Category Archives: Customer Service

The Curse of Exceeding Expectations

The concept of Exceeding Expectations is charming wisdom that hijacks good strategy.

If your brand sets up the expectation that you will exceed my expectations, then you must consistently jump over a bar that you’ve set impossibly high, and keeps getting higher. It’s a vague promise with no true meaning—the ultimate failure of brand strategy. Good luck with that.

Trump Hotel Toronto expected to exceed my expectations. Since it was also their promise to me, I expected to have my expectations exceeded. So when they exceeded my regular hotel expectations, they actually only met my expectations for their experience. They didn’t exceed my expectations because I expected them to exceed my expectations.

Confused? Here’s another way to look at it. They bought into the mantra without respecting our relationship.

How do I know they know the mantra but lack the understanding? They are so desperate to have me say they “exceed my expectations”, that anything less than exceeding my exceeded expectations—I gave them a 7 out of 10 on a couple of comment points—was deemed an operational disappointment.  Promising and delivering world-class luxury service isn’t enough. They took the time (three times, actually) to apologize for merely meeting my exceeded expectations.

SAG_Trump Hotel Truffle_01Here’s the run down of the issues: 1) One staff member, whom I assume was a manager, wasn’t smiling at one time and was more concerned with the buffet he set up than taking a moment to say hi. 2) One morning I ordered breakfast to my room, and the omelette was slightly less cooked than I prefer. 3) I asked a staff member for directions within the hotel, and she didn’t know—it was her first day on the job. She asked a colleague and I was promptly on my way.

None of these were serious, but on a post-experience guest survey—and because of the specific questions they ask in the survey—it drops the my perspective from flawless to a more human excellent.

On the comment card, anything less than a 9 gets the attention of the GM. That’s right, a 9. Practically flawless execution of an exceeded expectation—an ill defined benchmark if there ever was one—is the only pass. I’ve struggled with my thoughts and comments.

Perhaps it comes back to my preference for a more casual experience; I don’t appreciate all the pomp and ceremony within Five Diamonds. But that’s not it, because one of the things I loved about my experience was how easily staff respected and responded to my casual style within the delivery of their elegance. Perhaps it comes back to my simple requests; I didn’t really put them to the Five Diamond test. But that’s not it either, because they handled even the simplest requests with genuine grace and skill.

So I suggest it’s because excellence is arbitrary. The only promise was to exceed, but what they were exceeding was left to my imagination (which I assure you can run wild, especially around customer experiences). The questions and standards by which they asked me to judge them didn’t reflect their clear promise. And that is what I expect from a brand—a clear promise. Excellence needs a benchmark by which it’s judged, and as a customer, I expect the brand to lead the way.

Brand Strategy—and the experience you commit to deliver—should define the expectations you promise. And then it’s okay to exceed those.

The phrase “exceeding expectations” is wonderful little tidbit of wisdom to encourage good staff who could use a reason to try a little harder. It’s the goal of empowerment—a great way to offer your team permission to use common sense in uncommon situations and put the customer first. It’s a great way to think about adding value to moments.

Putting the phrase into your strategy and messaging is reckless. It’s a vague promise that says I can expect nothing specific, and yet anything is possible. And putting the onus on your customers to assess random expectations as exceeded shows you’re not in control. A brand strategy of Exceeding Expectations demonstrates a clear misunderstanding of how a brand strategy supports your vision and values, and how it should drive your culture. It shows that you are desperate to please—to give in at any cost—rather than honouring the relationship and promising an experience. It’s terribly vague while pretending to make a promise or set a standard.

Exceeding expectations isn’t the benchmark you strive to reach; it’s the passion that drives your culture of service and your innovation behind the experience you’ve promised.

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?

Customer Service. A Relationship Strategy.

There is no other element of your brand strategy that will have as much impact on people’s perception of your brand as your attention to customer service. Having an relationship-centric Customer Service Strategy—preparing for the human experience you share with everyone—is where the companies that understand relationships will far exceed those who think success in their business is based only on good products at a fair price.

