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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Every businessperson is a service agent first.

Through a strange set of circumstances, a junior colleague was scrambled on short notice last week to be the lead contact for our company at an industry tradeshow.

As he was getting ready for his first major solo customer-side contact, someone in our group asked him if he was prepared to answer customer questions onsite. He rattled off corporate positioning detail and product knowledge like the most heavily-trained sale professional, gaining confidence as he did. As he was about to leave, we threw him one more question.

“What if someone asks you for service?”


“We’re a service business that runs 24/7. How do you handle a customer who approaches and would like you to help with a service issue?”

Blank stare.

“Do you know how to get him / her to someone locally who can help?”

We spent some needed time giving our friend some critical detail on how to resolve a few service issues without reaching out, and hooked him up with someone that would know most local customers and could step in to provide assistance.

This story is unfortunate, but not unusual. Every time you see a company’s social media expert ask a customer with a complaint if they have called customer care, it is this dynamic at work. We’re a culture of corporate specialists. If you are unlucky enough to work in a corporate headquarters, picture all the people that could serve a customer immediately, if one approached them in a crowded airport and asked for help. Probably not many. (As an aside, are any of the faces C-level executives?)

It’s flawed logic to say that because serving a customer is not a role that everyone in an organization plays, not everyone needs to know it is done. Anyone in a support role ultimately plays a part in serving customers. Consequently, we should know how that job is done and be able to do it. Support organizations (that army of staffers most of us are part of) provide better internal service and customer support when we know the details of the customer experience.

The Army gets this. The idea that “every soldier is a rifleman first”, doesn't mean that infantry is everyone’s primary responsibility. It means that everyone should know how to help the organization achieve its most basic objective, because that knowledge helps the organization better support those that play that critical role.

Zappos knows it too. I hear experts claim that the Zappos culture can’t be replicated – that their culture is specific to their business model and doesn’t translate to other organizations. That may be. One aspect of their business that is transferable to any company is their core understanding of each function’s role in supporting the overall mission.

My new colleague did spectacularly well in his impromptu field assignment, because he carries a service orientation and had the willingness to learn a role others might feel was beneath his level.

Organizations that aren’t top performers are the ones that don’t stress to all employees the importance of understanding the service role.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Customer-centric leadership? I'll take Sir Richard, thanks.

We’re in an interesting time, where the ubiquity of business has created an environment where some CEO’s have become celebrities like their entertainment and athletics counterparts.

There has been much written about whether having a celebrity CEO is good or bad for a business. But it is good for service businesses, in that celebrity CEO’s keep companies honest by keeping them in touch with customers at the highest levels.

Lack of interaction between management and customers is a problem that has long plagued all kinds of companies. How many service businesses do you support through a regular billing cycle, for which if the CEO rang your doorbell on Saturday morning, you would recognize them?

The flipside also applies. I know several senior leaders who couldn’t pick one of their customers out of a lineup. Not that they don’t know any individual customers, more that they are too far removed to be empathetic to their customers’ lives and experiences.

But take a handful of celebrity CEO’s. Richard Branson of Virgin, Mark Cuban of HDNet, Gary Kelly of Southwest, Tony Hsieh of Zappos. They’re highly recognizable to their customers, but more importantly, they are often caught moving among them in the service environment. When a customer recognizes one of these business leaders in the service environment, there’s a good chance they’ll take a second to give feedback – good or bad – about their encounter. There’s also a good chance that these CEO’s spend a minute or two asking customers about how their experiences are going.

Feedback – solicited and unsolicited – begets questions that CEO’s ask their teams. Why do we have this policy? Couldn’t we change this process to make things easier? Why can’t we deliver this part of the experience better?

That kind of connectivity is contagious. Leaders that report to a CEO that spends a good portion of their time interacting with customers, aren’t going to spend less, and so on and so on.

Many senior leaders never bring these questions up because they don’t have the context to do so. Their only connection to customers is through the customer satisfaction reporting and 4 layers of staffers at corporate headquarters. The only hard questions they have to answer come from Wall Street. If that’s the only constituent input to base future business direction, it’s a bad one. Celebrity CEO’s may have their problems – it seems that more of them are prone to incarceration, though that may be a visibility thing too – but for customer service driven by the interaction of business leaders and customers, they have the built-in advantage of customer connection.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

We’re running out of stupid customers.

