back up other employees' decisions made when interacting with customers. No support leads to fear of risk taking, which inhibits responsiveness. Adequate orientation and training prepares people to interact appropriately and makes it easier to back them up.

The Art of Uncommon Courtesy

Be sure all employees know how their jobs fit into the entire organization. Every job is a service job. We have to work together, serving each other to better serve customers. Teamwork is the most important service support system of all.

To practice the art of uncommon courtesy:

  • Smile and greet customers first, before they say anything. Identify/recognize repeat customers. Take every opportunity to learn the customer's name and use it. Thank customers for shopping at the store.
  • Take the time to really help, should a customer ask for assistance. If a customer questions a store policy, show your concern by explaining the policy and the reasons behind it.
  • If you don't have what a customer wants, apologize and try to suggest a suitable substitute. Pass on customer requests to the appropriate people; take care of the request yourself whenever possible.
  • Treat each complaint as an opportunity rather than a problem. Don't take it personally. Apologize and offer to help. Arrange for the customer to talk with a supervisor or manager, if necessary.

Invite customer comments and take complaints seriously. Handle all complaints by calling the customer within 24 hours, explaining why the problem occurred, and express your concern that they were inconvenienced. Remember that for each customer who complains, there are 19 more who don't. And today, many of the unhappy customers may be walking out your door for the last time.

One major consumer survey reveals some good news. The data show that, depending on the industry, if you resolve complaints in a timely and thoughtful fashion you can get 82 to 95 percent of those customers back.

Searching for the Service Ethic

The American work ethic, characterized by individualism, was the driving force in our industrial era. In today's service economy, the "looking out for number one" philosophy is seriously out of sync. It is difficult for Americans to make the distinction between service and servitude; service to others, it is felt, diminishes self worth. In Eastern cultures, service to others is the path to fulfillment. Tarthug Tulku, a lama from Tibet who has worked with Westerners over the past ten years, articulates the service ethic beautifully in his book about work, Skillful Means:

"When we invest our care in others our positive feelings grow and spread; others respond with their appreciation, and the richness of this shared experience uplifts the quality of life for everyone... By learning to care, we can transform the frustration and boredom we so often experience at work to a source of enjoyment and meaning. This caring grows to be a powerful motivating force, allowing us to approach every task with an open mind and a willingness do whatever is needed."

If co-op organizations can shift their attention to focus on customers first and internal matters second, they can help transform a national disgrace into a golden opportunity. They can set the industry standard for service excellence and claim the market leadership position in the process.

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