Customer Service is not about simply moving a product from your hands into your customers’. It’s not about bending to a person’s every whim in some misguided belief that they are “always right.” It’s certainly not about rigourously maximizing the value out of every person.

Customer Service is about being actively responsible for the experience your brand promises. It’s a human connection that moves the experience from a transaction to a relationship. Customer Service—the way you make people feel within the brand experience—is the last great differentiator.

Strong brands define their version of customer service well beyond kind and helpful. They have a service culture that is integral to their strategy.

The attitude and language chosen; the speed and customization offered; the luxury or automation desired—there are plenty of choices made by leaders. There is no right or wrong, just traits and tactics that must be consistent with the brand. However, there are three factors to Customer Service that are non-negotiable, and these are at the root of your strategy.

1. Acknowledgement: When someone decides that they want to be your customer, they need to be confident that you are aware of their desire. No one should ever feel unwelcome or ignored.

An empty reception desk; an unresponsive email system; a locked door; distracted staff; faded signs; broken instructions; quiet social media; …these are all indications that you simply don’t care about the customer standing right in front of you, ready to engage. Every customer must feel that you are interested in their business, and you believe the relationship is important.  How are you ensuring every customer knows that they are welcome and valued?

2. Communicate: It is your responsibility to guide your customers through the experience you’ve promised, anticipating their needs to their advantage and in your favour. Prepare your customers for their own success all along the journey.

Clear signs are helpful. Smart staff who understand the whole process and the customer mindset are critical. Milestone markers, easy options and ‘goal-post’ reminders reinforce to everyone that you are paying attention, and you care about the outcome. Systems that move their experience forward—not just the transaction or data collection—are the secret. How are you sharing your expectations and recommendations of the brand experience?

3. Respect: All relationships are built on respect for each other. A customer must always feel they are trusted, safe, and that their side of the value equation is important.

Neither the routine and familiarity of your efforts, nor the excuse of a broken system, diminishes your commitment to an experience. Safety isn’t an option, nor should it be treated with anything less than diligence. Respect for rules, respect for details your customers are willing to share, and respect for your commitment to value is vital. How are you demonstrating respect for the relationship you share with your customers?

A great product is important—no amount of pleasant customer service is going to make up poor value—but it’s the relationship that is front and centre with an amazing brand experience.

These three elements are so vital to customer service—acknowledge your customers, communicate with your customers, respect your customers—that it almost seems silly to need to mention them. But we can trace most customer service issues back to a breakdown in one of these roots. It’s not enough that you intend to be kind and helpful; customer service must be rooted in a strategy that supports your brand.

With customer service, the relationship is the brand experience.

Customer Service. Strategy or culture?

Customer Service is the great differentiator for your brand. Competitors may offer a similar product or service, but the way you treat people—the way you make people feel within the brand experience—will define the brand. No exceptions.

There are two important mandates for customer service:

The first is the experience you intend to share with your customers—the promise you’ve made. This is rooted in your strategy; fail here and you’re doomed. (But that’s a post for another day)

The second is the experience you provide when things don’t go as planned. The way you treat people in the middle of chaos—chaos you’ve caused or chaos thrust upon you—will have a tremendous impact on the brand story, perhaps even the most impact. Success here is rooted in your culture.

When the shit hits the fan—and it will at some point—we expect the brand to understand and honour the relationship we shared in the good times. We expect the brand to honour our needs BEFORE they worry about their own. We expect the brand to deliver the experience when it matters to us, not only when it’s convenient for them. And we expect the brand to know more about solving our problem that we do; we expect them to be prepared.

Customer Service, for all the tools and techniques and plans and training, is about treating human beings with respect. Respect for the promises you’ve made; respect for moment you’re in; respect for the variables that make each of us unique. It’s an art, not a science. It’s in your culture.

Anyone who has seen my Essential Brand Strategy presentation knows of my admiration for WestJet, a Canadian based airline that focuses on a fun, friendly travel experience.  A few days ago they lost my luggage.

Their customer service culture, not just a problem-recovery strategy, made all the difference.

