Exceptional Service, Exceptional Profit

By: Micah Solomon



Think about this for a second - have you ever had an experience with a company that was SO BAD that you swore you would never give them another piece of business, so long as you both shall live? 

What about the flip side - have you ever found a restaurant or a hotel that is so treats you so well that you would never even think about going somewhere else?  Now how about the middle ground - where things are “good enough”, but you wouldn’t go out of your way to give your hard earned cash to that company.

Every single day, with every single interaction people have with your company, they are deciding where along that scale you fall.  With Exceptional Service, Exceptional Profit, you’ll how loyal customers have made all the difference for the companies that the authors have been involved in, like The Ritz-Carlton, BVLGARI, Walt Disney and Oasis Disc. 

The magic, the authors say, is when you, your systems, and your employees anticipate the needs of your customers, and respond to them even before they realise there is a need. 

Come along with us on this journey, and you’ll learn how to turn Exceptional Service into Exceptional Profit.

The Four Elements of a Satisfied Customer

Of course, jumping right to the tools and techniques of world-class service organisations without first covering the fundamentals would be like deciding what colour you wanted the drapes when the house is on fire.  Here’s are the foundation elements you need before you graduate to the advanced course.

First, you need a perfect product.  A perfect product doesn’t mean that it has to be free of defects 100% of the time, it just has function properly within foreseeable boundaries.  For instance, having a phone that drops calls when you hold it in a normal fashion, would not fit this bill. 

Second, you need to have a service delivered by caring people.  This one is pretty straightforward.  If your people don’t care about the your customers, you will lose.

Third, the service needs to be delivered in a timely fashion.  The trick here is to understand what your customers think is “timely” is more important than what you think timely is.  For some people, waiting a week for an answer from a lawyer would seem like an eternity, but if you asked the lawyer who did the work, it was a “rush” job.  The only opinion that counts is that of the customer.

Lastly, you need an effective problem resolution process. You are going to screw things up.  If you haven’t yet, congratulations, you can probably also walk on water.  Understanding exactly what to do when you drop the ball is critical to your success.  Let’s talk about this one in more detail.

Turning Service Failures Around

First of all, service failures will happen.  The good news is, if you fix it properly, you’ll be better off on the other side than if the problem had never occurred at all.  Why?  Because until the problem occurs, the customer hasn’t had the opportunity to see you step up the plate in a big way.  This is the first opportunity you have to create a loyal customer for life.  Do the math on what a lifetime customer would be worth to you, and you’ll quickly see why any effort here far outweighs the costs.

So what should you do in order to turn things around?  How about using the Italian Mama method.  Consider what an Italian Mama would do if one of their precious toddlers took a tumble:  “Oh my darling, look at what happened!  Oh, you skinned your knee on that walkway, my bambino; let me kiss that terrible wound.  Shall we watch a little TV?  And here’s a lollipop for you while I bandage you up!

Ok, so maybe not exactly like that, but you get the picture.  But notice one thing - there was no talk of what the child did wrong, or what they can do next time to avoid the situation.  All that’s there is making the child feel better.  Here are the 4 steps you can take to make the Italian Mama method work for you.

  1. Apologise and ask forgiveness, in a person and non-mechanical way.  Don’t use canned responses like “We’re sorry for any inconvenience this has caused” or tell the customer something they could have done differently.  Apologise like a human being.  For extra points, amplify the whole ordeal like the Italian Mama would do - make a BIG DEAL out of the situation.  Remember, you are trying to leave this person with an impression of what it’s going to be like the NEXT time something goes wrong.  Make it count.
  2. Go over the complaint. Simply review what the issue is with the customer so you understand what happened.  Sometimes, customers do stupid things like not plugging something in, or forgetting to hit the on switch.  Don’t, under any circumstances, ask people questions like “did you plug it in”?  I dare you to listen to that question from somebody when you are already in an agitated state of mind, and not have the urge to punch the person in the face.  Re-phrase those questions to something less irritating like “sometimes the the wall connection is loose and can’t connect - can you check the outlet and see if that’s the case”?
  3. Fix the problem and then follow up.  Following up is critical to “close the loop”.  Do it immediately, especially when you’ve handed the problem to somebody else in the organisation. 
  4. Document the solution so that the mistake only happens once.  As the authors note, a mistake that happens twice should be assumed to be the fault of the process.  Fix things once, and make sure you have the mechanisms in place so that it doesn’t happen again.

Now that we’ve covered what it takes to get a satisfied customer, let’s ramp it up a notch or two and figure out how to create raving fans that spend money with us for life.

Building Anticipation Into the System

When we are talking about anticipatory service, individualised service is the name of the game.  You’ll need to ensure that all of your employees are able to do this - no matter how briefly they’ve been with your company or how poor their memories are.  This means you need to build a system.  Here are the 7 principles that should guide you in building the system.

