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Customer Service and The Amazing Service Guy

I recently interviewed Kevin Stirtz, The Amazing Service Guy, on the subject of improving customer service. Kevin’s experience as a speaker and consultant has led him to engagements with organizations like Urban Outfitters, Supercuts, Pep Boys, and Embassy Suites.

Kevin also hosts one of the best customer service sites on the Web, www.AmazingServiceGuy.com.

Click below to listen to our interview, which focuses on what organizations can do to continually raise the level of service they provide.

Customer Service Tip – Diffuse First, Educate Second

I recently had the opportunity to work with Family Video, the largest privately owned movie and game “rentailer” in the United States, and third largest overall, with 612 stores. In an industry struggling to deal with significant changes, such as new rental options offered by Netflix and Redbox, Family Video is the only DVD/game rental operation showing positive growth. Expanding continually, they again achieved record profits last year.

Why is Family Video doing so well as others in the industry struggle? First, they are constantly looking for ways to offer increased value to their customers. Free children’s movies and innovative new release promotions draw current and new customers to the store. I believe, however, their biggest advantage is the way they’ve crafted the customer experience. Each element of the experience has been studied and designed to maximize customer satisfaction.

One of my favorite examples is the Family Video policy to “diffuse first, educate second.” This means that whenever a customer problem occurs, such as a disputed late fee for a DVD, employees are expected to first make the customer happy (diffuse the situation), then explain the policy (educate).

For example, sometimes new members are confused about late fees for DVDs and games. If a customer complains, employees are empowered to waive the late fee, which they immediately let the customer know. After diffusing the situation, the employee then explains the policy. Now they have a happy customer who understands the policy. (Their computer system can indicate if someone abuses the system).

The approach may appear subtle, but it is profound. Think about it; usually when customers complain about a policy or perceived injustice from an organization, the first thing that happens is an employee explains the company policy. Internally the customer gets tense, builds their argument, and waits to present their case. When the employee then says something like, “I’ll do it for you this time,” the customer feels as though they’ve been chastised (like a child), and that they should be grateful to the company for agreeing to wave their policy. (Isn’t it amazing how many companies act as though the customer should be grateful for the privilege of spending money with the company?)

The Family Video approach turns the situation around. The tension is immediately diffused because the employee first takes care of the problem. Now when the policy is explained, customers listen because they’re not crafting their argument. Again, subtle but profound.

The impressive thing about Family Video is that approaches like “diffuse first, educate second” are built into the organization’s culture (I’ve provide just one example). These touches are not just desired of employees, they’re expected. Therefore Family Video is relentless in training and reinforcing their special touches, and they’re fanatical about hiring employees who embrace such a customer-centric approach.

What’s the result of their efforts? As mentioned earlier – expansion as well as record profits in a “declining industry.” Not a bad return on their investment in the customer experience.

The lesson here for me is about bridging the gap between the science and the art of customer service. The science of customer service tells us that service recovery (in this example) is important for creating strong customer relationships. The art, however, digs deep into the how of what we do. The art asks, “how can we create the strongest emotional connection with what we do?” World-class service organizations don’t just teach the science of service, they help employees perfect the art of customer service.

Organization’s often make the mistake of looking for the holy grail customer service practice that will rocket them past competitors. It just doesn’t’ work that way. Great customer service isn’t the result of one big thing; it’s the result of many little things done extremely well.

Suggestion: Take a look at your organization’s approach to service recovery. See how you can apply “diffuse first, educate second” to your approach.

Suggestion: Look at one of your customer service practices and brainstorm the art that can take the science of the practice to a new level.

Whatcha’ Readin’?

Every morning, the law firm of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz reviews the list of clients who will be visiting the office that day, noting the industries the visiting clients are in. Then, instead of having generic magazines in the waiting room, they put out magazines that are of interest to members of those industries.

They have to stay on top of their client list so that they have appropriate magazines, but imagine how much better their approach is than the norm. Most waiting rooms have the standard, general-interest magazines that, more often than not, are months (or years) out of date.

I can imagine the Baker Donelson receptionist saying to a client from the construction industry, “Good morning, Mr. Peterson; Janice will be ready for you in a minute. I just put out the latest issue of Builder News for you to look at while you’re here.” I have to imagine that Mr. Peterson would be impressed by the personal touch offered by the firm. And a subtle message is also communicated – “Baker Donelson focuses on the latest trends in my industry, since they subscribe to my industry’s periodicals.”

What can you do to demonstrate personal interest in your customers?

The Curse of Arrogance – An Update

My post about my recent experiences with Southwest Airlines, The Curse of Arrogance, seems to have struck a nerve with some folks, especially Southwest Airlines flight attendants. Another site picked up the thread and included several comments from flight attendants who placed the blame on obnoxious or abusive passengers. I agree; no employee of any organization should put up with abuse. But the situations I observed involved no abusive passengers. As I wrote in the original post, I’ve recently started to notice more and more Southwest flight attendants being standoffish, mechanical, and impatient. In other words, more like flight attendants on other airlines.

Keep in mind that I’m not talking about rampant poor service at Southwest – they’re still the best by far. There have simply been enough incidents of mediocre service that caused me to notice; that’s all. On another airline I wouldn’t have even thought twice about it since mediocre (or poor) service on other airlines has become the norm. But Southwest is special – and I hope they always will be. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that today’s Wall Street Journal shared Department of Transportation data that ranked Southwest highest in on-time arrivals and fewest customer complaints (An Airline Report Card).

But here is something that truly impressed me. I received a thoughtful comment from the Vice President of Inflight Services for Southwest (see the comment from Mike Hafner below). Just the fact that someone in that position, who I’m sure has plenty on his plate, is concerned enough to comment on one blog post, well that speaks volumes. He’s rightly supportive of his team, but also acknowledges that “there is not much room for having a bad day.” One of Walt Disney’s greatest concerns for the Disney corporation was that they would rest on their laurels. He said, “In this volatile business of ours, we can ill afford to rest on our laurels, even to pause in retrospect. Time and conditions change so rapidly that we must keep our focus constantly on the future.” He always cautioned that no matter how strong our reputation is, “the show goes on tomorrow.” Mike, I appreciate you taking the time to write, and I also appreciate the pride you obviously have in your team.