  • I never felt like Westjet lost my bag because of sloppy staff. It was simply an error, not negligence or apathy.
  • They apologized first. They were genuinely disappointed—not in themselves or their team, but the situation. I never felt like they weren’t 100% positive they would find it, and I always believed they were in control.
  • They compensated me without hesitation, even though they promptly found the bag. The employee recognized their team dropped the ball on the relationship—the flight—and accepted responsibility.

Luggage gets lost. It’s an inconvenient reality of air travel, and like many people, I have lost luggage with other airlines. While the other airlines stopped short of blaming me, there was always the impression that my action somehow broke their system, or that my need to have my bags was now an inconvenience for the airline—a disruption of their normal duties. The report, the solution, the reconnection—all met with just enough contempt to break any promise of friendly skies. Perhaps they loved to fly, but dealing with luggage problems was simply out of scope.

WestJet didn’t just retrieve my luggage; they did it within the experience I expect.

Now, I don’t want to belittle their business model, but good customer service isn’t exactly a secret formula for success. But with WestJet, it’s not really a formula at all.

Their approach to customer service is rooted in a culture that genuinely cares for their customer. It’s in their brand. It’s not a marketing tool; it’s an HR obsession. WestJet doesn’t train nice people to do things right—they hire awesome people and give them permission to do the right things. It shows.

Customer service is never just a strategy. When it is your culture, it is your brand.

The Power of Positive Disruption

Brand value—the intangible equity derived from a desirable and reliable experience—is rooted in moments of Positive Disruption. Within every experience, a brand has opportunities to disrupt our expectations—disrupt what is generic and familiar—and imprint memories.

Strong brands take the time to consider the whole experience for different stakeholders, and rather than just slapping a logo on every surface, the brand immerses each stakeholder with positive, affirming touch points; unique clues in imagery, language, rituals and total sensory impact. Strong brands add value with a well-considered experience.

We are surrounded by brand experiences. Almost everything in our lives is experienced because someone somewhere at some time made a choice in an effort to define the experience. Someone made a choice based on; a) an experience they wanted to create or an idea they wanted us to believe; b) the resources and budget available to them at the time; and c) the values guiding their behaviour. Yet while we are constantly exposed to those brands and those choices (whether it’s a product, service, cause, community and even a country), most of the choices are completely imperceptible. That’s right, most of the brand experience is completely missed.

That chair you’re sitting on; it’s part of a brand experience. The screen you’re reading this on; it’s part of a brand experience. That coffee you just sipped; it’s part of a brand experience. That music playing in the background; the lamp-post in your neighbourhood; the composting bin in the garden; those are all part of brand experiences. The sound of the alarm clock and the bed you woke up in and the clothes you put on this morning and the spoon you ate your cereal with—all part of brand experiences. And I bet you missed most of them.

Positive Disruption—a conscious choice to identify a brand—anchors the experience. It’s in the moments of disruption the brand greets us, reminds us of our relationship, and moves us forward to continue the experience. We, the stakeholder, are reassured while being rewarded.

The challenge, of course, is to disrupt the experience in a way is positive and inclusive to stakeholders; an experience that reinforces the brand strategy—the story we want people to believe about our organization—with respect.

Forcing stakeholders into behaviours that are uncomfortable, unnatural, wasteful or arrogant will backfire. Forcing people to support your brand’s distinction without providing any more value for them—or establishing the boundaries of the relationship—is irresponsible and will fail. Negative disruptions push your agenda without buy-in; positive disruptions enhance the experience and deepen understanding.

Your mission is to deliver a product, service, cause or idea to meet the needs of your stakeholders. A brand strategy maps out the core experiences, exploring from the outside perspective while considering the capacity of the organization to have influence or impact. Along the path, a good strategy recognizes the mindset of your audience at specific moments, identifying unique opportunities to engage individuals with your story and evolve the relationship.

A brand strategy defines the positive disruptions which reinforce and complement the brand. Positive disruptions are brand value.

Where do we find Positive Disruption?

Visual identities are common disruptions. Colours, shapes, imagery and structure are significant reference points and make it easy to connect. But an overwhelmingly unique visual experience isn’t always reasonable or positive, and just repeating your logo everywhere is less productive that you’d think.