  1. Keep the systems simple.  Don’t track too much stuff, and make sure that the things you do track are at the fingertips of your frontline staff.  For instance, if the last time Mr. Smith stayed at your hotel he specifically asked for extra pillows for his room, make sure that when he checks in next time that those pillows are already in his room.  When the Ritz first launched the system, they gave their team the goal of noting 5 preferences, and to satisfy 3 of them. That’s enough.
  2. If it’s important to your customer, it belongs in the system.  Product or service preferences - stated or observed - belong in the system.  Personal ties to your establishment belong in your system.  And then, anything the customer tells you is important to them, belongs in the system.
  3. The information needs to be available in real time.  If you aren’t able to respond in real-time, your entire organisation won’t be connected to the critical data it needs in order to anticipate customer’s needs.
  4. Preferences change.  Customer preferences change over time.  For instance, just because I ordered a vodka martini at dinner last night doesn’t mean I want the same thing next night, so don’t bring me one without asking.  Don’t make assumptions about things where the preference could change. 
  5. Moods change - track them. Understanding how satisfied your customers are over time is critical to ensuring a loyal customer.
  6. Don’t blow it with wooden delivery. I made the misfortune of being “greeted” by a rental car agent in Florida who did just that.  She was saying all the right things, like “it’s been a pleasure serving you today”, but the entire time I was at the desk all I could think in my head was “you are such a liar!”.
  7. Be careful when using technology to ask for permission.  There’s a fine line between clever and creepy.  Don’t ask for personal and private information online. 

Selecting the Right People to Execute the System

You’ve covered how to create a satisfied customer, how to turn service failures around, and then how to put your anticipatory service into action with a system.  Executing this system, however, requires a talented and dedicated staff.  How you select them, orient them to your culture and train them is critical to your success.

One important thing to keep in mind is that, with few exceptions, we are already our true selves by the time we enter the workforce.  That lady at car rental company that clearly didn’t care about her job - she’s been like that for some time, and no amount of training or orientation is going to change her.  Don’t hire these type of people in the first place.

What SHOULD you hire?  Although every business is different, here are the top 5 traits that the authors have found to be most important in creating anticipatory service.

  1. Genuine personal warmth. You can only fake this for so long, so make sure you are hiring people who radiate personal warmth.
  2. Empathic skill. You need to have employees that can empathise with customers, especially when things go wrong.  If a customer is having a bad day, you’ll need an employee who can remember what’s it like to have a bad day, and then treat them accordingly.
  3. An optimistic upbeat attitude.  Those who are pessimists need not apply.  Keep in mind that in some positions excessive optimism can be dangerous - like a financial forecaster for instance.  But in services positions, you want this trait in spades.
  4. A team orientation. This one is pretty straightforward.  Anybody who ever utters the words “that’s not my job” is not fit for a service role.
  5. Conscientiousness.  This trait is fairly broad, but in essence what we are looking for here are people who will work hard, be responsible and make sure the details get looked after.  When you are trying to create exceptional service, the details matter.  Make sure you have people who will take care of them.

Before we wrap up this section, just a quick note about the orientation process.  If you truly are creating an exceptional service environment, your new recruits won’t be used to working in an environment like yours.  You only get one chance to create a first impression, and your orientation process is going to set the tone for the length of their employment with you. 

Here’s the important part: don’t use the orientation to train for skills.  Use it to make sure they understand your core customer service principles, your company values and how your employee is an important part of your overall mission.

Hello and Goodbye - the two crucial moments.

There is plenty of scientific research to show that human beings are very selective at what we store in our memories.  The things that we typically store over anything else is the beginning and end of an experience.  If we are in the business of creating great memories for our customers and clients (we are), then we’d do well to focus on creating a great hello and goodbye.

When creating a great hello, a few things stand out as the most critical.  First, it’s a basic human need to be acknowledged.  Don’t believe me?  Have you ever been to a coffee shop where you’ve waited at the counter and it took more than 10 seconds for somebody to acknowledge your presence?  How did that feel? 

How you get acknowledged is important as well.  Let’s say that you and I are friends, and we get together after we haven’t seen each other for a few months.  What if I greeted you like this: “hey, how’s it going?”  How do you feel?  What if instead, I greeted you like this: “oh my god, it’s been at least two months since I’ve seen you!  How are you?”  How do you feel now?  How you acknowledge a person sets the tone for the entire experience.

Now for the goodbye.  You’ve taken great pains to create an incredible customer experience throughout the process.  It seems almost unfair that after all of that, one small mistake with the goodbye could taint the entire process, right?  Here’s what to do in order to get the most out of your goodbyes. 

First, personalise the goodbye with information about that particular customer. 

Second, make it resonate with something extra like a parting gift.  Make sure that’s it’s unexpected, as well.  For instance, if you are in finance, it’s customary to give your client an expensive pen to sign a deal.  That’s expected.  Something unexpected would be a weekend away for your client and their spouse.  Just after you do that “something extra”, invite your customer to come back and do business with you again. 

Third, make the goodbye long-lasting.  Unless it would be considered inappropriate, send a follow up note thanking them for your business.  As the authors say, this is the best $1 investment you may ever make.