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With every technological advance in communications, we get another chance to negotiate the boundaries between good client service and client servility.
Where do you draw the line?
Better yet: How do you draw attention to a line that’s already there, if we think about it rightly?
Most client-serving organizations I know make a pretty big deal about client service. It is right at the top of their list of stated virtues. And rightly so.
But sometimes, things can get a little twisted.
What do you make of:
o The SDR who unquestioningly responds in detail to every detailed request, without adding perspective. Regularly.
o The project manager who video-cons the team on Sunday to re-work the slide deck. Regularly.
o The senior officer who drops in on the staff meeting to “show the flag” but leaves early because “when the client calls, you know…” Regularly.
o The salesperson who cuts price at the drop of the hat when the client demands. Regularly.
o The VP who cancels the cleanup position on the third round interview because, “I had no choice, the client changed the date.” Regularly.
o The manager who joins the training session late and slips out to take calls between scheduled breaks, because “we’re in the middle of a really tough time for the client – they need me.” Regularly.
The key word is, of course, regularly. Any one of those examples can be held up as a case of client heroism. If, that is, it’s an isolated event. But if it’s endemic – then that’s not client service, that’s client servitude.
They are not the same. Great client service is being willing and able to behave in unusual ways when faced with unusual situations; and doing them selflessly, for the sake of the client.
Being servile is quite another thing. It means seeking out options to give faux service. Terms related to servile include sycophant, suck-up, boot-licker, and toady.
We suspect those who are servile of dishonesty – of speaking falsely in an attempt at self-aggrandizement. Their motives are suspect; which means their credibility is at risk as well.
Ironically, their servility costs them in terms of respect from the very people they are most trying to impress. Above all, we don’t trust such people.
If we’re honest – I’ll just speak for me here – if I’m honest about it, there’s always a tiny touch of servility lurking around the edges of most client service I perform. It’s hard to be unaware of the value of being perceived as client-serving.
The trick is to not be overcome by a need for recognition. To do the next right thing, yet to be detached from the outcome; particularly whatever benefit clearly might accrue to me from doing the right thing.
This is the heart of it. Client service is doing good for the client. Period. We are not surprised when we get credit for doing it. But expecting good from doing it is Station 1 on the slippery slope; the End-Station is doing client service in order to get credit for doing it.
That way lies client servility.
Most clients don’t want servants at their beck and call – they want equal partners at the table who can make a plan and stick to it; who have enough respect for themselves and their own firm that they will, on occasion, push back; who take the partnership seriously enough that they will keep their own team healthy enough to deliver in the long run, rather than burn it out in a never-ending series of faux client crises.
And if you really think you have one of those rare clients who actually wants servants – then put your money where your mouth is. Give that client to a competitor.
My good friend Judy bought a Lexus last spring, from Prestige Lexus of Ramsey, NJ.
A previous owner of a Pontiac, a (used) BMW convertible, and a string of Toyotas, she wasn’t quite sure her self-image was that of a Lexus owner; truth be told, she felt slightly talked into it by her boyfriend.
But that all changed last week.
She had a bad head cold. Her car was due for its 10,000-mile checkup, and there was a product recall check due as well. She set out early for the 40-minute drive to the dealership, and was dismayed to find 20 people there ahead of her for service at 7:30 in the morning.
But the lines shrank instantly in the face of the dealership’s rapid processing, and she was quickly off home in a loaner car—the same model she owned.
At about 11:30AM, John DeSantis of Prestige called her. “That cold of yours sounded bad, Judy,” he said. “Would you like it if we drove your car home for you and picked up the loaner, so you didn’t have to come back out and drive up here?”
Does a duck like water? Judy was grateful for the offer, and even more delighted when she realized the charge for the whole day—checkup, recall, loaner, home pickup service—was $0.00.
“I think I’m a Lexus owner now,” Judy says.
How Prestige Lexus Does It
At first, I figured this was an exceptional event. Turns out, it’s policy, at least on a space-available basis, for scheduled maintenance.
(On the social media front, I was impressed that @prestigelexus is also tweeting—not a lot yet, not terribly well, but hey give ‘em credit. Though I was very impressed that they’ve got a QR code on their service page!).
It’s tricky to offer services and not have them become commoditized, demanded by customers, standard operating procedure. A lot of doing it successfully has to do with the personal touch; a policy is just a policy until someone makes it personal for you.
That’s what Prestige Lexus did. And no, I’m not getting any recognition or credit or tie-ins with them of any kind. I’m just passing good stuff on. Judy told me, and I told you, and now you know.
IKEA Empowers Employees and Customers
I took my daughter to IKEA today to help her bring some furniture home to her apartment. As we went to the checkout line, there were three self-service lines, and only attended checkout line. We chose one of the self service lines, and checked out very quickly.
As we took our purchases out to the parking area, my daughter commented that it would have been fairly easy for someone to slip through without paying. This was not one of those stores where people scan your invoices and receipts. There were only a few people checking.
Yet as we left, one of the attendants followed us and said, “Wait, wait you forgot one of your purchases.” Sure enough, we had. So I guess they were watching well enough, and she smiled graciously as we thanked her.