Years ago, I worked with a company President that remarked on multiple locations that his best customers were stupid, and what he really needed from sales & marketing was for them to find more stupid customers.

What he meant was that, at least on the surface, customers that showed the highest levels of operating profit were those that were willing to sustain a long-term relationship with our organization but did not price-compare among service brands. As a result, the price they paid was dramatically above-market.

Apart from the customer contempt that this remark showed, it also showed his (and that organization’s & really, that entire industry’s) fundamental lack of understanding of cost-to-serve and customer lifetime value. As the industry rejected any effort to base it’s business model off of contemporary service pricing schemes, it developed another industry comprised completely of intermediaries who (smartly) made their money by helping end users make more informed decisions.

The pattern repeats itself across service industries. Airlines had their own version of the imperfect information problem. Wireless and cable services are well known examples, but any industry that has an ongoing service relationship model faces a version of the same thing – a company’s commitment to an existing profit stream favors new customers, allowing them better access to value than existing customers exhibiting brand loyalty.

Is this a fair outcome?

It doesn't matter what the company thinks. It isn’t perceived as fair when the relationship customer accidentally gets a “service invitation” promotion in the mail, and calls the cable company for the new customer deal, only to be told their ineligible. (I have heard literally scores of those stories about cable companies)

The Internet changed many business models, and it has become the great equalizer when it comes to improving the information customers rely on to make purchase decisions. Small, loyal customers that once happily paid above-market prices today have full visibility to what a fair price is, and can compare their deal with that of others.

The counter I often hear – usually from pricing and finance organizations – is that “our company can’t afford to give those customers the same deal that new customers get.”

That’s a shortsighted answer. Those loyal customers are precisely the one that your competitors are targeting with their new customer offers. When they ultimately discover what their relationship is worth, they won’t be nearly as receptive to your matching offer. Some of the most intelligent people I know have run themselves ragged trying to figure out how to stop loyal customers paying above-market rates from churning from a business, without ever considering what loyalty looks like to a customer who learns that a prospect who has never put a penny into the company's coffers is more prized than their relationship.

The only thing that hasn’t exposed how bad this is as strategy is that in each industry, every competitor follows the same strategy. A company married to this business model inevitably loses that business to someone who isn’t, who doesn’t draw their profit from a small base of loyal stupid customers.

We don’t have perfect information yet, but it’s closer than it was 10 years ago and approaching rapidly. The pool of stupid customers is getting too small to sustain everybody. Amen to that, because it’s about time that these service industries started designing value into their offer, rather than dispatching search parties for the increasingly elusive stupid customer.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Sports. Just service encounters with extreme customer interaction.

I’m a sports fan.

My pragmatic side knows athletic competition is mostly arbitrary, but as entertainment businesses go, sports have some of the richest service environments developed.

Customer-to-customer interaction isn't just encouraged, it's expected. (In fact, without any other customers, sports entertainment would be a pretty silly service encounter indeed.) Front-line service providers (the athletes) prefer the environment when customers (fans) become part of the performance.

And so it is with today’s post.

With a nod to the ongoing Stanley Cup final series, here is how the Vancouver Canucks anthem singer Mark Donnelly and 18,500+ fans collaborate on production of Oh Canada. (Full disclaimer, I’m a born & raised western Canadian, though I would think this was a cool execution in any context.)

Notice that Mark raises the microphone to the crowd to indicate that it is their turn to carry the song. This isn’t a singer taking advantage of an unusually participative crowd, it’s the way the service encounter begins on Canucks game nights. Customers know & accept their role in the production. Even those attending for the first time pick up the social cues from other customers quickly enough to participate.

In this encounter, something so routine as the singing of a national anthem, when embraced by the customers, changes the entertainment experience and makes it much more compelling than it is in other venues.

It is the nature of sports experiences that the customer-customer interaction makes the experience richer. Customers arrive in the service environment ready for a heightened level of customer-customer interaction and co-production. But they didn’t always show up to Canucks games expecting to sing the national anthem. That built over time.

Ironically, customers’ ability to impact the result of their service experience is greater in almost every other type of service than entertainment. So how do you take a standard service environment and, like Mark Donnelly has done, create one where customers support each-others’ experiences? How do you develop, over time, the customer role in the production of the encounter?