The four biases of great service providers

"I'm not an order taker. I'm an experience maker!" --Jay

Jay used to work at a local restaurant. He has since moved on to a new position as a head waiter in significantly greener pastures. When he was telling me about the demanding, multiple interview process he was to encounter for his new position, his eyes lit up as he recounted his atypical experience:

"But they hired me on the spot, during my first interview, when I told them that I consider myself an experience maker not an order taker."

In my mind, Jay nailed the essence of excellence in customer service. It's about the experience of the customer. Providing great service is much more than just a job for call centers or online social specialists. It's a strategic endeavor. It's about innovation, operational and technical excellence, and managing--and influencing--people's changing expectations and feelings. Make no mistake about it, customer service is a, if not the, key component of marketplace success in an age of abundance.

Here are the four biases of great service brands:

1. Aware - They stay tuned in to marketplace changes and use gained insights to modify their service strategy. Customers' expectations and desires are influenced by their experiences with new technologies, as well as across product and service categories. For example, when people get accustomed to one-click shopping at Amazon.com, they come to expect that same type of speed and convenience everywhere. When they get used to, and prefer, the convenience and speed of pumping their own gas, scanning their own groceries, and self-checking in at the airport, they'll also embrace the self-service concept in other areas of their marketplace lives.

In addition, great service providers stay tuned in to, and capture, customer "problems" and, like the Japanese lean manufacturing principles of kaizen and "respect for people," develop strategic solutions to eliminate the source of those problems. Yes, great customer service is often defined by how a business responds to inevitable and, in some cases, unpredictable product and service failures. But the best organizations prevent those problems from occurring in the first place.

2. Empathetic - Great service organizations work hard to develop a visceral understanding of their customers' cognitive experiences and strive to demonstrate that they care, first and foremost, about those experiences. They are sensitive people; sensitive to life, to things, to others. They ask themselves, "How would I feel if . . ." and then strategically focus on that feeling. If you really don't know how you'd feel if . . . , then put yourself in that exact situation and find out. Here's a great example of empathizing from an old blog post of one of Microsoft's product support specialists:

Sometimes you're on the phone with somebody and you suspect that the problem is something as simple as forgetting to plug it in, or that the cable was plugged into the wrong port. This is easy to do with those PS/2 connectors that fit both a keyboard and a mouse plug, or with network cables that can fit both into the upstream and downstream ports on a router.

Here's the trick: Don't ask "Are you sure it's plugged in correctly?" If you do this, they will get all insulted and say indignantly, "Of course it is! Do I look like an idiot?" without actually checking. Instead, say "Okay, sometimes the connection gets a little dusty and the connection gets weak. Could you unplug the connector, blow into it to get the dust out, then plug it back in?" They will then crawl under the desk, find that they forgot to plug it in (or plugged it into the wrong port), blow out the dust, plug it in, and reply, "Um, yeah, that fixed it, thanks."

3. Honest - Great service providers tell the truth before it's asked of them. People today are incredulous of marketing, institutions and the media. The only way to cut through skepticism (especially when a problem arises) and create trust, is to act as a real human being and get to the truth, whatever that truth may be. If you screwed up, say, "We screwed up." Better yet, if it was you who screwed up, say, "I screwed up." Simply drop your defenses, take off your mask--your title, your expertise, your bureaucratic language and technical jargon--and connect with people with honest, simple, and engaging language. Be on the level. Tell them what you know, what you believe, and what you think.

4. Enlightened - There's a Chinese proverb, "A man without a smiling face should not open a shop." I would modify it to, "A person without a sense of enlightened humor should not interact with customers." And by "sense of humor," I don't mean skilled at telling jokes. I mean understanding that the purpose of business is (to paraphrase Jung), to kindle a lightness in the mere darkness of marketplace transactions. Great service people are great hosts. They put everything that happens in perspective and, through their enlightened senses of self and of humor, help customers do the same. And as the great humanities teacher Gilbert Highet once said, "When people laugh together, they become a single group of human beings enjoying its existence."

Bottom line: Great service providers help us enjoy our existence together.