What does it take to generate/deliver great service?

It is Christmas time and I want to give you, my fellow human beings and the readers of The Customer Blog, a gift.  What kind of gift?  The kind of gift, which if embraced, will give you access to great relationships – with your family, with your friends, within your community, at work, with your customers…

The gift of ‘service’: is this the greatest gift that you can give?

It is Christmas time and what I notice is that it is a time of concern – a concern with gift-giving.  And this year as I think about gift giving I am immediately taken to Sandy Hook Elementary School.  I am confronted with this question: what is the greatest gift one human being can give to another?  It occurs to me it is ‘service’.  What?   When I speak ‘service’ I am pointing at the kind of service being pointed at in the following quote:

“My notion about service is that service is actually that kind of relationship in which you have a commitment to the person. What I mean, in fact, is that for me what service is about is being committed to the other being. To who the other person is.

To the degree that you are, in fact, committed to the other person, you are only as valuable as you can deal with the other person’s stuff, their evidence, their manifestation, and that’s what’s service is about. Service is about knowing who the other person is and being able to tolerate giving space to their garbage. What most people do is is to give space to people’s quality and deal with their garbage. Actually, you should do it the other way around. Deal with who they are and give space to their garbage.

Keep interacting with them as if they were God. And every time you get garbage from them, give space to garbage and go back and interact with them as if they were God.”  Werner Erhard

Which business brands provide this kind of service?

In the business world there is one brand in particular that gets the kind of service that Werner Erhard is pointing at and illuminating.  Can you guess who it is?  It’s Zappos.  Which is why I am not at all surprised to read that Zappos Set An Insane Record For The Longest Customer Service Phone Call Ever.  How long did this phone call take?  9 hours and 37 minutes!  Here is what, in particular, caught my attention:

On July 16th I received a call from Lisa about 2 hrs. into my shift. We talked for 9 hours, 37 min. I took one bathroom break about two hours in. Kara Levy [another team member] took care of me by bringing me food and drinks. We talked about life, movies and favorite foods.”   Shaea Labus, the Zappos Customer  Loyalty Team member:

“Sometimes people just need to call and talk,” she [Shaea] said. “We don’t judge, we just want to help.”

What does it take to generate/deliver great service and make a difference?

The question that calls to me and asks for an answer is this one: what does it take to generate/deliver great service – the kind Werner is pointing at and which is being delivered by Zappos?  What is your answer?  Is it technology – the latest state of the art CRM/customer service system?  Is it CX blueprint that sets out the ‘process/script’ that the Customer Loyalty Team Members have to follow?  Is it the KPIs that Zappos’s management team have set?  Is it perhaps the people – the special people that Zappos employs?  Is it the pay/rewards that Zappos gives to its employees?

Let’s listen to a master of the human condition, one who strips away our rationalizations. What does this master have to say on the matter of service, of making a difference?

“All it takes to make a difference is the courage to stop proving I was right in being unable to make a difference… to stop assigning cause for my inability to the circumstances outside of myself …… and to see that the fear of being a failure is a lot less important than the unique opportunity I have to make a difference.” Werner Erhard

Summing up

Zappos generates/delivers great service because the Tops (starting with Tony Hsieh) are committed to delivering great service.  Great service is not something that they do.  No, great service is who they are in the world.  Did you get that?  The folks at Zappos ARE great service; their being – how they show up for themselves, each other, customers, the world at large – is great service!  Put differently, for the Zappos folks great service is not a question of doing it is a question of existence.  And, yes, existence does require a viable ‘business model’.  That is something that the folks at Zappos figured out after they formulated their commitment to being the brand  that is synonymous with great service.  And they kept tinkering and tweaking to get the business model right.

What does it take for you and me to make a difference in our showing up in the world – to our family, our friends, our community, our fellow employees, our customers?  A reconceptualization of ‘service’ along the lines set out by Werner Erhard AND the courage to stop proving that you/I are unable to make a difference. Put more simply and bluntly: you and I need to stop playing small!  Look around you and you will find that many businesses generate poor/indifferent service because the people in them – starting with the Tops – play small.

