"Customer service is the experience we deliver to our customer. It’s the promise we keep to the customer. It’s how we follow through for the customer. It’s how we make them feel when they do business with us."
~ Shep Hyken
Over the past several weeks, I’ve spent an unprecedented amount of time on the road visiting with distributors and customers.
One of the more interesting conversations occurred earlier this week when I was speaking with Bob, the owner of a mid-sized electronics distributor headquartered in Southern California.
The basic premise of our discussion concerned how the service levels, in almost all industries, have declined to a point of almost non-existence. There was a time when a customer felt special for patronizing a business concern and received individual attention and impeccable customer service.
Bob and I, being roughly of the same age, waxed nostalgically about times when the customer truly felt like they were important to the business that was serving them.
The first place that we both remembered this transformation occurring was at the gas pump.
I am not that old, but I still distinctly remember when a service station (they were still called service stations 40 years ago) attendant would pump your gas, check your oil, and wash your windows.
Then two strange things began to happen in the early 70’s, gas prices began to rise sharply due to the oil embargo of OPEC (almost tripling within a 180-day window).
As a way to help reduce costs to consumers, service stations began offering two price levels to its customers... a full-service price and a self-service price (typically about 10% less than full-service).
This was the starter’s pistol to begin the race to the bottom...
In 1978, congress passed the Airline Deregulation Act effectively breaking the monopoly of the airlines by allowing new airlines to compete in the market.
Instead of effectively competing by offering better service levels to their customers, the new, smaller airlines decided to instead compete strictly on price offering low-costs and no-frills to their prospective customers.
Soon these low-cost providers began to steal market-share from the legacy airlines. In order to remain competitive, the larger airlines began to match the low-cost pricing structures of the discount airlines and in doing so, they cut services while adding significant add-on fees for services once offered as a part of the ticket price.
Other industries soon followed this same no-frills (otherwise known as "no customer service") model including the big-box retail stores, self-service restaurants, movie theaters, internet retailers, hotels, healthcare and certain manufacturing sectors.
The basis for efficient capitalism is to create strong competition in the marketplace forcing suppliers to systematically reduce costs providing lower prices to consumers.
Product and service providers are simply just trying to react to market competitive forces by taking unnecessary costs out of the equation.
At this point, many of the readers might be pointing to "greedy corporations" as the culprit in this customer service debacle.
Providing a higher level of customer service means higher costs for product and/or service providers... and of course, higher costs means less profit for share-holders and less bonus money for C-suite executives...
However, the truth is, that corporations are not the sole culprits in the customer service void.
We... the consumers, with our insatiable appetite for paying the lowest possible prices, are the sole enablers in this story.
If consumers, in mass...
...decided to no longer patronize big box stores in lieu of small boutique stores that offer unique personalized service...
...if they refused to stay at hotels charging "resort fees" or fly on airlines that charged "baggage fees".
...simply said "no" to buying any product/service where there is no actual customer service person to speak with (and if there does happen to be an actual person at the end of a phone line... that person should be able to communicate with you in your native language... do you hear me American Express and Dell Computers?).
Unfortunately, a coordinated effort to stop patronizing businesses that regularly provide horrific customer service experiences is a futile endeavor. These businesses understand that no matter how poorly they treat customers; there will always be a market of people who purchase solely on price.
This is not to say that by simply paying more money for something, customer service will instantly improve.
I currently lease a car that would be considered a luxury car by most standards. I recently needed to take my car into the dealership to correct a small problem. After waiting 30 minutes or so to see a "service advisor", I was told that my car was 40 miles beyond the car’s warranty so all servicing would be charged back to me.
A plea to the service manager only caused me to waste more of my valuable time as he recited the rules and regulations of the manufacturer’s warranty.
Rules are rules... and customers be damned.
The end of my lease is coming due in January... so I’ll be looking to find a new vehicle to drive... at the very least, this dealership has helped me to eliminate one place to visit in January.
Now it’s also interesting to note that several companies have recognized that there is a growing population of consumers who are beginning to shun the notion of racing to the bottom and are now providing goods and services directed at this consumer base.
This past weekend, some friends and I went to see the new hit movie, Minions. We all quickly decided that we would shun the typical low price theaters, with their cattle herd treatment of their patrons, and instead go to a showing at a "luxury" theater where we could buy a reserved seat in advance, sit in a large and comfortable chair, and drink a cold "adult beverage".
The cost differential between the two theaters, one where customers are treated like cattle and one where patrons are treated like customers was a paltry $6 per ticket.
This particular movie theater chain (Arc Light) isn’t trying to cater to a clientele to whom an extra few dollars might be significant (for example... teenagers who earn a minimum wage). Instead, they realize that some people want a better movie-going experience and are willing to part with a few dollars to do so.
There is a movement afoot where consumers are now demanding a better service experience. I see this in select restaurants, retail stores, and rental car agencies (personally, I absolutely refuse to rent cars from any company not named Enterprise based on a multitude of experiences, ranging from bad to horrific, with other rental car companies).
Although it might take a bit more effort, companies can and should try to find a way to provide a better service experience for their customers.
Anyone can try and win customers by offering a lower price... however this is not a sustainable model.
Most customers truly don’t want a low price... they want value.
And one of the best ways to create value is to truly offer a better buying experience for your customers... the key is making your customer feel as though they are your only customer and your sole job is to make sure that they are elated doing business with you and/or your company.
In the end... all business is conducted by people... so wouldn’t it be nice to be actually treated like a person?
Thank you for your support of OptiFuse where we understand that our customers are human beings so we treat them as such.
Jim Kalb President
Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
Website - www.optifuse.com
Blog - www.optifuse.blogspot.com
Twitter - @OptiFuse