Chuck Lauer: What is good customer service? Memorable interactions with lasting impact

"It was OK."

That's a phrase you don't want to hear about a project you have done or a dinner for which you just shelled out hundreds of bucks.

It screams mediocrity. In some ways, it is worse than "it stunk," as some noble efforts fall far short of the mark, but at least you can tell someone was trying. "It was OK" or "it was fine" are phrases for forgettable events that have utterly failed to deliver on expectations.
 
Most of what passes for the customer experience these days is, at best, "OK." We have had our expectations lowered by the cost cutting and offshoring of back office operations.

On a recent business trip to Dallas, I rented a car from one of the major companies. The next morning, I came out to drive to my appointment and found the car battery was dead. Panicked, I called the rental company and asked for help. After some discussion, they gave me a roadside assistance number to call, but as it was early in the morning, all I got was voicemail. When you have rented a car to someone, you have made a commitment not to leave them stranded. It should have been their call to find someone to help me.

Fortunately, I suddenly remembered that I was a member of a national roadside assistance program and that even though this was not my car, they might help. I called their number and was immediately greeted by a live person who took my name and number. Within five minutes, someone called me to say they were on their way. Within 20 minutes, a truck appeared, a young man got the car started and I kept my appointment.

What impressed me about the whole matter was the efficiency of the operation. When I talked to the operator, she swung into action immediately. When the tow truck driver arrived, he knew exactly what to do. My reaction to the customer service I received was relief and thankfulness, and I guarantee it left a positive impression. It wasn't just "OK" or "fine" — it was terrific. I was so impressed I called the tow-truck driver's boss to commend the driver's efficiency in helping me.
 
So many companies tout their customer service, even making it the point of ad campaigns, but most of it is "OK" or worse. I have had some problems with a few companies that made their name on service, but now appear to coast on reputation.
 
I always remember a story about a company that delivers on its promises. As you may or may not know, the Four Seasons Hotels chain takes great pride in its devotion to its guests. In the book "Service America in the New Economy," published many years ago, authors Karl Albrecht and Ron Zemke tell the story of the doorman at the Four Seasons in Toronto.

One morning a businessman came out of the hotel with his suitcase and briefcase and asked the doorman to hail a cab so he could get to the airport and catch a flight back to Washington, D.C. The doorman got the man on the road, but later the hotel got a call from the businessman's secretary asking if the doorman had seen the briefcase, which was missing.

Much to his embarrassment, there was the briefcase among some other luggage. The doorman immediately called the secretary to let her know he had the briefcase in his possession. The secretary then asked the doorman if he could please send the briefcase to the businessman ASAP as it contained some papers the businessman needed for a very important meeting the next day. The doorman promised her he would get the briefcase to her boss within 24 hours.

At the conclusion of his shift, the doorman changed into his street clothes, went out to the airport and purchased a round-trip ticket to Washington. He hand-delivered the briefcase, much to the amazement of the secretary and her boss. Later in the year, he was named the outstanding employee of the year by Four Seasons for his devotion to excellent customer service.
 
Here is an excerpt from the Four Seasons mission statement:

"We have chosen to specialize within the hospitality industry by offering only experiences of exceptional quality. Our objective is to be recognized as the company that manages the finest hotels, resorts and residence clubs wherever we locate. We create properties of enduring value using superior design and finishes, and support them with a deeply instilled ethic of personal service. Doing so allows Four Seasons to satisfy the needs and tastes of our discriminating customers, and to maintain our position as the world's premier luxury hospitality company. … In all our interactions with our guests, customers, business associates and colleagues, we seek to deal with others as we would have them deal with us."

Now that should be every service company's mission, if they want to succeed long-term!

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