Is this the most serious misunderstanding plaguing customer-centricity?

Misunderstanding, reality and narrative

There are so many misunderstandings around customer-centricity that it is hard for me to know where to start.  In this post, I want to deal with a particularly dangerous and widespread misunderstanding.  Some of you have led yourself to that misunderstanding after reading my last post on customer-centricity.  Before I deal with this misunderstanding I want to draw your attention to the following:

Reality is amenable to and readily supports any narrative that we place on it.  Once upon a time the narrative was the earth is flat.  Later the narrative changed to the world is round.  Once upon a time there were witches in the world, now, at least in the West, there are no witches.  For a little while the narrative was almost all of the DNA in the human genome was junk DNA.  Today the narrative is that vast majority of so called ‘junk DNA’ is essential to and involved in key biochemical processes.  I hope you get what I  am getting at.

No single definition and/or ‘understanding’ of customer-centricity will exhaust customer-centricity.   Put differently, customer-centricity seems so obvious until you really grapple with it.  And when you grapple with it all kinds of stuff shows up – some of it rather surprising.  Furthermore, what shows up as customer-centric in one context may not show up as customer-centric another context.

With that out of the way and the context set, lets grapple with this misunderstanding.

To be customer-centric you have to be nice and give you customers what they are asking for

Far too many people confuse customer-centricity with doing what the customer wants, giving the customer what he wants, and being ‘nice’. Some go further and equate customer-centricity with being a patsy, a pushover. I say this is the most serious misunderstanding plaguing customer-centricity. 

Why is it so dangerous?  First, there are the people who understand customer-centricity this way and for them it shows up as unrealistic and distasteful.  Given this way of understanding customer-centricity they dismiss it and/or want nothing to do with it.  Second, there are a different group of people who speak and act as if customer-centricity is as simple as giving the customer whatever he asks for.

Customer-Centricity is neither this simple nor this simplistic

To both of these groups of people I say that you are mistaken.  You’re mistaken, badly mistaken.  Customer-centricity is neither that simple nor that simplistic.

I say that being customer-centric is a stand that you take and not a fixed set of behaviours.  What kind of stand am I talking about?  The kind of stand that says that the only acceptable profit is that made by creating genuine value for customers.  It means letting go of existing policies and practices that enrich the company at the expense of customers  – ‘bad profits’. Taking the customer-centric stand is not possible without courage.  The kind of courage Tony Hsieh and the Zappos management team showed when the business was in deep trouble financially and they gave up a lucrative source of revenue, profits and cash because it did not fit with their vision and stand to be the brand renowned for great customer service.

I say that being customer-centric is as much about being proactive in coming up with new products/services/experiences that you believe will create value for customers as it is about reacting to what customers say/ask for.  As I write this Apple/Steve Jobs/iPod/iTunes/iPhone/iPad come to mind immediately.  Or think of Amazon, ebooks and the Kindle.

I say that being customer-centric is as much about influencing/persuading customers as it is listening to/obeying customers.  Yes, there is a role for the right advertising, marketing and selling.  Customers are human beings and they do not necessarily know what is best for them.  Even if they do know, customers often do not do what is best for their well-being.  This is where you can use insights into the human functioning to come up with a design that nudges the customer towards the right behaviour.  It is also where something more forceful than a nudge can be necessary.  Again I cannot help but think about how Jobs handled the antenna/signal reception issue around the iPhone.  Or think about how Zappos persuaded shoe buyers that it was OK to buy shoes online without trying them on.

I say that customer-centricity only makes sense in a particular context and as such being customer-centric requires a “yes” when it is appropriate to say “yes” and a “no” when it is appropriate to say “no”.  This point was the key point made by Frances Frei and Anne Morriss in their book Uncommon Service.  As they say “you have to be bad in the service of good”.  They talk at some length about Commerce Bank: to be great at convenience and service Commerce Bank chose to only offer one banking product (checking account) and paid the worst rates of any bank in the market place.   Look, if you turn up at my Mercedes dealership and want to pay Ford prices then the most ‘customer-centric’ behaviour is for me to drive you to the nearest Ford dealership!  Furthermore, sometimes a “no” is simply in the best interests of your customer even if he does not know it.  This was the point I was making in this earlier post.

