Some days I wonder if customer service has become a lost art.

The Henry Wadsworth Longfellow nursery rhyme captures my thoughts about customer service. “When she was good, she was very good indeed, But when she was bad, she was horrid.”

When customer service is good, it is very good indeed. But when it is bad, customers leave frustrated, angry, or both. They walk away, never to return.

“A customer is the most important visitor on our premises; he is not dependent on us.
We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption in our work. He is the purpose of it.
He is not an outsider in our business. He is part of it.
We are not doing him a favor by serving him.
He is doing us a favor by giving us an opportunity to do so.”

Mahatma Gandhi 

Who do you serve?

Do you know? Maybe, maybe not. 

What stands out as most important is answering, “Why do we do this work and for whom?”

Your customers are the reason, perhaps the only reason your organization exists. 

Customers play a vital role in the transformation of excellence. Their needs define the products and services we offer. Their feedback often drives innovation and improvement. 

Their success becomes our success. The realization of that success depends on if and how we respond to some of these questions:

  • Who do you serve?
  • How do you listen to those you serve?
  • What do you know about them and their needs?
  • How do you determine the products and services to meet those needs?
  • How do customers access products/services or information about them?
  • How do you seek and respond to feedback from customers, positive and negative?
  • How do you know you have met and exceeded customer expectations?

Customer service is not a department. Everyone owns responsibility for how you serve with excellence. Every action, every interaction demonstrates a philosophy grounded in building relationships. Will your customers never forget how you made them feel?

What Are the Key Characteristics of Service Excellence?

“The magic formula that successful businesses have discovered is to treat customers like guests and employees like people.”

—Tom Peters

Leadership

Extraordinary service doesn’t begin with customers. It originates through employees. Leaders who respect and build relationships with staff establish the foundation for excellent service to thrive. 

Mission of Service Excellence

Known worldwide for excellent guest service, the Ritz-Carleton strives to create unforgettable experiences. César Ritz embedded his belief in the operations and culture of the organization. 

“The customer is never wrong!”  The Ladies and Gentlemen who serve Ladies and Gentlemen know, live, exude the Ritz-Carlton Credo, Motto, and the Three Steps of Service.

I had the opportunity to attend a meeting at the Dallas Ritz-Carleton and felt first-hand their legendary service. Everything reflected a long-standing culture of exquisite service and impeccable staff. The company had graciously agreed to share with a group of education leaders their philosophies of customer service and hiring, developing, and valuing their Ladies and Gentlemen. 

The focus on building that culture and designing the processes to support their level of service demonstrated that any organization could do what the Ritz-Carlton had accomplished. The Ritz Carlton representative shared the commitment and the will to stay the course and remain true to their founder’s vision of making guests the center of their work. 

As we waited for our car in front of the hotel, I casually commented to my colleague that I wished I had stopped at the gift shop for a bottle of water before starting our three-hour drive back to Houston. 

Before I even took a breath after that sentence, a Gentleman came up behind me with cold bottled water for each of my colleagues and me. I never asked for anything, but overhearing my wish, he sprang into action. 

They say seeing is believing. Even as a visitor to the property, I felt seen, meaningful, and valued. 

Listening and Learning

Listening to our customers sounds easy. We revel in their positive comments and shudder at every criticism. Sometimes, we stop listening because we do not want to hear what they might say.

A word of warning—don’t ask if you do not want the truth, and don’t ask if you have no intention of responding to the truth. 

Every time I fly or stay in a hotel, I receive an email with a link to a survey. Of course, I would always respond with what went well and, occasionally, offer suggestions for improvements. 

After responding to these surveys for a couple of years, I finally stopped responding, even to offer praise. Why? I never received any type of confirmation that they listened beyond the familiar words when you complete the survey, “Thanks for sharing your experience. We appreciate your feedback.”

I received one of those surveys from a hotel in a small town in Kentucky. The staff was extraordinarily friendly, but the rooms needed new furniture and numerous physical repairs.

 None of these issues caused me any undue hardship, but I maintain high standards for my “on the road” home. One more time, I gave my honest feedback highlighting the excellent service from the staff and the opportunities I saw to improve the overall conditions of their rooms. 

For the first and only, time I received a very kind email wanting to understand my comments better and explaining that plans existed for all the problems I had noted. The manager went on to add how he hoped I would be pleased with the upgrades upon my next visit. 

I didn’t receive a form email from [email protected]. This email came directly from the manager of the hotel.

 I replied and thanked him for taking a personal interest in my concerns. If my work had brought me back to that town, you can bet I would have given them another opportunity to meet my expectations.

Alignment: Action, Processes, Results

Do you want to delight your customers?

Give them more than they ever expected.

That level of excellence in customer service requires an intentional alignment of your actions, processes, and results. This intention begins with understanding your system and the focus of leaders to communicate a clear mission. 

They persistently set high expectations for excellence. Leaders and everyone in the organization model the organizational values in all interactions. Iterative and continual improvement of documented and communicated processes support the alignment that can achieve transformational results.  

Zappos began as an online shoe store. Their growth has been phenomenal and now consists of 10 companies under the Zappos umbrella. 

If you visit their website, you will notice the alignment of their mission, actions, processes, and results. Their motto, Powered by Service, sums up the overall culture for customer interactions, employee engagement, and organizational culture. Ten values, beginning with Deliver WOW for Service, powers the Zappos culture, brand, and business strategies.⁠3   

Would they experience the same success without this laser focus on serving their customers and their employees? Probably not since this alignment of actions, processes, and results differentiates them from their competitors. Their key leaders took a deliberate approach for engaging customers and meeting their needs.

Where should you begin to connect with those you serve? 

First, know who they are. Until you have clarity here, everything else will remain a best guess. You cannot serve everyone. You cannot be all things to all people. 

What if you started by simply asking and listening to the people who buy your products or services? Do you know their needs, expectations, problems? We think we know these answers. I have conducted enough focus groups to know that what we think they want and what we provide often do not align. 

What if you watched, for one day, how employees and leaders treated customers? What would you learn? 

What if you watched the response of the customers? Do they walk away, delighted or disgusted? Would they tell their friends and neighbors about how special they felt and how you offered a great solution to their specific problem? 

The advice of Charles Francis Adams, Sr., the son of John Quincy Adams and the grandson of John Adams, offers a good reminder.

“No one ever attains very eminent success by simply doing what is required;
it is the amount and excellence of what is over, and above the required,
that determines the greatness of ultimate distinction.” 

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And always—be and become #yourbest.