A company founder and CEO approached me recently, explaining where he felt his company was on the continuum of customer service success. “I think we’re pretty good at the ‘smiles’ part of customer service. We’ve hired a lot of great people and they do a good job at interacting with customers–at least when things are going well: when the customers are polite and relatively satisfied and we’re not under any stressors internally. But I feel like there’s a lot of variation in how we do things, that we don’t have any kind of guidelines set up to carry us through the more challenging scenarios that come up. Is that just the nature of the beast in customer service? Is everyone out there just winging it like we are, where we’re hoping that as long as we have great people, everything will be all right?”
Here was my response, which I’ve expanded now for the sake of my readers: Having great employees is indeed a huge part of success in customer service, an indispensable part of that success. This is why I spend so much breath and ink stressing the importance of proper hiring for customer-friendly traits (e.g., see my article here) and talent management (see here). People who are hired because they have customer-friendly attributes as a person and that empathy and the other parts of being a customer-friendly person are celebrated where they work. But it’s not the whole of it. For repeatable, sustainable customer service excellence, you also need systems and standards.
Standards are the simpler of the two. A standard is a single position that an organization takes. It can be how to slice a lime so that it’s actually squeezable by a guest. (By the way, the answer is to cut that lime in wedges, not into pizza-shaped slices, no matter how easy those are to do on your Hobart slicer.) A standard can be how long it’s okay for a phone to ring before it’s answered.
Such a standard is a line in the sand delineating “how we do things around here.” Likewise, a repair shop could have a standard for the magazine titles in the customer lounge: “Go easy on the Monster Trucks and Gearhead magazines, please. And if you ever are considering ‘donating’ your personal copies of Maxim to the customer lounge, we have a Performance Improvement Plan waiting just for you!”)
A standard, alternatively, can simply be a tactic for performing a task more easily and successfully (that same auto repair shop could have a standard for how to put a lug nut securely on a wheel without overtightening).
Some standards can be quite specific. When you order a caramel macchiato at Starbucks, your drink is finished with a precise pattern of caramel sauce: seven vertical lines crossed with seven horizontal lines which are then topped with two full circles around the crosshatching just created. This standard provides more than visual consistency; it all but ensures a small amount of caramel sauce in almost every sip.
This is true regardless of which Starbucks location you’re sitting in when you take those sugar-laced sips. And those wooden stir sticks? A Starbucks standard specifies that they be sourced from a particular variety of birch tree that company testing has shown won’t interact with the flavor of a coffee drink. Also, in keeping with the company’s environmental goals, a separate environmental sourcing standard calls for these birch trees to be grown on a sustainable farm, where they can do double duty by shading the coffee plants grown below them.
Systems are slightly more elaborate. They’re essentially groups of standards. For instance, a popular system used in many industries, from retail banking to hospitality, is the 10-5-3 sequence, a system for how to greet and interact with a customer who is visibly approaching you.
(At 10 feet, look up from what you’re doing and acknowledge the guest with direct eye contact and a nod. At 5 feet, smile. At 3 feet, verbally greet the guest, offering a time of day greeting: “Good morning” or “Good afternoon”–unless the customer didn’t return your 5-foot smile, in which case you should leave them the heck alone.)
Another essential customer service system is a framework for customer service recovery, i.e., how to work with an upset or disappointed customer. “ Arguably, no system is more important than this one; one common feature of all great customer-focused companies is that they have their own such system, designed to enable a stressed employee to work, in the heat of the moment, with an upset or complaining or angry customer. (The service recovery sequence at Marriott spells LEARN; Starbuck’s spells, rather inevitably, LATTE. (If you don’t already have your own customer service system in place, here’s an article that includes the details of my own suggested customer service recovery framework.)
Micah Solomon is a customer service consultant, customer experience turnaround expert, keynote speaker, trainer, and author. Email Micah directly, visit his website, or download three free chapters of his new book: Ignore Your Customers (and They’ll Go Away): The Simple Playbook for Delivering the Ultimate Customer Service Experience, recently published by HarperCollins Leadership.