Empowerment is the core of superior customer service

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imagesBy Francis Moran

We have a bit of a preoccupation with customer service here at Francis Moran and Associates, and we write about it a lot. It stems from my conviction that superior customer service is the only truly sustainable competitive advantage available to most companies. If you have a technology advantage, the next wave of innovation will leapfrog over you. If you have a price advantage, someone will eventually figure out how to do it more cheaply. But if you treat your customers like the kings and queens they are, you will prevail over the long term, and even more so if you are in a commodity industry. In fact, I feel so strongly about this that I call it “Francis’s first law of competitive differentiation.”

Usually, we are bewailing the sorry state of customer service almost everywhere. It’s as though most companies have yet to figure out that the cost of retaining an existing customer is a fraction of the cost of acquiring a new one. Every so often, someone does such a truly horrible job that I am obliged to award them my Air Canada-Harold McGowan Memorial Award for Truly Egregious Customer Service in honour of Air Canada’s baggage-handling chief at San Francisco Airport who said to me, when I started telling him why my bag had failed to arrive with me on a flight from Calgary, “Keep talking sir, it’s going in one ear and out the other.”

But nobody’s getting that award today. Indeed, just the opposite.

Today, I join my colleague Leo Valiquette, who last week wrote about his own enjoyable episode of sterling customer service, in relating a couple of examples of companies that have obviously empowered their support people to put the “service” back into “customer service.”

In the wake of a brief power outage at our house a couple of weeks ago, our Apple TV wouldn’t work properly. It wasn’t logging on to the household wifi network properly. I’m not a complete tech novice but this one stumped me because every other device in the house was having no problem. So I hit Apple’s online help forums. The bad news is that Apple’s online help forums are horrible. The good news is that when I called a support number, Scott quickly pinpointed my issue and stepped me through a quick solution. The best news is that he did so even though, technically, I ought to have paid for the support call. Free support on my Apple TV expired some time ago. However, Scott noted that I had never made a support call, and so he helped me out. And my wife and I were able to get our “Orange is New Black” fix.

Then, a day or so later, I called my bank. Now, banks are one of those institutions that really ought to fully embrace the concept of superior customer service as sustainable competitive differentiator. There’s really no difference between any of the big banks in Canada — they all offer pretty much the same products at pretty much  the same price and in pretty much  the same locations. If I was a marketer, I’d be tearing my hair out trying to figure out to differentiate my bank from all the others.

I called to set up a link between my personal account and one of my business accounts so I could seamlessly transfer money to the business. (I am trying to get all my financial stuff completely web based so no more trees die in service to my banking needs, and also so that I can do anything I want to do from just about anywhere.) Leslie had an even better idea. She said I could connect the two accounts into a single online profile, which would mean transfers between them would be made instantaneously rather than being subject to a couple of days’ wait.

The common feature between these two experiences was  Apple and TD Canada Trust had empowered Scott and Leslie to be able to deliver superior customer service. In Scott’s case, he had the discretion to forego charging me in favour of immediately and happily fixing my problem. In Leslie’s case, she had been empowered with knowledge — rather than simply doing as I requested, she quizzed me on what I was seeking to do, and then suggested a better way for me to accomplish my objective.

Too many companies fail to empower their front-line customer-service people in this fashion. Rather than treating these people as an extension of the company’s marketing efforts who work exactly where brand promise meets brand delivery, they view them as a cost center and train them to get the job done as quickly as possible, even if it means losing the customer in the process. Exceptions to this rule are rare, and deserve to be celebrated.

Image: The Business Ladder 

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