Language clues are helpful. Language drives the culture or the organization, and the tone delivers the brand with character. Sharing a familiar language with your stakeholders builds relationships that are hard to break. Language can polarize audiences, though, so make sure to have message strategies that are inclusive across different yet relevant stakeholders.

Patterns and rituals are valuable, creating habits that are the equivalent to a secret handshake— conspicuously absent when expected; comfortably reassuring when shared. A ritual that enhances the experience is rooted in the culture of the brand, celebrating points of distinction and rewarding loyalty.

Have you mapped your core brand experience from start to finish? Have you considered all the senses, beyond just marketing campaigns and whimsical creativity? Have you considered all stakeholder groups, thinking beyond only the customer experience? If you’ve only considered a single moment of interaction—or you’re simply adding your logo to every surface—you are missing plenty of opportunities to engage your stakeholders in the full brand experience.

You own your brand’s experience.

I get frustrated when people, especially those involved with social media, claim that the consumer owns the brand. For those making this statement, the logic says that because people are talking about your brand—especially on social media—and because they are sharing the story of your brand—perhaps even without you—that somehow your customers own the brand.

There is a nuance to this belief that compromises your success: If you ignore the brand strategy because you believe you no longer own the brand, your organization is doomed.

Yes, each customer holds their own perception of the brand. In fact, every stakeholder has their own version of the brand story in their head. And when they share the story with other people, they may or may not be sharing it in a way that will make you happy. It’s called word-of-mouth, and you don’t get to own it.

People hold the conversations about the brand. They don’t own the brand experience.

We’ve always had word-of-mouth. In fact, the world had word-of-mouth before any other form of marketing. The speed of conversations in social media is unprecedented, but it doesn’t make the conversations something new. Word-of-mouth is just different stakeholders sharing stories about their perception of the experience.

But those are just their stories; you still control the experience they are talking about. You still brew the coffee or fly the airplanes or teach the students or feed the hungry or organize the masses or fight the oppressors. Your organization still acts in accordance with your brand story, and delivers an experience.

Tom Asacker said in a tweet to me, “The experience shapes the story, and the story shapes the experience. The key is to be strategic with both.” There has to be a balance between the two—both anchored in the strategy—where the organization builds an experience in pursuit of its goals, and give supporters (and perhaps detractors) something to share with word-of-mouth.

With a brand strategy, you define the experience first. You take a stand for what you believe in, make a promise, and set yourself up to deliver the promise. Then you tell a story; you capture people’s imagination and invite them to share your cause. Once the brand is experienced and a story is shared, there is a constant mixing of the two, drawing people deeper and deeper into a relationship. You own the brand experience while you embrace their stories and explore more of your own.

Then it’s good to let everyone talk about it. Because they will.

Everything matters.

You’ve probably heard many times that your brand experience is the result of everything. Of course, that means absolutely everything. All of the good things, all the not-quite-as-good things, and all the things you’d rather forget. Your organization’s brand experience even includes things you are probably not even aware of.

Admittedly, this can feel a little overwhelming at times. With everything we have to do each day just to operate, we simply don’t have the time or attention to spend on the tiniest of details. Ignoring the issues, though, is reckless.

A brand strategy anchored by a compelling vision, a clear mission and spirited values is how you ensure that everything—absolutely everything—tells your story.

Every instance that is recognized as connected to the brand will have some amount of impact on the perception of the brand. And it all adds up.

As a leader, your role is to set the vision in motion, and then build a skilled team that will act upon your mission. A trusted team—guided by clear values—will ensure every detail of the brand experience is in line with a consistent story. Every experience; every message; every sight, sound and texture; every interaction; conscious or sub-conscious; everything.

The reason we document our vision, mission and values is to ensure that everyone we’ve hired—everyone responsible for delivering the brand experience—is connected to the exact same goals. We give people a cause to belong to, and then give them permission to find all the different ways to advance that cause. They will face choices that may be critical, opportunistic or simply functional, but when we are confident they share our story and a commitment to the vision, we can trust our team to make choices—big or little choices—that matter.