I say a lot.  What do you say? If you the situation at hand differently to me then speak up and share your understanding.

Treating customers right: does selection, training and development make a difference?

Ultimately it comes down to people

In their latest book (Extreme Trust) Don and Martha make the point that ultimately it all comes down to people:

“… no business rule or line of software code will ever be sufficient to ensure that employees treat customers right .  Your employees have to want to do that……

Is wanting to do the right thing enough?

I accept that employees have to want to treat the customer right.  The question that I want to grapple with is this: is wanting to do the right thing enough?  I consider myself to be a great learner and so I would have said that yes:  wanting to do the right thing is enough because if you want to do the right thing then you will do what it takes including learning that which you need to learn in order to do the right thing.  My experiences with the healthcare system in the UK have led me revise my point of view.

Both of my parents are elderly and now incapable of looking after themselves especially as my father has had two strokes and thus needs help with everything.  So they have carers coming in to help with various tasks every day.  What they have noticed and I have noticed is that there is one carer, Charity, who is actually good at what shoe does.  My parents love Charity whereas they are indifferent to most carers and consider some others to be totally useless – completely unfit for their roles.

Why is it that Charity shows up as both being professional and as caring?  Why is it that my parents and I love Charity and not any one of the other carers?   To answer this question we have to look at the bigger picture.

The problem with the care provided to the old folks in the UK is to do with the lack of value we place on our old folks and the commitment to cutting costs. To cut down costs and to deflect criticism the local authorities have outsourced the provision of care for the elderly to private companies. The focus of the people who run these private companies is minimising costs.   One way of keeping down costs is to pay the absolute minimum – the minimum wage. With that goes the practice of taking on anyone who applies for the job of carer.  There is no selection to make sure only the people who are suitable for this kind of work actually get to do the work.  Finally, there is no training and development.  Is that why the annual rate of turnover in carers is similar to that in call centres?  Do you see a parallel here between these carers and front line staff whether they sit in call centres or stand behind counters in retail stores?

Let’s get back to the question of Charity: why is she so much better than all the other carers that my parents and I have come in contact with?  It turns out that Charity grew up in Germany. And trained – professionally – to be carer in Germany.  That’s right – she spent two years training to be a carer.  Why did she undergo that training?  Because, in Germany you cannot work as a carer unless you have the necessary skills and experience as evidenced by a certification.  And to get that certification you have to undergo two years of training.  In the UK there are no such requirements: so anyone can be a carer and most of the carers neither care about their job nor do they have the skills/expertise to do the job – the job of connecting with vulnerable/demanding people and the jobs of cooking, cleaning, bathing, listening and chatting to old folks.

Lesson: focus on selection, training and development of your people if you want them to treat customers right

It is not enough that your people want to treat customers right, they also have to have the necessary skills and experience.   Learn from Zappos and other customer service champions:

Select the right people.  Put in place hurdles that screen out the people who are only doing it for the money.  And follow this up with giving people an incentive to quit during the training like Zappos does ($2,000?).

Train your people.  Rigorously train your people so that they have both the skills and the lived expertise that they need to do their jobs and leave customers feeling that they have been treated right.

Develop your people.  People care to the extent that they are cared for.  Development, taken seriously, is evidence that you care for your people and their futures.  Human beings have both a capacity and a yearning to grow, to develop, to be all that they can be.  Development done right meets this needs and enables you to keep the people you have so carefully selected and trained.

And finally

What is the biggest attribute that UK carers lack?  In my experience is the ability, the willingness to empathise, to care, to be patient, to be kind towards the elderly folks who rely on them.  It is interesting that this reflects the biggest issue companies face: inability/unwillingness to empathise with customers as human beings.  This is an issue that Don and Martha have also identified in their book Extreme Trust.  I will writing a review of that book soon as I have now finished reading it.

Customer loyalty and advocacy: what can we learn from Jonathan Ive and Zappos?

