The alternative to great customer service is...

[Cross-posted form Inside Retailing.]

Let us nail down the incontestable truths first; or at least those facts about customer service that I hold as true:

  • Customer service is easy to understand.

  • Customer service is hard to implement.

  • Customer service is hardest to copy.

  • Customer service is different for everybody.

  • Customer service can make the difference between success and failure.

Why is customer service so hard?

A clue can be found when you compare it to the other dimensions of business which are (almost equally) hard to replicate. Think dynamic brand (like Apple) or innovation (3M).

These aspects are hard to replicate because the activities that are the building blocks of innovation, brand and great customer service are all rooted in organisational CULTURE. And companies who are successful at these aspects are successful usually because the founder or an early leader in the growth stage of the company laid down those foundations of the culture.

It is very hard, if not impossible (under normal circumstances) for an organisation to be changed because the power of a strongly embedded culture is almost always stronger than one individual leader.

The alternative to great customer service is great systems; rules and regulations and procedures that will govern the process of customer interaction.

It is the only alternative, but it is a very poor one. Because we all know that there are always exceptions to every rule because no system can withstand the everyday demands of customers.

So if the only alternative is an unacceptable alternative, what do we do?

The clue is in the bracketed phrase I used above – under normal circumstances. Cultures do change and can be changed, but what it needs is abnormal circumstances. Leaders who are adept at this talk about creating a ‘burning platform’ - an analogy of the type of situation you face when you are on an oil rig that has caught fire.

Hold that mental image for a moment.

If your organisation is going to change then it needs a dramatic set of circumstances to create the awareness and effect the change. If it doesn’t exist naturally, a great leader will fearlessly create one.

It may mean ripping up contracts, moving office, changing suppliers. It may mean clearing out the top management. Firing or promoting people in line with the (new) behaviours you want to establish.

I must be quite brutal here: talking about it won’t cut it, strategy sessions and vision statements and customer service charters won’t cut it.

Was the GFC wasn’t an ideal burning platform opportunity that we ignored? Instead of price-cutting that is more like blood-letting, what would have been the outcome of we simply got closer to our customers to the extent that we became indispensable?

A service-orientated culture (people who truly care) is the rare difference. This decade’s benchmark company is  Zappos - DOWNLOAD the PPT and/or google their story.

If your company was not founded on a culture of great service, then the only option is to become a fearless leader, because the alternative to customer service is simply not an alternative.

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