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Eye Contact – The Window to the Soul of Customer Service

There I stood at the counter, wondering why the customer service clerk didn’t see me. I had the items I wanted to purchase on the counter, I had my wallet out; what I didn’t have was the clerk’s attention. He was busy filling out a form that I think had something to do with the cash register. I probably could’ve walked right out the door and he never would’ve seen me.

I can certainly understand the need for employees to fill out paperwork, change the register’s cash drawer, or finish processing the previous transaction. All I ask is to be acknowledged with a simple, “I’m so sorry, I’ll be right with you,” and that it is said with sincere eye contact. If the words are said without eye contact, the employee might as well just say, “You don’t exist to me right now.”

Sincere eye contact creates a connection, it shows respect, and it shows care. It says you acknowledge me as an important part of your job. And if that eye contact has even the slightest hint of a sincere smile, well you’ve just separated yourself from ninety-nine percent of the service providers out there. And I will happily wait as you finish filling out that form.

The eyes say it all.

When Good Projects Go Bad

Assisting an organization with a customer service initiative (or any other organizational development project) can be very rewarding; especially when the leadership team is truly committed to long-term success. When everyone is involved and engaged, amazing results can be achieved.

Getting everyone involved, however, can also cause mind-numbing frustration. Anyone who has ever participated on a project team or a steering committee knows that a beast is always there waiting to strike. The beast’s name is Project Creep. You know Project Creep has arrived when input from others regarding the initiative transforms into demands that must be a part of the outcome.

When Project Creep insidiously inserts itself into the mix, what started as a clear, straight-forward initiative becomes a runaway freight train. And the result is often a train wreck. The original purpose of the initiative disappears and the outcome is a bloated, meaningless mess.

The most common example of Project Creep is the development of a typical company’s mission statement. What should have been 2-3 inspirational sentences that provide clear direction end up being two pages of corporate-speak that mean nothing to anybody. Everyone ends up frustrated.

A spot-on video was posted on Alan Weiss’ blog, Contrarian Consulting. Showing this video should be required at the beginning of any new project and shown again at the first sign of Project Creep.

The original purpose of an initiative or project should be the lighthouse that guides the initiative or project safely into port. Yes, get input from as many sources as possible, but don’t let Project Creep take you off course.

Proactive Customer Service

One of the blogs I regularly read is Customers Are Always, hosted by Maria Palmer. She just posted a great article, “Proactive Behavior: A Sign of Service Excellence,” which was written by a guest contributor.

I have experienced the situation the writer discusses (picking up the wrong bag at the airport), and certainly agree that the type of proactive behavior described results in walk-through-fire customer loyalty.

See what you think about the article – I’d love to hear your feedback. 

Same Job – Different Results

What a difference a caring employee makes. You can observe two employees doing the identical job, but one is creating great customer experiences while the other employee just goes through the motions.

A recent client arranged for a Town Car service to take me from the airport to the convention hotel and then back to the airport the next day. It was a fairly long ride, about two hours, but it was through beautiful countryside so I didn’t mind.

The driver who picked me up at the airport was wonderful. She had a chilled bottle of water waiting in the car along with a fresh copy of the local newspaper and the Wall Street Journal. She asked if I had been in that part of the country before (I had) and off we went. I appreciated her smooth and comfortable driving style with no fast accelerations or quick applications of the brakes. I felt safe.

She made the ride pleasant by sharing information about the areas we drove through, while always gauging my interest based on my responses and questions. Along the way I had to do a bit of computer work and she respected my need for quite during that time. The only time she interrupted was at the half-way point to ask if I needed a restroom break; which I did.

Dropping me off at the hotel, the driver was complimentary about their facilities and sincerely wished me luck on my presentation. It was a great customer service experience.

The return to the airport was another story. Same Town Car company; different driver; very different experience. The driver greeted me in a disinterested manner and put my bags in the car. He then proceeded to accelerate the car like Mario Andretti accelerating out of Indianapolis Speedway’s pit row, throwing me back in my seat. We were off on what proved to be a nerve-wracking ride to the airport with quick starts, stops, and lane changes. I certainly wasn’t going to get any work done on that ride.

To make things a bit more comfortable I tried to make some light conversation, but his manner clearly indicated there would be no chit chat. And there was no offer of a restroom break at the half-way point – I had to ask for one. We arrived at the airport, he put my bags on the curb, and drove off as I stood there wondering what had happened to make him so bitter.

I share this story because it demonstrates the behaviors that differentiate great service from poor service:

Accuracy – The first driver was a good driver and she immediately made me feel safe. The second driver was an erratic, aggressive driver, who made me wonder if I would make it safely to my destination. Being good at the job technically is a vital part of customer service.

Responsiveness – The first driver was talkative when it was appropriate, and was also quiet during the time I needed to do some work. She was responsive to the moment-by-moment needs of her customer. The second driver, on the other hand, was simply performing the task of getting his customer from Point A to Point B. Being genuinely responsive to the customer demonstrates a willingness to move beyond simply completing a transaction.

Care – The first driver is clearly a professional who cares about her customers. She made the trip interesting and wowed me with little details like the bottle of water, the fresh newspapers, and the offer of a restroom stop. The second driver only cared about finishing his shift and listening to the radio (his choice of station, not mine).

Accuracy, Responsiveness, and Care. Those three little words, when translated into action, make all the difference. One driver saw her role as an ambassador of the Town Car company and of her community, while the second driver saw his role as a driver.

Same job, but a completely different experience.

Let Them Eat Cake!

I’m constantly amazed at the lengths to which some companies will go in order to alienate their customers. They may have clunky processes, poorly trained employees, or any of a multitude of customer-alienating practices.

But the one that really fries me most is when a company distrusts their customers. Sure, there are those customers who take advantage by doing such things as returning clothes after they’ve attended the prom, returning furniture after the party, etc. But those abusive customers are in the minority. Some companies, however, build rigid policies to protect themselves against the advantage-takers and end up alienating the majority of customers who would never dream of trying to rip off the company.

This all leads to a story a colleague shared regarding a damaged cake. When she contacted the company, it’s clear that the owner of the company didn’t trust the customer’s story, even though she offered to send a photo of the damaged cake. After reading her description of the event, click on the icon to see a photo of what she received (read the narrative first).

Today in the office a customer service nightmare unfolded. A bakery shipped a cake that arrived in such a mess the recipients couldn’t tell what it was. They called the company to kindly let them know; the owner was angry that she’d done so and denied there was even a problem even though the recipient offered to send a photo of what she’d been delivered. It was a strange kind of denial and she got very defensive. What is happening now though is that the photo is circulating and the story is getting around, which will obviously hurt business.

Click HERE to see the photo!

Imagine how different this customer would’ve felt if the owner had sincerely expressed her dismay at the condition of the cake, apologized profusely, and immediately sent a replacement – which the customer didn’t even ask for. My guess is that the next time this customer wanted to send a cake as a gift she would’ve immediately chosen this company because there would’ve been a high level of trust that things would turn out fine.

Instead, this customer is circulating the story, along with the photo and the company’s name, to everyone she knows. Remember, it costs five times as much to attract a new customer as it costs to keep a current one. I hope this cake company has a big advertising budget.

Do your company policies ever penalize and alienate your honest, loyal customers because of the actions of the small fraction of customers who try to take advantage?

Want to share your story? You can submit it here.