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The Art of Customer Service



This blog entry is a response to a topic suggestion by Douglas Hanna. It covers the art of customer service, a subject that is near and dear to my heart.

1. Start at the top. The CEO's attitude towards customer service is the primary determinant of the quality of service that a company delivers. If the CEO thinks that customers are a pain in the ass who always want something for nothing, that attitude will permeate the company, and service will be lousy. So if you are the CEO, get your act together. If you're not the CEO, either convince her to change her mind, quit, or learn to live with mediocrity--in that order.

2. Put the customer in control. The best kind of customer service happens when management enables employees to put the customer in control. This require two leaps of faith: first, that management trusts customers not take advantage of the situation; second, that management trust employees with this empowerment. If you can make these leaps, then the quality of your customer service will zoom; if not, there is nothing more frustrating than companies copping the attitude that something is “against company policy.”

3. Take responsibility for your shortcomings. A company that takes responsibility for its shortcomings is likely to provide great customer service for two reasons: first, it's acknowledged that it's the company's fault and the company's responsibility to fix. Second, customers won't go through the aggravating process of getting you to accept blame--if you got to the airport on time and checked your baggage, it's hard to see how it's your fault that it got sent to the wrong continent. (Except if you were a schmuck to the ticket counter person.)

4. Don't point the finger. This is the flip side of taking responsibility. As computer owners we all know that when a program doesn't work, vendors often resort to finger pointing: “It's Apple's system software.” “It's Microsoft's 'special' way of doing things.” “It's the way Adobe created PDF.” A great customer service company doesn't point the finger--it figures out what the solution is regardless of whose fault the problem is and makes the customer happy. As my mother used to say, “You're either part of the problem or part of the solution.” (By the way, as a rule of thumb, the company with the largest market capitalization is the one at fault.)

5. Don't finger the pointer. Great customer service companies don't shoot the messenger. When it comes to customer service, it could be a customer, an employee, a vendor, or a consultant who's doing the pointing. The goal is not to silence the messenger, but to fix the problem that the messenger brought so that other customers don't have a bad experience.

6. Don't be paranoid. One of the most common justifications for anti-service is “What if everyone did this?” For example, what if everyone bought a new wardrobe when we lost their luggage? Or, to cite the often-told, perhaps apocryphal, story of a customer returning a tire to Nordstrom even though everyone knows Nordstrom doesn't sell tires, what if everyone started returning tires to Nordstrom? The point is: Don't assume that the worst case is going to be the common case. There will be outlier abusers, yes, but generally people are reasonable. If you put in a policy to take care of the worst case, bad people, it will antagonize and insult the bulk of your customers.

7. Hire the right kind of people. To put it mildly, customer service is not a job for everyone. The ideal customer service person derives great satisfaction by helping people and solving problems. This cannot be said of every job candidate. It's the company's responsibility to hire the right kind of people for this job because it can be a bad experience for the employee and the customer when you hire folks without a service orientation.

8. Under promise and over deliver. The goal is to delight a customer. For example, the signs in the lines at DisneyLand that tell you how long you'll have to wait from each point are purposely over-stated. When you get to the ride in less time, you're delighted. Imagine if the signs were understated--you'd be angry because Disneyland lied to you.

9. Integrate customer service into the maintstream. Let's see: sales makes the big bucks. Marketing does the fun stuff. Engineers, well, you leave them alone in their dark caves. Accounting cuts the paychecks. And support? Do to the dirty work of talking to pissed off customers when nothing else works. Herein lies the problem: customer service has as much to do with a company's reputation as sales, marketing, engineering, and finance. So integrate customer service into the mainstream of the company and do not consider it profit-sucking necessary evil. A customer service hero deserves all the accolades that a sales, marketing, or engineering one does.

10. Put it all together. To put several recommendations in action, suppose a part breaks in the gizmo that a customer bought from you. First, take responsibility: “I'm sorry that it broke.” Second, don't point the finger--that is, don't say, “We buy that part from a supplier.” Third, put the customer in control: “When would like the replacement by?” Fourth, under promise and over deliver: Send it at no additional charge via a faster shipping method than necessary. That's the way to create legendary customer service.


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Guy Kawasaki is a managing director of Garage Technology Ventures, an early-stage venture capital firm and a columnist for Forbes.com. Previously, he was an Apple Fellow at Apple Computer, Inc. where he was one of the individuals responsible for the success of the Macintosh computer. Guy is the author of eight books including The Art of the Start, Rules for Revolutionaries, How to Drive Your Competition Crazy, Selling the Dream, and The Macintosh Way. He has a BA from Stanford University and an MBA from UCLA as well as an honorary doctorate from Babson College.
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