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Innovating Service With Chip Bell

Customer Care

Trust: Keep Your Customer Covenants

A relationship without trust is like a cell phone without service; all you can do is play games

Published: Thursday, March 15, 2018 - 11:01

The coolest birthday present I ever received was a gift from my wife a number of years ago; it was a white 1962 Mercedes-Benz 220 sedan reasonably well-restored. But the classy antique car, with its deep fenders and leather seats, turned out to be a real lemon. That’s about all I remember about the car. But I remember a lot about Brothers Auto Service near Charlotte, North Carolina, where my elegant birthday present was frequently nursed back to health during the two years I tried to depend on it.

The two owners, Nicky and Joe, believed all customers were simply “good neighbors with car problems.” Their prices were fair, their workmanship superb, their hours convenient, but the same could be said of most of their competitors, including the service department of a major Mercedes dealership that was less than a mile away. However, it’s Brothers’ “in customers we trust” philosophy that has kept it in business since 1982.

Long before the era of loaner cars, Nicky and Joe would often say, “We’ll need about two hours to fix your car, so if you have errands you need to run, just take my car.” Nicky drove a top-of-the-line Mercedes; Joe drove a BMW. Their courageous trust in their customers was reciprocated. Customers gave Nicky or Joe complete license to replace a part or perform an unexpected repair without calling or asking for permission. And, “repaired such and such, no charge” appeared on many of their repair orders. The relationship was a pure partnership laced with trust.

The anatomy of trust reveals its irrational, emotional, and perceptual nature. We trust lots of medical personnel whose resumes we never check. We trust the food we eat in a restaurant without a visit to its kitchen. “Real trust,” wrote Seth Godin, “doesn’t always come from divulging, from providing more transparency, but from the actions that people take (or that we think they take) before our eyes. It comes from people who show up before they have to, who help us when they think no one is watching.” Trust-building is homegrown (from the heart) and handmade (actions speak louder than words).

Make promise-keeping your signature

Johnny Cash began every concert with the words, “Hi, I’m Johnny Cash.” It was a way of signaling to his audience that everything to follow was to be a reflection of who he was, not just what he did. It was the signature of his soul. Service always has the signature of someone on it. Even if customers are not always certain whose name is hardwired into the service source code, a person’s name is there somewhere.

My dad taught me as a boy to be a person whose word was his bond and promise-keeping was his signature. We live our lives on promises. From the time a child can grasp the concept of “cross my heart and hope to die,” there is a forever awareness that anxiety can only be reduced through proof of trust while waiting for a promise to be kept. From “Scout’s honor” to “I do” to “the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” we seek cues that allay our worries. Lifeguards, the bus schedule, and the spotlessness of a hospital room are all obvious artifacts of promises waiting to be kept.

Service begins with a promise made or implied. Promises sound like, “We’ll be landing on time,” “It will be ready by noon,” or, “Your order will be right out.” We sense its subtle power when the hotel finds our reservation, the newspaper is on the front porch, or the bank statement is accurate. Even a brand symbol can connote trustworthiness, from the quality of the coffee to the charm of a magical character. Trust is the emotion that propels customers to the other side of the gap between promise and proof.

Honor your covenant

Honor and trust are the lifeblood of repeat business. To serve well is to enter into a covenant with a customer that guarantees worth will be exchanged for worth, and in a way that keeps central the customers’ best interests. When customers suspect any hint of disrespect or deceit—a deficit of honor—the odds of their walking through that organization’s door again fall precipitously.

Honor is the soul of the service covenant. We rely on it to govern fair and proper practice. Service interactions aren’t regulated by formal contracts that bind the server and the served to virtuous behaviors—customers simply assume they’ll be treated in a respectful, ethical, and civil manner. When they aren’t, cracks begin to form in their repurchase intentions. Should customers experience further disrespectful or dishonest behavior, those fissures grow into fault lines that rupture and send them drifting away to the competition. Those who serve customers with honor act as “trustodians” constantly guarding the covenant and relationship to protect their trustworthiness.

A covenant has a more sacred connotation than an agreement or a contract. It is the soul-bonding cement of commitment based on the ethics of the relationship, not the ironclad deal or layered pact. It is constructed of “do right,” not just “protect mine.” Being the standard bearer for that code of commitment means serving from who you are, not just what you are supposed to do.

Look at your signage. Do your signs and messages sound like warm instructions to a valuable partner, or like tough laws for a crafty criminal? Trust the customer, even when she is dead wrong. Trust is not about facts and figures; it’s about feelings and perceptions. Stop focusing on who is right and who is wrong; being effective trumps being correct. Trust comes from a clear and present demonstration that you seek to know your customers’ hopes and aspirations, not just their needs and expectations. A superficial interchange will always yield a shallow understanding. The pursuit of understanding is the groundwater of trust.

Isadore Sharp, founder of Four Seasons Hotels, tells this story of the power of trust in his 2009 book, Four Seasons: The Story of a Business Philosophy (Penguin Canada):

“Four Seasons Nevis [a tiny island in the Caribbean] was open a year... most of the people had never worked in a hotel before, and many others had never worked anywhere. At the time, I was staying in one of our cottages along the beach, and I ordered room service. A young lady came in with my order and set it up on the terrace.

“‘Where did you learn to do this?’ I asked her. “What job did you have before?’

“‘Oh, I never worked before,’ she told me. ‘This was my first job, sir.’

“‘Then how did you learn to do this? There are a lot of items, and everything’s here, placed exactly as it should be.’

“‘Well, sir, they taught me everything.’

“‘That’s interesting,’ I said. ‘How did they do that?’

And she explained, “‘They let me take everything home for me to practice with my family.”

Four Seasons sees trust in much the same way as Stephen Covey—as “the glue of life.” “It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships,” Covey says. Every time a customer deals with a service provider, there is a trust walk involved. And it can begin, not by waiting for a long track record of experience, but by a leap of faith in customers that loudly proclaims, “Take my car!”

Animators for trust

Like a kaleidoscope that guarantees a spectacular experience every time you take a peek, innovative service is an experience that customers enjoy without looking over their shoulders or checking the math on their receipts.

Trust is courageously opening up when conventional wisdom suggests defensively closing in. Boldly take a risk on relationships through openness, acceptance, and tenacity. Act like your customer is your best friend in need.

Treat different customers differently. One-size-fits-all treatment shows ignorance of their uniqueness and indifference to learning about them. Find was to make every customer’s experience feel like it has his or her monogram on it.

Make your customers feel they hit the service jackpot when they brought issues or concerns to you. Sincerely thank them for bringing you their challenges. Then, go to work on it with the enthusiasm of a puppy with a new toy.

No one ever got rich by stepping over dollars to pick up pennies. Focus on the relationship value rather than the transaction cost.

Trusting service that touches customers’ hearts comes from the overactive compassion in us and not from the hyperactive Scrooge in us.


About The Author

Innovating Service With Chip Bell’s picture

Innovating Service With Chip Bell

Chip Bell has helped companies dramatically enhance their bottom lines and marketplace reputation through innovative customer-centric strategies. For the sixth year in a row, Global Gurus in 2020 ranked Bell as one of the top three keynote speakers in the world on customer service. Bell has authored 24 books; seven are international best sellers. His latest book, Inside Your Customer’s Imagination: 5 Secrets for Creating Breakthrough Products, Services, and Solutions (Berrett-Koehler, 2020), shows how co-creation partnerships enable you to tap into the treasure trove of ideas, ingenuity, and genius-in-the-raw within every customer.