I have a confession. When I was ten years old, I did a very nasty thing on Easter. I secretly watched my parents hide the eggs. As my cousins and siblings rushed into our yard to hunt, I calmly went straight to all of their hiding places! I “found” many more eggs! But they had a lot more fun. They screamed and smiled when they found an Easter egg; I was much less enthusiastic.
Customer service has for many years had its share of “cheers and smiles”. Not too long ago a mechanic fixed something he spotted as faulty when my car was on the rack and fixed it at no cost. A dozen bakers was a concept that everyone knew and often experienced. Today, such generous and unexpected behavior is rare. So what has made customer surprise so rare? and increasingly rare?
Part of its absence can be blamed on rising, sometimes unreasonable, customer expectations. After an excellent experience with Amazon, Disney or Jerry’s Bait Shop, our criterion for an A service is raised for all the other service providers we meet. Why does my order from Macy’s take so long when Amazon gets it to me in a day or less? Taxi rides are not the same after the convenience of Uber or Lyft. But one of the subtle perpetrators of surprise theft is an organization’s tendency to apply production thinking to customer experience.
Doing stuff versus making memories
When you buy a product, you receive an item; when you buy a service, you get an outcome and an experience surrounding that outcome. Unlike products, a service cannot be inventoried but is created each time. Hence, no economies of scale for mass production and no storage for rapid response to unexpected demand. The manufacturer controls the quality of product manufacturing and the processes that ensure effectiveness, not the buyer. Customers don’t show up at the factory to help. The opposite is true for the service: the buyer judges the quality of the manufacture of the memory. And if the client finds he’s late, it doesn’t matter what the records say.
Since the purchaser of the product does not participate in the manufacture of the product, the manufacturer largely focuses on the efficiency of internal processes. However, with the service, the buyer participates in the creation of the service experience. with the service provider. Therefore, the focus should be on the quality of the relationship with its co-creator, the customer. And ultimately, the recipient of a service does not own anything tangible – thus, the value of the service depends solely on a satisfying outcome and a positively memorable experience.
However, there is an even deeper dimension to the product-service difference. The main property of a product is the shape; the essential property of a service is emotion. Just as consistency is a product virtue, uniqueness is a service virtue. Six Sigma Black Belts have taught the world to eliminate gaps in processes so that manufacturing can generate greater productivity and higher revenue. While honoring efficiency and frugality, the service paradigm recognizes the criticality of the human dimension. It therefore focuses on empowered employees who can adjust, adapt and personalize service experiences to meet unique customer requirements.
The risk of trivializing a brand
Howard Schultz, founder and CEO of Starbucks, wrote to employees of his concern about “weakening the Starbucks experience” in favor of “commoditizing our brand.” It’s a classic example of the ineffective use of product thinking in a world of services.
“When we moved to automatic espresso machines,” Schultz wrote, “it solved a major problem in terms of speed of service and efficiency. At the same time, we overlooked the fact that we would be removing a lot of the romance and drama that was in playing with the use of La Marzocca machines.” “…the height of the machines…blocked the visual line of sight, the customer previously had to watch the drink being made and for the intimate experience with the barista.”
So what happens when you apply production thinking and variance elimination to delivering a service experience, especially since the very nature of surprise is variance? The most obvious examples are phone scripts. Remember, “Thanks for shopping at J-Mart next?” or “Do you want fries with that?” Some organizations require a specific script rather than relying on a consistent pattern – always greet warmly, put a smile in your voice, and sincerely thank each customer. But, unless the contact center operator is a world-class comedian, the customer is likely to experience robotics instead of authenticity. A souvenir made with ordinary vanilla is essentially not a souvenir at all.
The Fallacy of Affinity Programs
Applying affinity programs is another way process management is now trumping frontline ambassador leadership. For example, there was a time when a front desk clerk or gate attendant would make decisions about upgrading a room or an airplane seat. This created an emotional bond between employee and customer as well as a loving memory of the brand. “Thank you, Delta Airlines, for taking care of me when I needed it most.” Now the computer, with its programmed rule-based equity, makes the upgrade decision. Frequent flyers look at the monitor at the airport to determine if they’ve received an upgrade – there’s no connection to a person.
Now comes the missed opportunity part. If a frequent flyer gets an upgrade, they do not reconnect with a gate agent for a new boarding pass. Instead, the person boards with first class passengers and the computer generates a seat assignment. Therefore, the once surprised guest or passenger is now bewildered by this annoying and procedural event. Unfortunately, the hotel or airline’s quest to defend customers is completely lost. There’s no emotional connection, just an almost predictable outcome.
Discouraging innovation steals employee loyalty
While looking for a Forbes position on luxury service, I learned the power of waiting for innovation. This was illustrated with a quote from Gucci CEO Marco Bizzarri. “If you have a culture of respect,” he wrote, “creativity flows. You create that energy, and then people are more willing to take risks.” It came up early in my research, and I noticed in interviews that front-line employees at luxury brands had high morale and commented on the freedom to go the extra mile to delight a customer looking luxury. “I love it here because I can solve problems and be imaginative in what I can do for my customers,” said a salesman at a successful Rolls-Royce dealership.
The opposite is the front-line customer service employee who must “follow procedures and do as you’re told” when every fiber of their body sees a loyalty approach they’re not authorized to attempt. “A little part of me dies every day,” a restaurant waitress told me recently after reporting that she couldn’t deviate from the menu, even though all of the ingredients for my unique request were readily available and easily adjustable.
Customers today expect experiences to be sparkling and sparkling with icing on the cake. Meeting the challenge of rising expectations requires rethinking the role of employees who are face-to-face, ear-to-ear, and click-to-click with customers. When service agents are asked to pleasantly surprise more customers, they feel less like worker bees and more like fireflies. This means that leaders trust frontline employees to create, not just to execute. The more they are resourced and liberated to be generous and resourceful, the more they bring their high regard to service provider-customer co-creation resulting in customers who feel enchanted and eager to tell others about it.
As the saying goes, the best way to build long-term customer loyalty—the one that turns customers into ardent advocates—is to treat every customer like today is their birthday.