One of the greatest phrases I’ve ever heard on customer service came from Pacific Bell (Pac Bell) Telephone. For a few years they answered the phone with the line:
“How may I provide you with excellent service today?“
Wow! The first time I heard that I was flabbergasted. Talk about raising the bar!
Most of the time when we call Customer Service, we have pretty low expectations. We expect them to answer the phone with “Yeah? Whudda ya want?” We expect to have to argue and explain. In fact, if we had to describe the experience, many words would come to mind–but not service.
So with this pleasant surprise from Pac Bell, a couple of things happened. First, it was a major boost for my attitude. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my expectations had been raised. Maybe there wouldn’t be a fight. Maybe they’d just fix the problem.
The second thing that happened is that I had a lower frustration level right off the bat. When the first words out of their mouth are “excellent service,” the caller begins to let the guard down. After all, I’ve been promised excellent service. So now my attitude becomes “Okay. Show me your excellent service. Fix this problem.”
And while the initial shock wore off, I was still a bit surprised and pleased every time I called Pac Bell. It was disarming. It never got old. And it put a smile on my face. Until one day . . .
My recollection could be wrong, but when Pac Bell started calling themselves SBC, I believe they continued this. I know it went on for a few years.
Then one day I called and the SBC rep said:
“How may I provide you with very satisfying service today?”
Once again, I was shocked. I wanted excellent service! I don’t want “very satisfying” service! When you’re used to excellent service, very satisfying is a step down. It’s less than excellent. It doesn’t raise my expectations.
I asked the rep what happened to excellent service. Her response was as honest as it was deflating. She said that when customers are surveyed to evaluate the customer service experience, there is no “excellent” option to choose from. Instead, it’s a scale that includes dissatisfied, somewhat satisfied, very satisfied.
They’re going for ratings. Compensation is affected by ratings.
“Very Satisfying” might be their highest rating, but to me it’s very unsatisfying. Now I feel like I’m dealing with a person who doesn’t care about me or my business. She wants to do the minimum it takes to get the evaluation filled out in her favor.
I fully admit that the service may be unchanged. It may be excellent. But they haven’t disarmed me; they haven’t got me to lower my shields; they haven’t made me smile. And they haven’t raised my expectations.
It’s still a great line. I’ll never forget the line “How may I provide you with excellent service?” I even use it sometimes when talking to family and friends. When my wife comes home and she’s completely worn out and exhausted and not in the mood for whatever I’m cooking, I’ll ask “How may I provide you with excellent service?” Then she knows that it’s okay to skip my dinner plans and order take-out, or to go out, or to do whatever she wants.
But beware. When you raise expectations like this, you better follow through.
A few years ago we moved into a newer house. The local cable TV company was not a national brand company. It was a tiny, under-funded cable company owned by the home builder. Their service was horrible. Unbelievably horrible. Outages would last days and weeks. When that happened, they simply stopped answering the phone.
And you’ll never guess how they answered the phone: “How may I provide you with excellent service today?”
Great line. Love the line. But in this case, it did not have a magical effect me.
The first time they used this line, my reaction was “Yeah, right.” I knew I was going to get terrible service, and no tag line was going to change that. They used that line the entire time we were subscribers. As soon as we could, we moved over to a real cable company.
The point is, you can’t just say you’re going to give great service. You have to prove it again and again and again. You’ll make mistakes. We all do. No one expects you to be perfect. But if you can get them to see that you’re really trying, they will become more forgiving.
The worst case scenario is to continue paying lip service to excellent service but to put out no effort. You become a laughing stock. It will actually raise anger instead of reducing it.
| “If your mission holds no personal passion, it is not your path.”|
— Laurie Beth Jones
Expectations may be the most important part of service. I never expect to have a fun time calling a corporate customer service line. I don’t expect to laugh or chit chat or make life-long friends. Sometimes I expect a fight. Sometimes I expect to be taken care of.
If a company has not poisoned the relationship, they can manage my expectations. SBC can get me to expect good service. The local cable company has no hope of making me happy.
Follow-Through makes the difference. When a given “customer service experience” is completed, the actual service will be evaluated without regard to advertising slogans or tag lines. Someone who has given bad service in the past can begin to repair their reputation by giving excellent service on the next call. The client’s perception won’t skyrocket, but it will go up a notch.
zThe best phone company I deal with on a regular basis is Verizon Wireless. They don’t promise me “excellent service.” But they deliver it. They don’t give me a label for what they do. They just continue to provide excellent service and I continue to be a subscriber.
Campaign vs. Culture
So what happened with SBC? In the end, it turned out that the whole “excellent service” routine was just another corporate campaign. Like sales contests and marketing campaigns, it was an idea that came and went like the Taco Bell dog.
Yo quiero excellent service.
It’s difficult, almost impossible, for large corporations to adopt a permanent change in culture. You see it on rare occasions. It’s more common to see campaigns–waves of change.
Do you remember the Taco Bell ad campaign that came after the Taco Bell dog campaign? Neither does anyone else. It was just another wave of advertising that didn’t differentiate itself.
Customer service is the same way. You can try one approach after the other, trying to convince people that you have excellent service. But in the long run, having excellent service is the only thing that matters. You have to have a culture of excellent service. That part needs to be permanent.
The way you implement that service will change over time. Yesterday follow-up came by U.S. Mail and today it comes by email. But what hasn’t changed? Follow-up.
Small companies can give the best customer service because they implement something and stick to it. They don’t have waves of CEOs and managers coming and going. They can get quick feedback, and execute changes.
So what can you do today? Start by making a commitment to customer service. Not basic customer service. Basic is what the competition gives. Basic is the entry level that allows you to be in the game. Make your commitment to excellent customer service.
Talk to your customers. Give them feedback loops so they can communicate with your. What do they like or not like? What do they expect? What would they like that’s “too much to ask for?” Now you’re getting a sense of excellent customer service.
Find out what it means in your business and do. Not today, not for awhile, not until everyone forgets: Do it forever. Make it part of your company culture.
“The essence of sustainable competitive advantage is:
1) The obvious;
2) The little things;
3) The accumulation of little things over the years.”
— Tom Peters