Accidental Excellence in Customer Service.

Accidental excellence in customer service is the curse of hiring great people. It’s not really a curse, of course. Great staff are awesome; a blessing for any organization. But you can’t take credit for their excellence—it’s not synonymous with the brand—if you didn’t train them to create an amazing experience by giving them the tools, systems, responsibilities and permission to deliver.

If you can’t tell me why all your staff are awesome, and prove it every time, it’s a wake up call for your brand strategy. Everything is at stake.

Most people would agree that some standard rules are the key to delivering a great customer experience: treat people nicely, listen to them and respond to their needs, deliver what you promise, and—pushing from good to great service—take a moment to exceed their expectations. It’s not rocket science—it’s simple, human behaviour.

As business leaders, we know it’s possible to have a standard of care that far exceeds what many people now expect as normal—routine, scripted, formulaic transactions. We also know that it’s important; very often the customer service experience is the thin line that separates us from our competitors. Very often it’s the only value we add.

What’s missing is the intention for an experience. For too many organizations, the idea of a great customer experience is expected to occur naturally, without a clear strategy defining what expectations makes a great customer experience for your brand, and without a clear plan to make sure it happens.

We hear and celebrate stories of fantastic customer experiences. This one about a barista at Starbucks is getting a lot of attention lately. It’s amazing what some people are capable of when on the stage of customer service. Some staff seem to thrive on the human interaction, and these people are gold. But our customer service strategy should set up all employees up for success.

I’ve done a rather unscientific study of great customer services experiences. I am willing to bet that most good customer service experiences are the result of a charming individual (staff) taking advantage of opportunities, rather than any staff member acting upon clear objectives, clear training, clear tools and clear strategies for delivering an experience that is consistent with your brand—and the flexibility to make it happen. Most excellent experiences are a happy accident; a symptom of a great employee, not a good system.

And if it’s not part of your systems, it’s not part of your brand.

Great staff are a curse because they give weak managers the impression that the brand is responsible for inspiring great experiences. They are a curse because they remind our customers what is possible, without the confidence that the experience will be repeated. They are a curse because they are not actually part of our brand.

Do you have a vision for a customer service experience? Do you have systems, standards and tools in place to make sure that your vision for excellent customer service is the rule and not the exception? Do you hire great people, train them well, and give them permission to build relationships that people can depend on?

Is a defined customer service experience an intentional part of your brand strategy?

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10 responses to “Accidental Excellence in Customer Service.

  1. Stephen, great post!

    I’m curious to know if you think a great customer service experience is something that can be taught or if this comes through empowering your staff team to recognize opportunities and be their best selves.

    It seems like the barista at Starbucks (awesome story) was able to recognize an opportunity to be his authentic self and shine – which is difficult to train your staff to do.

    Not sure if I have clearly articulated my question… :)

    • Stephen Abbott

      Thanks, Geoff. There’s a tricky balance between training and natural talent. I am a strong believer that there is opportunity to train your staff to be better. You need systems and processes designed to deliver the experience you want, and your staff need to understand these systems completely and take action. But you also need to give passionate people permission to connect at a human level, within the desired experience. I believe the passion has to come from something inside them. The “secret” to great Customer Service as part of your Brand Strategy: Hire great people, train them to deliver your experience, give them permission to connect and then get out of their way.

  2. Stephen,

    I really appreciate what you said about allowing passionate employees to connect on a human level. It seems as though companies create training programs and process so that employees act in a certain cookie cutter way.

    However, if you can train staff to learn the process inside and out, and then inspire them to connect with who they are and connect on a more personal level – you’ve got it figured out!

    You make it seem so simple: hire great people, train and empower them and then get the heck out of the way! As simple as this is, there’s still so many that struggle with this…

    Great info and thanks again!

    • Stephen Abbott

      Frankly, it is really simple. Or at least, the theory is simple. The hard part isn’t knowing the right things to do. The hard part is that you’ve invested time and effort in hiring great people (not just willing people). The hard part is that you’ve invested the time and effort to develop and then train great people on smart service systems and standards based on your brand (not just hoping that they are somehow inspired beyond kindness and duty). The hard part, perhaps the hardest part, is that trusting them feels risky. you have to trust them to be engaged in service relationships with real human beings, your customers.

      As usual, the hard part is just that it takes more effort than many are willing to invest.

  3. Yes and I would add, the hard part is believing in the system and spending the time to do all of the above creating a true culture of engagement. All too often business owners question the ROI. However, they aren’t patient enough to overhear the good news stories of people that have just had a fantastic customer experience at their shop.

    Business owners need to think more about the sustainable long term benefits vs. achieving their monthly revenue targets.

    • Stephen Abbott

      The ROI question is always the challenge. Saw a great tweeted quote the other day from @bradyjosephson, “ROI is great when measuring value to business but can be horrible measuring value to humans”. There has to be a clear faith from leadership that service excellence matters and is worth the continuous investment. It would be impossible to prove a direct link from one specific act to specific revenue, because it’s impossible to know all the acts that lead up to and those that occurred as a result of a great service moment. Believe in the cumulative effect of a culture of service. (And with that thought, another post is inspired…)

  4. Great post. After a recent tour of Zappos, there were many things that they do as a company to support, encourage and celebrate employees that go the extra mile and really connect with customers – this is core to their brand. Read more about delivering the WOW and win a copy of The Zappos Experience here: http://www.brandingbusiness.com/2012/11/does-your-brand-bring-the-wow-book-giveaway/

    • Stephen Abbott

      I love reading the stories from companies who have a service culture built right into the brand strategy. It proves that it is not only desired by consumers, but it’s truly possible, profitable and—when embraced from leadership through front line—at the foundation of a game-changing organization. Thanks for your comments.

  5. I really enjoyed the post, Stephen.

    We know of companies that mindfully inspire and promote the delivery of great customer experiences. I wonder if the experience is the same within these organizations?

    That is, does this service ethos permeate these companies in such a way that internal customers also find themselves recipients of service excellence from colleagues? One would think so, but is it a given?

    That kind of “360 excellence” would certainly make for a nice place to work – or frequent!

    • Stephen Abbott

      You raise a great point, Stephane. While most people would agree with the idea that employees that are treated well are likely to treat customers well, I wonder how many organizations consider the internal culture & the customer experience in the same strategic context. I don’t know if it’s been called “360 service excellence” before, but I know I will start thinking of it that way. Thanks for commenting.

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