Written by Neil Bellefeuille
My wife and I recently renovated our home. And when I say we renovated it, I mean we actually renovated it. No contractors, no skilled labor, no guys in overalls. Do-it-yourself home renovation is akin to allowing your niece to perform a root canal because she someday hopes to become a dentist. Nonetheless, we donned old jeans and t-shirts and ripped out drywall, replaced old stairwell banisters and demolished weathered basement bars hiding too many secrets to be allowed to live on any longer. Daunting is the polite word that comes to mind. There are others I can share with you over a beer, with no children present.
Given the level of difficulty (for us, at least) of most of these processes — the prospect of selecting and ordering new appliances seemed like the proverbial cakewalk of the job. And in some ways it was. But shortly after installing the new dishwasher we found that a critical venting hood had fallen off the bottom of the door and now this dual-threat appliance was bathing our newly refinished wood floor in a daily sauna treatment. And it turns out steam is a surprisingly effective topcoat remover. Having just covered the floor in five coats of stain and varnish, this was not a happy sight. Time to call the appliance people.
The power of real relationships
Over the years I have dealt with, and worked professionally with, many brands. The percentage of brands that truly understand who their customers are and how much those customers should mean to them is frighteningly low. There are certainly no lack of brands painting a customer service façade over the surface of their organization–but there are very few who truly understand, and more importantly, bring to life, the power of real relationships through customer care. And so I did not bring high expectations into the call with “Appliance Insert Your Favorite Realm Description Here”. They did not disappoint. The following is recreation of the facts and may be slightly embellished for dramatic purposes:
Appliance Land: “Hello. How may I help you?”
Handsome Homeowner: “I have a warranty claim on a dishwasher I just purchased from you about 60 days ago.”
Appliance World: “Oh. Ok. What brand is it?”
Handsome Homeowner: “Brand X.”
Appliance Universe: “I see. Well, you will need to contact the manufacturer for that. They like to handle warranty claims themselves in the first year of service.”
Handsome Homeowner: “But I don’t want to call the manufacturer. I bought this from you.”
Appliance Village: “I’m, sorry. I can’t help you. You have to call the manufacturer.”
Handsome Homeowner: “Yes, but I didn’t buy this from the manufacturer. I am YOUR customer, not theirs. Why can’t YOU help me?”
Appliance Hamlet: “I’m sorry, sir. It’s just our policy.”
And thus ended the call.
Insider tip: When you hear the words “our policy” in any customer service call, that is essentially code for “I have no idea what the hell customer service really is, I’m just here to answer the phone”. You should immediately hang up, seek counseling and start to brainstorm creative ways to deploy duct tape in solving your problem. Brands like this are not going anywhere because they simply do not understand what it takes to thrive in a world where relationships define the marketplace.
Going the extra mile is no longer optional, it’s essential
Contrast the experience above with a story I heard from a friend this week. He’d recently had his driveway repaved and sealed in anticipation of winter. Within a week of completing it, his college-aged son parked a car with a badly leaking engine on the driveway staining the new surface. In an effort to restore it, he applied an asphalt-specific cleaning solution, which promptly proceeded to burn the sealant away. In desperation, he called the company that had done the paving for him to ask their advice on where he could get matching sealant to patch the surface. Rather than offer him a brand name (which would have been perfectly acceptable) they instead offered to come back out and fix the problem for him free of charge. Feeling a bit dumbfounded about the offer and slightly guilty at the prospect of bringing them out to fix a problem that was not of their making, he initially declined. They politely persisted. The result? A fixed driveway and a new brand loyalist singing their praises to anyone and everyone who will listen. A great example of a small, but incredibly meaningful action that not only backed this company’s words, but multiplied their value and veracity immeasurably.
The point of all of this is simple: customer service is not a set of policies or a marketing scheme. It is a culture of deep appreciation and respect for the customer that supersedes the value of the order. What was the cost for the driveway company to come out and fix those problems for my friend? Relatively high, I’m sure, given that they were doing it on their own dime and that it was not part of the original contract budget. The better question is, though, “What was the value of that decision that accrued to the brand?” Not everyone is going to shout about such incredible service publically. Even if they do, quantifying the value of customer appreciation is difficult at best. And therein lies the rub. The cost of customer service is tangible and directly impacts the bottom line. The value of great customer service is difficult to quantify and often feels more like a warm belly rub than a measurable outcome. But it is also the stuff that great brands are made of.
Just like love, the unquantifiable stuff is often the most powerful
Great brands understand that customer service is the ultimate competitive differentiator because it is truly transformational. The value of exceptional customer service, although largely unquantifiable, is that it creates relationship where there was once only a transaction. When brands demonstrate real commitment to a customer in the form of a relationship that extends beyond the money already nestling comfortably in their pocket, the game changes. Much like the process of going from acquaintance to friend happens through time, effort and commitment, so does the process of taking someone from transactional customer to brand loyalist. It must be intentional, authentic and consistent. And this takes tremendous effort, time and expense. But when a real relationship is achieved, brands become more than the sum of their parts by eliciting a form of reciprocal commitment that exponentially increases the lifetime value of each customer.
How is your brand building real relationships with your customers? A great product is a good starting point, but it’s not enough. How are you showing your customers appreciation for the commercial relationship they are pursuing with you? You don’t need to go overboard to achieve this. You simply need to stand apart from the majority of brands who are numbingly walking through the motions.
And, when you empower your employees to provide just that little extra bit of attention or service — to solve problems and leverage opportunities on the fly — you move customers from transaction to relationship and from mere purchaser to a fan. And that’s a policy worth pursuing.
Originally posted on the Bulldog Drummond Uncommon Blog.