The Service Line with J.N Halm … People or policies?


What makes a truly excellent service experience?

In my years of studying service experiences, both the excellent and not-so-great, I have managed to catalogued some interesting experiences. Some I read of, others I heard of and still others, I personally experienced. In analysing all these experiences, I have always made it a game of finding out if the said experience was due to the brilliance of a particular individual or because of a well-defined and well-executed corporate policy.

For instance, there is that heart-warming story of a young man who went to a Target store to get a clip-on tie for a job interview. Unfortunately for him, that particular Target outlet only sold regular ties. However, an employee decided to step up at just the right time. He decided to spend time teaching the young man how to tie a regular necktie.

When he was done, he continued the amazing service by helping the young man go through some potential job interview questions. When the two of them were done, the other employees came together to give the young man a round of applause before he went out of the store. The question is, was it a policy of the store to do that for its customers? Or was it just that particular employee’s initiative? Obviously not.

There is also the story of the barista at a Starbucks in Virginia, USA who had to learn American sign language? Why? Because one of her regular customers is deaf and she wanted to be able to connect with him and make his experience effortless. For a story like this, it is clear that it was all the effort of the young barista. She was not told to do so by her employers. It was her own initiative. But is it possible that there is a culture in Starbucks that made it possible for staff to go out of their way to do things like that for customers?

Then there is that story about a customer who had called a number of grocery stores looking for one to deliver some groceries to her 89-year father before a snowstorm. All the places she called turned her down because they did not do deliveries. Then she called Trader Joe’s, the chain of grocery stores that pride itself as a neighbourhood store. Trader Joe also had the same policy of not delivering but it was ready to make that exception that day.

However, not only was the store ready to deliver but the customer was also told that all the food she had ordered for her father was on the house. That was how far Trader Joe’s went for that particular customer. It was evident that this was something that the management of the store decided to do. But was it based on a policy of Trader Joe or was it a policy change at just the right time?

There is also that one experience I had with an acquaintance in one of the leading hotels in Accra. A waitress changed drinks that we had erroneously ordered, without telling us to pay for the first drinks. She even changed the drinks without recourse to a superior authority. I wonder if it was just the lady doing her best to wow us or if she was just following laid-down policies. Without the policies, could she have just done what she did on her own?

I recently came across a story involving a Domino’s Pizza outlet somewhere in the US state of Oregon.  A regular customer for ten years failed to order his favourite meal for eleven days and so employees of the pizzeria sensed that something was amiss. The Branch manager asked one of the delivery drivers to drive by the customer’s house to check if everything was alright. When the driver got to the customer’s residence, he realised that the lights and TV were on but the customer did not respond.

The driver, sensing trouble, reported to his boss who advised him to call 911. When the officers arrived, they heard the customer calling for help from within. The officers broke down the door and found the poor man lying inside needing immediate medical attention. Fortunately, his life was saved–thanks to a pizzeria he had been eating from for a decade. What made the manager of the eatery send her driver to check on the customer? Was a company policy or was it just something she did on her own volition?

How can one talk about great customer service without talking about the tire story from Nordstrom? It is a story that is as told as any customer service tale. The story goes thus. A customer rolled a pair of tires into a Nordstrom store somewhere in Alaska sometime in the 1970s. The customer demanded a refund and though he did not produce a receipt, the tires were accepted and he was given the refund. There is nothing to the story until you are told that the customer actually did not buy those tires from that particular Nordstrom store. In this case, it is said that the refund was effected because it was a policy of Nordstrom.

Obviously, there are many more of these stories. However, these few incidents show that a great service experience is either an initiative of a service employee, a policy of the company or a combination of both. There must be a bit of both, for an organisation to succeed as a provider of great customer service. In other words, when there is a service failure, it is either a people problem, a policy problem or a combination of both.

If the challenge with customer service in the organisation is a people problem, then there are two main ways that issue can be tackled—recruit right and train right. The concept of emotional labour dictate that there are individuals who are more suited for the job of dealing with customers on a regular basis. These are the individuals who will exert very little emotional labour at the frontline as opposed to others who have to exert a lot more emotional labour.

In recruiting for the front office therefore, it makes sense to place individuals who will exert very little emotional labour in serving customers. Those individuals have a higher elasticity to handle customer pressure. This in no way means that individuals who have low threshold for customer pressure cannot be great customer service employees. However, such an individual must exert a lot more emotional labour in dealing with customers.

Regardless of their emotional makeup, front line employees must also regularly undergo training. Training must also be done right to yield the right results. Beyond recruiting right and training right, it is also important that customer service employees are truly convicted of the need for great customer service. When service employees do not believe in what they are doing, the lack of conviction shows. Customers are able to detect when the service is not genuine.

If, however, a service failure was created by a policy problem, then the challenge is simple—institute new (or change) old policies. In setting the right policies, it is important that the customer’s view is strongly considered. Excellent customer-centric policies must be created from an outside-in perspective. Policies must necessarily make doing business easier for customers. Cumbersome and complex processes are a turn-off for customers.

The key phrase in putting together the best customer service policies is “in the best interest of the customer”. It is possible that some customers would want to take advantage of such policies. It is to be expected but those are the kinds of tradeoffs that companies sometimes have to make. There are lots of stories about customers taking advantage of the policies of companies such as Nordstrom. However, in the long run, great customer service pays more.

As can be seen from some of the preceding stories, organisations that create magical experiences for their customers put in a conscious effort by ensuring that there are policies to help staff serve customers well. They do not leave everything to the discretion of employees.  It is equally important that policies are also reviewed regularly. Outdated policies are not too helpful, especially in a marketplace that is constantly evolving and against customer needs that are ever changing.

Another policy that companies that offer great customer service have is that they empower their front line employees. Giving frontline employees great training without empowering them place limits on their ability to perform well. Service employees should confidently go the extra mile for customers without feeling that they will get into trouble when things go bad.

Service policies also work when the right systems, structures and technology are in place. It is an exercise in frustration when well-trained customer service personnel do not have the right resources to work with. The warmth and smiles of a customer-facing employees avails little when the computer in front of the person is not functioning properly.

As competition increases and customers become more sophisticated, the need for great customer service will continue to become more crucial. As seen from the ongoing discussion, great customer service rests on the dual elements of people and policy. Empowered knowledgeable people backed by sound customer-centric policies must necessarily go together. These two elements must be present if customers are to be given excellent service each and every time.


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