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What is good customer service? There has been a lot of ink and pixels spilled on this subject, so I am covering old ground. Poor service continues to be a problem in our growing service economy, so perhaps more can be said.
I subscribe to the evolutionary psychology theory that human beings are still tribal hunter-gatherers at heart. For most of our existence, Homo sapiens lived in large, semi-nomadic tribes, following game. These tribes tended to be no bigger than 100-150 individuals, and everyone was related in some way. Everyone knew everyone else, closely. There was someone in charge, but few “laws”. Mostly there was custom and reputation. At this level, being very unpopular could be fatal.
Today, the world is vastly different. We interact with people outside a day’s walk on a regular basis. The people we live next door to may be unknown to us, while we are close to someone 500 miles away. Religious worship, work, play, all may be with different groups of people. The least intimate of our interactions comes when we buy goods and services. In these cases, we are talking to a rotation of strangers, who may or may not care about us on a superficial level, and most likely don’t care on any deeper level. This is the real impact of our hunter-gatherer brains; we can only really know around 100-150 people well.
While this state of affairs works OK at the local discount store, it makes us uncomfortable when the service or product is costly, or very personal. If you are going to spend $2000 on a TV, you want to think the guy in the electronics store is not just angling for a commission, but really invested in helping you. I feel very fortunate to “have a guy” to take my car too. I have for years, and we have enough of a relationship that I can feel comfortable. When Tom Shane says “Now, you, have a friend in the diamond business” this is exactly what his sales pitch is aimed at. I am wanting more than a straight transaction of money for a product, I am wanting expert advice.
High end clothing retail stores continue to exist because people are willing to pay money for the service. I can get a decent pair of shoes at Walmart cheap. They wear out in a year, but they are effective. If I go to a high end store, I can have someone match shoes to an outfit. They not only will be a higher quality product, but “I’ll like the way I look”, as the ad used to say.
Service providers often talk of “guests” or “members” instead of customers, to differentiate from a more casual retail transaction. A guest in a four-star hotel is still a customer, but the experience of the stay is as important as the extra amenities. How the person feels treated is key. Disney Cast Members (not called employees) say to any guest checking in “Welcome Home.” Membership implies a special relationship with the organization. You are “in” as part of the club. There is an expectation of different treatment than for a non-member. Further, as someone pays more money, there is a human assumption of better services. If you pay for the penthouse suite, you expect better service, regardless of whether it is explicitly included in the package. There is an implicit contract. You see this action in the film, Pretty Woman, where the big spender gets special treatment.
This effect is even more pronounced with health care services. Here, the customer as at their most vulnerable. Emotions and anxiety can be running very high, and solutions to problems can be difficult and painful, and outcomes are in doubt. As with hotels, the fact we don’t call people “customers” with health care shows we think of receiving healthcare differently. Of course, healthcare is so removed from the patient as payer, it struggles to provide the service one would expect. This leads to people maybe liking their doctors, but hating their insurance companies. If the person never gets to see the same doctor, they usually do not even like that experience. True customer service in health care requires a sense of relationship with not just the doctor, but the staff along the way.
What people want is that feeling of being part of the tribe. The person taking care of my needs is going to treat me like we are part of the same 100-150 people in a semi-nomadic tribe. This is why there is nostalgia for small-town America, people imagine a place where “everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.” What they are not looking for is an experience where they are a number, where the staff can take or leave them, or worse, treat them with hostility. People do not want someone who they think is out to con them, selling them things they do not need.
Most of all, people want to feel heard. They want to feel like their voice matters to the company. The more intimate the service, the more the need to feel heard. I have defused more complaints by simply listening to the client, and hearing them out, than I have by jumping straight to fixing the problem (though I try to do that too).
It has always amazed me at how poor so many organizations are at this simple task. Employees, managers, even top leaders can be more interested in defending their company, or each other, than to listen. Maybe the customer did something wrong, and that is all the employee can talk about. Even when the customer is wrong, if they do not feel heard, you risk losing the customer. I won’t go so far to say the “customer is always right,” but I will say the customer always needs to be heard.
So my challenge to anyone with customers, is to listen to them. Try to provide the same ear you would give to someone in your tribe. I know that person yammering at you is not part of your tribe, but give them time. If you hear them say they want an apology, give it. If you hear they have a valid complaint, make sure you correct it, and assure the person it will not happen again to them or to anyone else. Hear them. Then you can act.