Clearly IKEA did trust their customers to some extent, and it also seemed like they trusted their employees to pay attention and do the right thing. My daughter said the experience made her feel like IKEA trusted her, and was looking out for her best interests at the same time.
US Air Gives a Passenger a Really Big Christmas Gift
The week of December 14, I flew from New York to Cincinnati to Charlotte to Toronto to New York, most of it on US Air. On the leg from Cincinnati to Charlotte, I accidentally left my MacBook Air computer in the seat pocket in front of me on the airplane. (Note to Steve Jobs: can you make the MBA a little less convenient, please?) When I got to the hotel I figured out what happened.
I first called US Air’s central customer service, which was a horrible experience. It ended with the person I talked to saying I should talk to TSA. I said that was ridiculous, and got back on the phone to the local Charlotte airport. There I learned that nothing had been returned from the flight and the plane had left for Birmingham. (Second note to Steve Jobs: can you make the MBA a little more clunky and visible, please?)
I managed to get to US Air’s Birmingham baggage office—and suddenly my problems were over. I met Veronica. Who is your basic goddess of travelers.
Veronica immediately understood my problem and offered to solve it. She called the gate to make sure someone checked the minute the flight landed. As soon as the plane landed, she found the computer and called me. I was extremely relieved, and asked if she could send it back on the next plane.
“Gosh, we used to do that, but insurance and so forth nowadays,” she explained. I asked for permission to speak to her supervisor. “Oh sure,” Veronica said, “no problem; maybe she can help you!”
Lisa is what you’d expect from a goddess’s supervisor. She listened carefully to my story, and explained their policy. They were willing to send it via FedEx. I explained I was willing to absorb the risk of damage. (Third note to Steve Jobs: could you please make the MBA a little more breakable?) What I really didn’t want was to not have it for the next day in Charlotte, and have to suffer the risks of FedExing it to Toronto. (No offense to FedEx, my carrier of choice).
She weighed the data, and made a spot decision. By herself. She asked Veronica to pack it very carefully and get it shipped to me on the next flight back to Charlotte (the last flight).
Good call, Lisa.
I went back to the airport and bit my nails, until a package came down the baggage chute. Carefully wrapped, it had a handwritten note in big letters on the outside: Merry Christmas Mr. Green!
US Air may not be perfect, but they got three things perfectly right. They hired Veronica. They hired Lisa. And they gave both of them the power to make smart decisions, on their own, when it came to customers.
Trust and Collaborative Capitalism
Shout out to both companies. Trust your employees to trust your customers. Trust begets trust, and everyone benefits.
This is collaborative capitalism, folks. This is not your father’s zero-sum game. This works.
I met Joan at a group dinner the other night. When she found out what I did, she said:
The other day I got a call from the local Ford dealership—I had bought my car from them several years ago. They wanted to know if I’d be willing to refer several of my friends to them.
“Refer my friends!” I said. “You’ve got to be kidding! Your dealership behaved very badly towards me twice in the last six months—unethically, even—and despite my complaining about it, I have yet to hear anyone there apologize, or even take responsibility for it.
“In fact, I’ve already told a number of my friends to never do business with you. And you call me and ask me to refer business? Do you know what ‘fat chance’ means?”
Ouch, Mr. Ford Dealer.
In the “olden” days, it was lore that a good customer service story might be retold a dozen times, while a bad customer service story would be told a hundred times or more.
Nowadays: make that a hundred thousand times—or more. And within days. The now-classic example: the United Airlines broken guitar video , which garnered 3 million views in seven days. (It’s a pretty catchy song, if you haven’t heard it).
Reputation Marketing 2.0
Industry after industry has historically made an implicit assumption in their marketing: that the supply of new customers is endless, and endlessly renewable. Don Peppers and Martha Rogers took a head-on shot at this fallacy in their under-appreciated 2005 book "Return on Customer," stating that customers are, in fact, the scarcest resource.
In other words, the very common slash and burn marketing tactics that most companies use to churn through leads—massive emailing, lead culling, indifferent customer service reps—are now poisoning the well.
They were right in 2005, and they’re about 100 times more right in 2009.
How many of the 3,000,000 YouTube views made in one week were of people who were potential customers of United? Existing customers of United? Employees of United? It’s a hard number to calculate, but let’s agree on three things:
- it’s big
- it’s bigger than it used to be
- it’s very not good for United.
Is Your Marketing Poisoning Your Well?
Back to Joan and her local Ford dealer. Can you imagine the impact on that dealerships’ local market if Joan had access to local media? Well guess what, she does. And since all media is local in this age of Craigslist and YouTube, Ford itself could and should be concerned about such things.
The biggest impact of all this bad-news-traveling-faster world is that Darwinian selection can act a lot faster. Businesses using anti-customer tactics are subject to being outed on a massive, nearly real-time basis. Customers can make up their own minds, and increasingly trust surveys show that we trust others like us more than we do nearly all other institutions.
Which means users of classic anti-consumer bad marketing tactics are now more likely to have the gun pointed right back at them.
I’m going to give the Ford dealership a break and not name them by name. But rest assured I’ll send them a link to this blog. They dodged a bullet this time; but bullet-dodging is not a good strategy going forward.