Customer focus: no progress in ten years?

In a recent post on CustomerThink, Bob Thompson shared his experience with AT&T and Colin Shaw made the following comment:

“No progress in ten years…

I am sorry to say Bob but this doesn’t surprise me. I used to work for BT before setting up Beyond Philosophy ten years ago. In that ten years I don’t see a lot of progress on being more Customer focussed.

We have recently undertaken new research in Telecoms. The biggest surprise to me was when we asked Telecoms companies “Which Telecoms company do you most for CE ?” There was a deafening silence.

I can totally appreciate your feeling of ‘doubt’. This, unfortunately is a common emotion that organizations generate. Do you think this is what they want to generate? Obviously not, but their actions have led you to feel this way. In my view there is a massive opportunity for someone to get the CE right in the CE space. But they will need to look outside of their industry for examples.”

Why has there been no progress?

I say that the reason so little progress is due to the lack of genuine care for people (customers, employees, suppliers, community…) as fellow human beings.  When we label a customer as an asset we have turned our fellow human being into an object, equipment, a resource for our purposes.  HR tells us all that you need to know about the relationship between the Tops and everyone else in the company: human resources – equipment, tools, resources that come in a human form.

Human existence, being-in-the-world, is characterised by CARE. We care about how our lives turn out – we are designed to survive and we strive to flourish.  Care gives rise to and is tied up with CONCERN – we have concerns that we have to address if we are to survive and flourish.  John Bowlby pointed out that we  need ‘SECURE BASES’ – people, places, organisations, communities where we matter, where we feel cared for, where we can count on others to care for us and what matters to us.

What can we learn from Jonathan Ive of Apple?

I was reading this article on Jonathan Ive (Apple’s design guru) and the following jumped out at me:

“I think subconsciously people are remarkably discerning. I think that they can sense care.”

One of the concerns was that there would somehow be, inherent with mass production and industrialisation, a godlessness and a lack of care.”

“I think it’s a wonderful view that care was important – but I think you can make a one-off and not care and you can make a million of something and care. Whether you really care or not is not driven by how many of the products you’re going to make.”

“We’re keenly aware that when we develop and make something and bring it to market that it really does speak to a set of values. And what preoccupies us is that sense of care, and what our products will not speak to is a schedule, what our products will not speak to is trying to respond to some corporate or competitive agenda. We’re very genuinely designing the best products that we can for people.”

Is there any doubt that the people who run Apple care, deeply, about making great products that generate a great user experience?  And if care is the access to breakthroughs then why is it that more companies do not care the way that Apple cares?  Is it because it really takes something to genuinely care when we swim in a culture that does not embrace and encourage caring?

Lets just get present to what ‘care’ involves and why it is so important

We use words automatically and without really getting present to what they signify, what they point at/towards, what they make present/available to us.  So here is definition that I find particularly useful as it is a rounded definition:


The provision of what is necessary for the health, welfare, maintenance, and protection of someone or something.
Feel concern or interest; attach importance to something: “they don’t care about human life”.
noun.  worry – concern – attention – solicitude – trouble
verb.  mind

Zappos: a great example of a company based on and operating from a context of authentic CARE for people as fellow human beings

The results that show up in the world are always in line with and bounded by the context which gives rise to these results. If your organisation operates from a context of ‘not caring’ or plain ‘indifference’ then this will shape what occurs and how it occurs.  With this kind of context it is possible that people who do care may from time to time do stuff that is characterised by care and shows up as care in the world of the customer.  Yet, this will not cultivate loyalty between the customer and the organisation.  Why?  Because this act of caring will been seen as an exception when compared with the lack of caring in all the other interactions with the company and its people.

Zappos is the poster child for the customer-centric orientation and great customer service.  Why?  Because the Tops have intentionally created and operate from a context of caring: caring about their people; caring about their customers; caring about suppliers; caring about what they do; caring about what they stand for.  What is this context?  “Delivering Happiness”.  Two words, they say it all, and for many companies these would simply be empty words.  Not for Zappos because they were not crafted for brand messaging nor for brand positioning.  No, these words, are an expression of the philosophy of Tony Hsieh and the founders/senior leadership team of Zappos.  The other point worth noting is this: how many of us would stand up and argue against a philosophy and a stand centred on “Delivering Happiness”?   Do this not meet/ address a fundamental need of human beings?

