Providing Outstanding Customer Service Is an Art Not a Science

Lessons from Experience

Shortly after my twentieth birthday I went to work in an art gallery. My job was to make the picture frames. The business was run by one man, I’ll call him Peter. We did quite a bit of work for restaurants and pubs. We would source and frame pictures around the    customer service software  particular theme of a restaurant, pub or whatever the establishment might be.

We also did some bespoke work. Customers would bring in their pictures or photographs and we would frame them. A few customers would buy pictures from us. Many of these would be prints of famous paintings – the impressionists were quite popular. Selling pictures – particularly original and limited edition pictures – was an aspect of the business that Peter wanted to expand; but it never really happened, for good reasons as you will discover below.

Peter was not an easy man to get on with. Many people simply did not like him and would do their best to avoid him. He knew this and, publicly at least, took great delight in it. On occasions, however, he could be charming. More often, he could be rude, arrogant and, at times, thoroughly obnoxious.

Peter frequently displayed his less desirable traits towards his customers (more usually potential customers who were soon dissuaded from becoming customers). There were a small number of customers who came back time and time again. These people were treated by Peter with a service that was almost servile – and I could never work out what it was about this handful of people that Peter treated very differently from the vast majority of others who came into the shop.

With most potential customers Peter revelled in being contrary. If customers asked for advice: he’d refuse; if customers did not want advice: they got it forced upon them; if a particular moulding for a frame was out of stock: he would refuse to order it for customers who requested it; if a particular moulding was in stock; he’d insist that customers who wanted it must have another. I could go on, but you get the picture (pun intended!).

Peter went out of business in about 1986. I’d left a couple of years before. I was not surprised to discover that he went out of business; I was surprised that Peter lasted as long as he did. As I said above, Peter never expanded the picture selling arm of his business and the picture framing aspect was always a very small part of what we did. It was the work for pubs and restaurants that brought in the money, which was never very secure at the best of times.

The recession of the 1980s forced hospitality chains to curtail their spending. This had a devastating effect on the business. By 1981, Peter had started to feel the squeeze, but did little to improve things. From about 1983, the business was in trouble. By 1984, the work from the hospitality companies was not enough to keep the business afloat. There was certainly a market for the bespoke framing service: competitors locally appeared to be doing very well notwithstanding the recession. Peter, however, continued to bite that hand that wanted to feed him.

Whilst I worked for Peter, I never thought too much about how Peter ran his business. I guess I found it amusing. Sadly, though, it wasn’t amusing for the people who lost their jobs when Peter went under.

Customer Service

I am obsessed with customer service. That is no exaggeration. If I’m on the receiving end of poor customer service I’m – to put it mildly – angry. If any of my staff are responsible for poor customer service I’m equally angry – perhaps even angrier – and that anger is infused with heavy doses of disappointment and regret at what they have done and contrition towards the customer we have failed. Once again: that is no exaggeration.

Marketers – especially social media and content marketers – often say that content is king. That may have a great deal of merit lying behind it. However, it is the customer who rules. The customer has always ruled; the customer will always rule. Provide your customers with what they want and you are more likely to retain them as customers. Retain your customers and give them outstanding experiences and those customers are more likely to recommend your services to others.

This is not exactly ground-breaking stuff. If you take a look on the reverse of a Bank of England £20 note you will see a picture of a singularly brilliant man. Adam Smith lived during the eighteenth century during which time he was a key figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. He held a chair in moral philosophy at Glasgow University and is sometime referred to as the father of modern economics.

Amongst his many erudite utterances stands one that contemporary businesses, however large or however small, would do well to heed. The real cost of any product or services, explained Smith, is the time and trouble of acquiring it. For latter day business people the message is that you should ensure that your company has a customer centred philosophy that delivers superior value.

In Search of Excellence

Today there is a mass popular business book publishing industry like never before. I have to say that I’ve never been that keen on that particular type of book, with a few notable exceptions, one of which is In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, the book that some commentators credit with creating that aforementioned publishing phenomenon. I have written about this book before, and I have no doubt that I shall write about it again. I should wholeheartedly recommend it as staple reading for anyone in business.

The book has come in for a bit of criticism in recent years, not least because some of the companies held up by the authors as paragons of excellence have seen their fortunes dip in the years since the book’s publication in 1982. However, many of the books principles, I should suggest, are sound, and offer businesses a source of first rate advice for improving their customer service.

I confess that I have drunk deeply from the cup that is In Search of Excellence and become intoxicated on the “… eight common themes which [Peters and Waterman] argued were responsible for the success of [their] chosen corporations, which have become pointers for managers ever since.” I’m not expressly going to refer to those themes; however, much of what follows is underpinned by the work of those two authors.

All Experiences Are Valuable

I’ve always taken the view that all experiences are valuable. Human beings learn from experience. Sometimes the worst experiences are the ones we learn most from. My time working for Peter in no way constitutes a bad experience. Quite the reverse in fact: it was a time when I was extremely happy. My time with Peter, though, did provide me with a formidable learning experience. I came to appreciate this many years after I left Peter’s gallery.

I am going to go through just six principles that I consider to be central to providing outstanding customer service. My time with Peter offers me innumerable examples of a business failing to follow these simple rules and suffering the consequences.

The following are not the only principles of outstanding customer service: there are others. The following may not be the most important principles: there may be others that could conceivably claim a higher ranking. They are not principles in any particular order: there is a solid case to be made for all to share star billing. One thing is sure, however: companies that fail to do these things are not providing outstanding customer service. Indeed, fail to do these things and providing outstanding customer service is next door to impossible.

Principle Number One: Always Be Polite

I know this is obvious: it is obvious. But how often does it fail to happen? How often have you been subjected to the rudeness of some company employee? Let’s look at things from the employee’s point of view: customers might rule but sometimes they can be very difficult. And that is very true. Impoliteness is not a one way street. For that reason, employees who deal with the public need very special skills.

Many might disagree with this but I’ll put it out there anyway. There are some things that cannot be taught, and one of those things that cannot be taught is how to deal with people. Either you can deal with people or you can’t. If you can’t deal with people, there are a few things you can learn to make things easier for you, but you will never learn how to do it in the way that it is done by someone to whom it comes naturally. It is something that is innate.

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