Savvy customers demand service

Consider how many times you will be a customer during the year. You will be served by sales clerks, airline personnel, catalogue service representatives, waitresses, and credit card companies...the list goes on.

How you are treated, in large measure, will determine your willingness to do business with that organization again. Consumers are becoming more sophisticated and they are causing a growing realization that customer satisfaction has direct bottom line implications.

Karl Albrecht and Ron Zemke in their book entitled, "Service America!" talk about a "new service imperative": "This new service imperative will mean that the old customer service department will probably fade into obscurity as executives and managers work to transform their entire organizations into customer-driven business entities."

Richard Garfein is director, Worldwide Marketing Research of American Express Travel Related Services Company. In a speech in June of this year, Garfein outlined "Ten Steps to Perfect Customer Service, "reprinted by American Demographics, Ithaca, New York. His comments struck home with me and I thought you'd like to hear what he had to say. If you think they make sense, spread the word to people in your company who can make a difference.

1.      Meet the customer's expectations. Expectations are usually formed on the basis of four considerations: Price - more is expected of premium priced companies. For example, more personal attention is expected from a full-service brokerage firm than from a discount brokerage firm. Prior experience - the irony is the better the job that your company does, the more the customer will expect of you in the future. The customer's experience with other companies - There is no way of avoiding comparisons. Advertising claims and word-of-mouth - American Express's new advertising campaign-"Membership Has Its Privileges"-emphasizes high quality service and is bound to raise customer expectations.

2.      Reduce Time. Garfein points out that the average leisure time among Americans has decreased from 4 hours in 1973 to 2 1/2 hours or less today. We don't have time to wait in lines or on hold. For example, market research shows that our satisfaction with speed of answering the phone drops off sharply after three rings. Also, status dictates who waits. Since time is limited, its value increases with our perceived importance.

3.      Reduce the number of contacts. The fewer people a customer needs to speak with to get a question answered or a problem solved the greater the satisfaction. When a customer has to repeat a story over and over or gets conflicting messages, stress levels skyrocket. Front-line customer service people should be made as self-sufficient as possible.

4.      Give clear instructions. Tell the customer precisely what he or she needs to do to get a problem resolved. Vague or complicated instructions are maddening.

5.      Bridge the language gap. There is nothing more annoying to a customer than getting hit with company jargon. High quality service companies can adjust well to varying levels of customer sophistication. For an airline, for example, the ideal is to make both the frequent business traveler and the first time vacation traveler feel at home.

6.      Make the customer feel valued. Whatever you do, don't make the customer feel like a nuisance. Marriott, for example, has worked hard to make the customer feel important. A classic example is the name they gave to their frequent traveler award program-The Honored Guest Program.

7.      Never make the customer feel at fault. It's true, the customer isn't always right, but the customer should not be made to feel at fault. The last thing a customer in a predicament needs to hear is that the predicament was of his own making. Garfein's research on past due notices, for example, shows that customers do not take kindly to a "guilty until proven innocent" approach. It not only leaves a bad taste, but also can lead to switching service companies.

8.      Never embarrass the customer. Customer satisfaction research shows that the manner in which a touchy situation was handled is more important than the outcome. This underscores the need for tactfulness and sensitivity on the part of customer contact personnel.

Garfein notes that a breakthrough occurred in quality service at American Express when customer satisfaction research was undertaken on the receivables end of the business. Prior to that, the company was organized along traditional service/receivables lines. Now, there is a heightened awareness on the part of the credit and collections people that an alienated customer might very well reduce his spending on a card or not renew his or her card. Customer satisfaction has become a recognized goal among these groups.

9.      Speed vs. personal attention trade-off. Technological advances can favorably impact on the speed/attention trade-off. Innovations like express checkout in the hotel business and automated return in the car rental industry enable time-conscious consumers to save valuable minutes, while freeing-up desk personnel to spend more time with customers desiring personal attention. Simple solutions work can work, too. Adding more telephone personnel at peak times is only one example.

10. Include quality of service measures as part of employee job performance criteria. What very often happens is that only the most easily measurable aspects of an employee's job get measured. In a telephone servicing center, this might be number of calls handled per day. Many companies still use criteria like this and the results are predictable. The message to employees is to complete their calls quickly, with little regard for tone and manner. To address this, AX added tone and manner ratings to the mix. Employees are told upfront that their calls will be monitored on a random basis. They are given telephone training on techniques and are familiarized with the criteria on which they are rated. They also have a "Great Performers" program that awards employees whose efforts go far beyond the call of duty.

It is commonly believed that a dissatisfied customer tells more people about their experience than a satisfied customer. In contrast, Garfein's research shows a u-shaped curve relationship, where both very satisfied and very dissatisfied customers tell more people than customers in the middle.

In this age of diminished consumer loyalties, deregulation and increased foreign competition, service is more and more becoming the distinguishing factor in deciding between department stores, restaurants, hotels, brokerage firms, and other service companies.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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