The Tissue Principle

Two stories on the wires this week – one stateside ( and the other local, all about customer service, and both stories commented on extensively. It continues to amaze me that such an ‘old’ topic still elicits debate.


The local story is about a sales assistant asking a customer (who had the sniffles) not to touch the merchandise. Customer rage ensued. The question asked was: Is the customer always right? Everybody’s response is usually: “no, but…”


And this is why (most retailers) will never be able to improve customer service; they keep asking the wrong questions!

The question implies that:

  •  a customer is valuable thing,

  • there is a right and wrong (= adversarial relationship),

  • and that the ‘answer’ matters.


This question leads you down the wrong track, because:

  • Customers are not valuable, they’re a commodity. What you need are fans and disciples and friends (i.e. real relationships.)

  • Right and wrong does not matter; all that matters is whether the person is/will be a fan of your business. It is not about identifying who is at fault, but about why something happened to prevent the customer from becoming a fan.

  • The answer is irrelevant because it won’t help fix the root cause of the problem.


Having customer service as a sustainable competitive advantage is one of the most valuable assets a retailer can have. If it was as easy as simply asking staff or as easy as training your staff to be nice and to smile or to even cope with customer insults, then everybody would have done it.  As a trainer, this is an awesome admission to make.


The reality is none of these things (in isolation) work. Customer service training must be designed to help uncover the path to creating the desired service levels. A 1-day program does not improve service; it is simply the start of the journey.


Creating a service culture is not easy; fixing a poor service culture is harder. The model to use is a framework originally developed by Tom Peters (& Waterman) as McKinsey consultants more than twenty years ago. It identifies the relationship between the seven variables that delivers service excellence; and ALL of these variables must be addressed to create a service culture that can be a sustainable competitive advantage.


One of the commentators suggested that offering the customer a tissue would have been a simple solution, and that made my day! (I know I should get out more…)

The solution is principally the same as the one that should have been applied at Woolies check-out; which I will from here on refer to as the Tissue-Principle. It is elegant and effective and it solves a real customer need. And THAT is what turns customers into fans.