Fresh Service Strategies

UPDATED: August 4, 2009
PUBLISHED: August 4, 2009

The oil light on my dashboard was flashing angrily during a rainy commute home in heavy traffic. When I pulled into the nearest service station, the mechanic was locking up for the night. I explained I was low on oil. He directed me to the adjacent convenience store where I could buy oil and add it myself. My panic must have shown on my face.

“Do you know where to add it?” he asked.

I sheepishly admitted I didn’t. The mechanic smiled, waited for me to purchase oil then patiently educated me on checking the oil level in my car and how to add it. He encouraged me to come back when the shop was open, and I did—every time I needed maintenance.

He could have opened the shop for a last-minute sale. What I got instead was something much better: a lasting connection that turned me into an advocate for this particular small business.

Finding new ways to make those kinds of connections with consumers is at the very heart of today’s innovative customer service strategies. Now that many companies have cut staffing levels to the bone, many of the values that drive customer loyalty are being abandoned.

As this becomes more apparent, however, some business owners are realizing the only way to survive in this market is to maintain their current customers, says Joseph A. Michelli, author and customer service expert.

“Their first priority is to solidify their relationship with their existing customers, and that means they have to invest in that relationship,” says Michelli, whose books include The New Gold Standard: 5 Leadership Principles for Creating a Legendary Customer Experience Courtesy of the Ritz- Carlton Hotel Company and The Starbucks Experience: 5 Principles for Turning Ordinary into Extraordinary.

So how should you invest in customer service? Take cues from the service leaders.

Create a Service Culture Great customer service doesn’t start with the customer. That may sound counterintuitive, but genuine concern for a customer comes from the character of the business owner or employee. It’s that genuine quality that leads to lasting connections. So the first part of creating a service culture is to hire the people who aspire to be service professionals.

Revolutionary ideas have come from employees who deal with customers daily and are most in touch with their needs.

Online shoe retailer giant Zappos requires new hires to fit into the quirky company culture. CEO Tony Hsieh says Zappos hires in favor of personality over job experience every time. “One of our core values is to be humble. So if there is someone who is really talented, and we know they will make an immediate impact on our top or bottom line, but they are really egotistical, then we won’t hire them,” Hsieh says.

Also, if you’re creating a culture, your core values have to stay top of mind. Reminding your team about what it means to give great service goes a long way in keeping it a priority. Ritz-Carlton staffers spend 15 minutes every day talking about how they can make guests feel like they are “walking into the home of a loving parent.”

“They are constantly talking about ‘how we do it here,’ and they tell stories of when they do it over-the-top awesome to inspire people to that standard,” Michelli says.

Sharing stories of wow service serves two functions. First, it reiterates the message that service matters. Second, it recognizes the individuals who understand what it means to be a service professional.

Acknowledging people for a job well done is important, but there are other types of recognition that encourage pride and ownership in their jobs.

Starbucks, for example, distinguishes more knowledgeable baristas with a black apron instead of the trademark green. These baristas with black aprons are called coffee masters, and although Starbucks does not compensate them additionally for learning coffee origins and proper pairings, Michelli says the status increases their overall engagement and their commitment to customers. “Setting up a status for people who are service professionals and who have extra knowledge… doesn’t cost you anything except the willingness to acknowledge them and maybe a pin or two here or there.”

Empower Employees Once you have a team with the right attitude, you must provide the tools needed to meet the demands of others. As today’s workforces shrink, cross-training is becoming an increasingly important practice. With multiple skill sets, employees can answer more questions, handle more scenarios and provide better service. For small businesses especially, this means getting more out of a small staff that can multitask.

At larger companies, this helps different departments identify with and understand each other. The more employees know about everything that happens in the business, the easier it is for them to help customers find the answers they need. In Zappos’ four-week training program, everyone, regardless of the position for which they are hired, spends two weeks in the call center helping customers.

“Customer service is a philosophy that starts with how a company or individual demonstrates their behavior in service and product,” says Marvin Sadovsky, founder of Leadership Strategy LLC and author of Selling the Way Your Customer Buys. Sadovsky says that the kind of customer service a business should avoid is the conflict resolution that happens when your customer has a problem. By keeping your customer in mind when developing and selling your product, you should be able to avoid most conflict resolution altogether. Cross-training employees and exposing the sales team to the call center are good ways to anticipate problems before they arise. Take a look at your most common complaints and factor that information into your service so that those complaints never occur.

When problems do arise, keep in mind that managers can’t always be present to handle every situation. Giving employees the authority to make decisions that uphold your standards ensures an immediate resolution to a problem.

At the Ritz-Carlton, employees are allowed a $2,000 budget per guest per day to do whatever needs to be done to accommodate guests and smooth ruffled feathers—including even the lowest-paid busboy. “The lifetime value of a guest at the Ritz-Carlton is $1 million. So if I give you the authority to spend $2,000 on a guest, that’s a pretty good investment,” Michelli says.

As today’s workforces shrink, cross-training is becoming an increasingly important practice.

On the technology side, online retailers might consider equipping their agents with co-browsing tools. According to Forrester Research, an independent technology and market research company, 50 percent of Web transactions are completed with the help of a customer-service agent. When a customer gets stuck, the system reaches out to the customer and allows representatives to view the Web page with customers in real time. This minimizes frustration and reduces the number of abandoned transactions and calls from confused customers.

Another great way to empower employees is to encourage their feedback. Revolutionary ideas have come from employees who deal with customers daily and are most in touch with their needs. To encourage employees to be on the lookout for inspiration, Lexus awards up to $400,000 annually to dealers with good service ideas.

“The Lexus Pursuit of Innovation program was created to use the expertise of our dealers and their associates to uncover ideas with sustainable value that would enhance the customer experience in our dealerships,” says National Manager Marv Ingram of Lexus Planning, Business Development and Marketing. He says these ideas could be applied on a national scale.

Involve Customers First and foremost, offer some form of self-service. Detailed Web sites that offer complete and informative FAQ sections, order tracking and other online services enable customers to answer their own questions. Of course, self-service is only effective if the site is easy to navigate and has good search capabilities.

The innovative approach to this is through increasingly popular online social networking communities. Businesses with their own online communities give their customers a place to discuss products and solve each others’ problems by reading and responding to posts.

According to Forrester Research, these online communities are good for several other reasons, including getting direct customer input for new products or enhancing existing ones and quickly resolving issues from negative feedback.

When handled properly, even bad word-of-mouth online can be a good thing. It enables a company to make immediate changes to some aspect of service that it isn’t delivering and let the consumers know it has been fixed. Customers not only feel like their grievances have been heard, but that their service provider cared enough to do something about it.

“It really helps you build your product stronger, and it shows your customer base that you are a responsive company to their needs,” Michelli says.

With such a low investment cost, social networking is definitely something even small businesses can do to connect with customers. For small-business owners who are too short on time to keep up their own blogs or Twitter feeds, maintaining a presence on other subject-relevant online communities can be beneficial. Visit these communities, offer honest advice and put a link to your Web site URL. Even without directly selling, you’ll increase the likelihood that those consumers will turn to you instead of a competitor when they need a service you provide, because you’ve already gained their trust as an authority.