Zappos and Tommy Walker: an awesome experience of caring for the customer

Tommy Walker, host of “Inside The Mind” a show about online marketing strategy.  Here is his story, in his words:

Just over a year ago I bought a pair of sneakers from zappos and was very excited to get them in the mail.  However, after about a month and a half they fell apart.  After wearing other inferior footwear, I settled upon wearing my indestructible work boots for the rest of the year, and while they did make me a little taller, they weren’t terribly comfortable and started to cause me pain.   And just when I thought I had enough, I got an email from Zappos that essentially said:

“Hi Tommy, you bought these shoes a year ago and we wanted to say thanks, and remind you that we have more of the same. If there’s anything we can do to improve our service, please don’t hesitate to let us know!”

To which I responded:

“Hey there, thanks for reminding me :-).  Though I have to admit, these shoes only lasted me a month and a half.   I’m not overly hard on my shoes but for some reason, these just fell apart.””

What happened next?  How did things turn out?  What was Tommy’s experience?  If you want to find out then click here.

In a world of indifference, authentic caring is the difference that makes the difference

You want your customers to care about you.  Do you really care about your customers?  If you don’t genuinely care about your customers, as human beings, then how/why do you expect them to care about you?  What is so remarkable about Zappos other than the genuine context/culture of caring about people  and “Delivering Happiness”?  What is so special about Apple other than the care that goes into envisaging and making products that customers will love and find useful.

And finally you may wish to consider and act on the following:

CARE:  Customers Always Remember Empathy

CARE:  Customers Are up for Reciprocating Empathy

CARE:  Customers Always want to Reward Empathy

Can ‘externalities’ open up an actionable pathway to customer service, customer experience design and customer-centricity?

Are dead concepts limiting what shows up as customer service, customer experience and customer-centricity?

We are prisoners of dead concepts and mostly we are not present to this.

Look closely at what passes for customer services and the metaphor/concept that determine how it shows up is that of a factory (lowest cost factory) for handling/processing calls.  An even stronger metaphor/concept is that of waste processing.  Incoming calls land for enterprises like domestic waste lands for the local authorities – an undesirable obligation which costs money and should be done as cheaply as possible.

Look closely for most of what passes for customer experience design and it is interaction design – either at the point of interaction or across multiple points of interaction between the customer and the enterprise.

Look closely at customer-centricity and you find it is struggling because there is no guiding concept/metaphor that gives shape/substance to it.  Concepts and metaphors matter.  This got me thinking about ‘externalities’.

Let’s get acquainted with the concept of ‘externalities’

Here is the dictionary definition of ‘externality’:

An externality is an effect of a purchase or use decision by one set of parties on others who did not have a choice and whose interests were not taken into account.  Classic example of a negative externality: pollution, generated by some productive enterprise, and affecting others who had no choice and were probably not taken into account.  Example of a positive externality: Purchase a car of a certain model increases demand and thus availability for mechanics who know that kind of car, which improves the situation for others owning that model.”

How can the ‘externality’ concept help us improve the customer experience and cultivate customer-centric organisations?

I can speak about it in general terms or I can help you to see it for yourself through concrete examples:

Amazonhasn’t Amazon done away with many (if not all) of the negative externalities falling on customers though the taken for granted book buying model?  As a book customer you no longer have to pay the costs (time, effort, money) associated with getting to the bookshop, finding the right books, finding out that the book you are looking for is not there, wondering/worrying that the book is not any good, waiting to pay, carrying the books around and finally making your way back home.  Amazon did away with all of those costs falling on the customer.  And even introduced benefits like lower prices!

With ebooks Amazon has done away with the one disadvantage of buying books online – waiting for the booking to arrive.  Now you get the book there and then and you can read it on your PC, your tablet, your smartphone!

