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Innovating Service With Chip Bell

Quality Insider

Elegantly Adaptive Service

As in nature, those who adapt, flourish.

Published: Monday, March 15, 2010 - 06:00

Early one morning I was in my side yard and walked up on a huge elaborate spider web complete with its designer-tenant. As I approached the artwork, the spider began to vibrate the web sending glistening dewdrops everywhere. The next morning the web was gone without a trace. However, spread between two nearby trees was a new web just as elegant as the first one. 

A friend was checking out of a Ritz-Carlton hotel before sunrise. Half-asleep, she noticed the ever-smiling clerk kept leaving the counter to go elsewhere with each step of the transaction. It was then that my friend embarrassingly realized she was at the concierge counter, not at the check-out counter. She apologized for making the clerk do extra work. “Don’t be silly, Ms. Cook,” said the very patient clerk. “You can check out wherever you like.”

Today’s stressed customers are weary of inflexible, one-size-fits-all, bureaucratic service. They know adaptable service, because they have witnessed it elsewhere; and as their economic worries mount, their tolerance for rules-R-us rigidity plummets. Show them indifference toward their plight and you are inviting them to exit forever along with their funds. It pays to demonstrate the adaptability of a spider that starts a new day by constructing a new web.

Examine service processes through customers’ eyes and emotions

Just as products are all about tangible forms, service is about intangible feelings. Customers who return a malfunctioning blender will focus the brunt of their anger toward the object. “This dang thing you sold me is defective!” However, if malfunctioning service (e.g., the slow line, the long hold time, the tardy doctor) provokes anger, all manner of uproar is thrown directly at the frontline service person.

This is one important reason service processes need to be understood not only through the lens of what customers are experiencing—moment-to-moment—but on what emotions are likely being surfaced by those experiences. Frontline employees should be trained to effectively manage customer wrath. They must also be taught to be aware and bring forth the learning from those heated encounters—insights that are frequently gathered, understood, and then used to inform and foster process improvement.

Conduct forensics on departed customers

It may be a challenge to get raw candor from a customer heading out the door, never to return. But circle back a few weeks later, hat in hand and with an obvious plea for honesty, and you may gain a few insights into the cause of the exodus. Inform the customer you are there to listen and learn, not defend and explain. Encourage the customer to invite others to the service forensic meeting who can enhance your learning. Then prime the pump by putting on the table some areas you know need improvement.

If customers believe you are sincere in your quest for improvement they are more likely to help you solve the “Where’d we go wrong?” puzzle. Always remember that forensic meetings work if they are positioned and practiced as a learning device, not as a win-back tactic. If the customer ultimately elects to return, that is terrific. If your encounter is viewed as a sales pitch in disguise you will learn very little and insult your departed customer.

Hardwire preventive maintenance into service

Airlines don't wait until there has been a plane crash to conduct preventive maintenance on their fleet of planes, but too often, service happens just that way. We take things for granted right up until lousy service costs us an important customer.

Hold frequent meetings to assess what can be improved about the way service is delivered. When a new service, process, or procedure is implemented, hold a post mortem meeting to surface early the lessons learned.

Remember that customers are constantly changing and they experience service processes in ever-changing ways. Today’s fad can quickly become tomorrow’s antique. It is vital today to remain perpetually vigilant for ways to make the service more comfortable for customers.

Again, the views of the frontline scout—typically an expert on the terrain of the customers’ experiences—must be made known on a regular basis to gain up-to-the-minute customer intelligence that is imperative to customer-centric improvement.

Let customers’ needs rule your organizational procedures

Remember that great diner scene from the movie "Five Easy Pieces" when Jack Nicholson tried to order a plain omelet with a side order of wheat toast? He ran straight into: “No side orders,” “Only what’s on the menu,” “No substitutions,” and “I don’t make the rules.”

His solution was creative, but expensive.  His direction to the bureaucratic waitress went: “OK, I'll make it as easy for you as I can. I'd like an omelette, plain, and a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast, no mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce... Now all you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, give me a check for the chicken salad sandwich, and you haven't broken any rules.”

Procedures are essential, since they bring important discipline and consistency to service delivery. Clearly, some procedures must take precedence over a customer’s preference—the patient who would rather skip their meds today or the airline passenger who would rather not wear a seatbelt during takeoff. However, smart organizations are willing to adjust regulations whenever possible to meet special customer requests. They put customers first, not procedures. 

We hired a man to power wash our house and driveway. With our very long driveway and leaf stain, it was going to be a full-day job. “When do you leave for work and get home?” he asked. “I want to make sure I come after you leave and finish before you get home so you don’t have to listen to my loud machine.” When we asked if he wanted a check at the end of the job or was he planning to send us an invoice, he instantly answered, “Which would you prefer?” His service was as elegantly adaptable as a new spider web. He also did a great job. How did we react to his remarkable service? All our friends now have his business card.


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, shows how co-creation partnerships enable you to tap into the treasure trove of ideas, ingenuity, and genius-in-the-raw within every customer.