Strategies for creating and sustaining a competitive edge
are, often, focused on large- scale efforts around product design, financial
repositioning, structural-realignment, and capital investment. While these
elements do sit at the heart of grandiose plans for taking on and beating the
competition, I have been reminded, of late, that excellent customer service is
the soul of most business success. Perhaps it is the twelve week marathon
through the blended holiday season that has my antennas tuned into the, often,
overlooked little things that keep customers coming back or turns them away.
I had the good fortune, and time, to spend at one of my favorite malls. Motivated by the ornamental light display at the front entrance of a prominent retailer, I entered that coliseum of specialized merchants armed with a credit card, a thirst for the sale and driven by my own sense of carpe diem. Once I had secured the item that I knew my wife would want me to have, I stood at the counter, credit card vividly on display and waited while the customer service representative engaged in a cell phone discussion with someone who, apparently, was having a dramatically extended bad life moment. The customer service representative’s tone suggested that the bad life moment was going to extend far into the evening. While I did not envy the person on the other end of that conversation, I was perplexed as to why I was being privy to a conversation that had nothing to do with my purchase. I flashed my sainted smile, pointed to the item I intended to purchase and held my credit card in that ‘don’t-leave-home-without- it’ pose that is common to the shopping experience. Now, part of knowing how to be a good student of human moves, is to know when to step back from irritation and become a patient observer of the human process. I decided to wait and see how long it would take for this person to realize that I was there to give the organization my money (on credit), in exchange for an item they want me to purchase. Fortunately, there was no one behind me, so I took that to mean that I was being granted the opportunity to time the event. I used the waiting time to reflect on the little things about customer service that are often taken for granted and have such an impact on the bottom line.
Customers have choices. Beyond specific brands that can only be purchased in certain outlets, customers can find most of what they need in a number of different places. If price, location and products are equal, then the only difference is customer service. How many, potential, dollars are lost because someone had a bad customer service encounter? I wondered if my ‘Customer second, me first’ rep had gotten that message.
Customers have networks. A bad customer service encounter can be broadcast by way of group text messages, email blasts, LinkedIn networks, Facebook groups and YouTube in a matter of minutes. Once something goes out into the Internet universe, it is difficult to reel it back in. There have been a number of retail organizations that have devoted precious resources to trying to catch the tail of a bad customer service experience after it has gained momentum in cyberspace.
Customers have C3 leverage. After all, it is the customer’s Cash, Check or Credit Card that bridges the relationship between the customer and the organization. The customer service rep is responsible for making sure that bridge is always reinforced. The organization is not granting the customer the right to shop there. The customer is granting the organization the privilege of trying to service their needs. Sometimes that understanding gets lost in translation.
During the two and a half minutes that I waited, I thought about the upcoming holiday season and recognized that what I experienced was not an indictment against the thousands of customer service representatives who provide consistently, excellent service, but a reminder of what could happen if the customer is taken for granted.