Furthermore, Amazon has focussed on operational excellence such that ‘no service is the best service’  – ensuring that the ‘system’ works so that the customer does not have to spend time/money/effort calling the Customer Services team.

Apple: hasn’t Apple done away with negative externalities falling on the customers whilst improving the customer’s lives? In the area of music the customer no longer has to make his way to the store, spend time finding the albums, buy an entire album when he only wanted to listen to two or three songs, queue up to pay, make his way home – all this before he can listen to the music. Apple did away with all that hassle and allow music lovers to buy the exact tracks and listen to them almost immediately.

If you look at the iPhone you will notice that traditional handset makers imposed a big negative externality on customers: their phones were hard to understand, set-up and use – the retail shops and the mobile operators were pretty unhelpful as well.  By taking on that work, upon itself, through great design Apple did away with that externality and at the same time introduced a benefit – a beautiful phone in terms of look and feel.

Salesforce.com:  hasn’t Salesforce.com done away with the negative externalities falling on corporate IT depts?  All the hassle, the work, the effort, the time involved in procuring, installing, configuring, maintaining and managing CRM systems?

Zappos: didn’t Zappos do away with the negative externalities falling  customers who were up for buying shoes from a unknown internet operator?  Next day delivery.  Return the shoes no questions asked.  Easy to get hold of and took with a friendly human being.  Furthermore, Zappos has used its Customer Services team to infuse/delivery happiness into the lives of the people calling its Customer Services team – providing a benefit that is highly appreciated by customers.

Build-A-Bear: the genesis of Build-A-Bear was the founder turning up with a friend and finding that they did not like any of the bears in stock.  Isn’t that a negative externality?  Going to the effort of going to the store and not finding what you want – nobody has what you want because everyone has pretty much the same standard product?  Build-A-Bear turned that negative externality into a positive customer experience – you, the customer, get to experience creating your own bear: the bear itself, the degree of stuffing (soft, firm), the clothes, the name for the bear…..

Easyjet: didn’t Easyjet do away with that negative externality called a ‘high price’ by stripping out all the stuff that ‘economy’ customers did not need and were prepared to ‘sacrifice’ in exchange for a lower price?  Please notice that the customers of low cost airlines such as Easyjet are willing to put in more effort to get the benefit they want a lower price.  So if you think customer-centricity / customer experience design is simply about reducing customer effort then you might want to think again!

A deeper inquiry into ‘externalities’

The hidden design of the ‘business as usual’ is to impose cost on people/depts/organisations that are seen as being ‘outsiders’.  So businesses impose externalities onto customers because, despite the fine sounding talk, business folks see customers as ‘outsiders’.  And one business dept/function imposes externalities on another dept/function in the same business.  Allow me to illustrate this:

  • The product folks make products that are not good enough because the externalities are borne by customers, the marketing function, the sales folks and the customer services function;
  • The marketing folks mislead customers because the externalities of this misleading are borne by customer, the sales folks and the customer services function;
  • The sales folks say and do whatever they need to do to make their sales numbers knowing that the externalities will fall on the customer, the logistics/operations function, the customer services function and the finance function;
  • The logistics folks don’t do their job right knowing that the externalities of not keeping their promise will fall on the customer (who cares if he has taken a day off work to be at home) and the customer services function;
  • The customer services folks don’t have any internal depts to burden with externalities so they burden customers with them by hiding their phone number, understaffing, not having people on staff who can accurately answer even the top 10 frequently asked questions, diverting customers to self-service (IVR, internet)….
  • The IT folks don’t pay sufficient attention to the needs of their internal customers (marketing, sales, service…..) because they know the externalities of their inattention, lack of care, will fall on internal depts and customers.

Summing up

I am convinced that if you grapple with ‘externalities’ that one dept imposes on another and which your business imposes on the customer then you have a powerful (actionable) pathway for making breakthroughs in customer service, customer experience, customer-centricity, customer loyalty and business performance.   On the other hand this might show up as ‘hard work’ so you might just want to stick with the ‘customer-centric’ messaging – it doesn’t do much for the customer yet it sure does sound great!

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