Small Business and Startups: 3 Essentials for Customer Service

I had (another) bad customer service experience with an airline last week. I know – a shocker. Sometimes I start to think that poor service and unhappy customers are a requirement for the airline industry. That this is a part of meeting some unwritten baseline needed for any entrant in the space. Then I come to my senses and remember that there are companies like Southwest and jetBlue who are competing in the industry, in part, by providing a high level of service; these companies have, in turn, developed legions of fans and loyal customers.

Not surprisingly, my experience last week was with none of those wonderful operators, but rather with one of their old-line stodgy competitors, namely American Airlines. Ahhh, American – you of the ancient fleet, the high fares, the grumpy flight attendants, and (apparently) the customer-phobic policies.

Without going into great detail, when returning last week from a wonderful conference, I asked an American gate agent to help me with something. What I was requesting would not have cost American a single dime in real or potential cost to them, would not have inconvenienced a single employee, and would not have impacted in any way any other customer. A few keystrokes would have accomplished my request and the net result would have saved me some hours of inconvenience and discomfort  In other words a simple ‘yes’ to my request would have gone a great distance towards making me a happy camper, and would even have earned American some kind and well-deserved word of mouth from me.

American’s response was to tell me that they could indeed accommodate me, but that they would be charging me $75 to do so. When I lifted my jaw back off my chest, I asked the agent if they were kidding me. The answer was not surprising, “I am sorry, Mr. Samson, this is our policy and there is nothing we can do for you.” Wow.

The experience started me thinking about how everyday organizations miss simple opportunities to take an unhappy customer and turn them into a happy one. Just as important, organizations miss simple opportunities to avoid creating angry customers who can go around bad-mouthing a company. Why any company would not choose to create a potential evangelist for the brand is beyond me. It’s that simple and, for me, it boils down to three simple rules to guide your interactions with customers: 1) give them what they ask for, 2) Take the extra step for your customers, and 3) learn from your interactions.

1. Give them what they ask for.

Seriously, why wouldn’t you? If it is within your power to grant a request, and the cost to your company is small or nonexistent  the default answer should always be a “yes.” Your front-line team should always, always, always be trained and empowered such that it is as easy as possible for them to deliver this answer and they should always be ready to do so quickly.

Any time a customer, whether current, former, or potential, reaches out to you for help it is a unique occasion to engage that person, to learn from them, and to earn their loyalty. If they have taken the time to contact you, it should be viewed as an opportunity. Why? Because every company spends money to market to their audiences, to promote their brand, and to create an image. And nothing can do more to detract from that than an unhappy or angry customer. Of course, this is not possible in every single instance: sometimes satisfying the request may incur a real cost that may be too high to justify. Or sometimes, granting the request may mean inconveniencing another customer in some way. Simply put, the benefit to be gained by quickly and easily giving the customer what they asked for can be immeasurable. And, by corollary, the potential for creating an unhappy customer equally large.

2. Take the extra step.

Research has shown that brand loyalty is among the most powerful of forces in business. So, cultivating a loyal customer base pays off in many ways; for instance, word of mouth can be stimulated, the cost of acquiring new customers can be lowered, and repeat business can be improved upon. How do great companies do this? They go the extra step – they “surprise and delight,” they do nice things for customers unbidden, and they anticipate their customers needs as well as their pain points. And then, they attack; they find ways to provide extra value and not charge for it, they hand out goodies and rewards, and they constantly listen to their customers, analyze the data, and continuously improve their products or service to head off problems before they occur.

3. Learn from it.

When you have lots of different customers all making the same request of you, you probably are looking at an opportunity to improve. Why wait for yet another person to make the same request yet again? You need to constantly listen, consistently learn, and continually respond to what the customer wants. Capacity to learn and the celebration of learning itself is a value that great companies share. If you can continuously learn from your customer’s requests and from your customer’s responses, your team will improve equally continuously and your customers will love you for it.

Photo: Joe Shlabotnik