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Published on Jan 16, 2024
Last updated on Jan 23, 2024

Sacred Service

I started exploring the subject of customer service during my journey with Chatwoot, a chat desk tool. The primary motivation was to generate some SEO traffic. So I did what a typical digital marketer does – studied competitor blogs, researched keywords, found some opportunities, tried to one-up the existing online content on customer service, and created a blog for us. As Chatwoot evolved, I felt the urge to get deeper into the subject of customer service, because I wanted to develop a distinct voice for Chatwoot. So I bought myself some books to get to the bottom of the subject. What I learned was some good old wisdom on what customer service should and should not be. This also helped me understand the easiest, calmest, ways to build an ideal service mindset and organization, or “Sacred Service,'' as I like to call it.

It’s actually way more intuitive than we might think. If, for a second, we remove all the noise that claims to explain customer service, we can truly feel it for what it is. In this article, I try to explain my learnings, interpretations, and personal perspectives that define exceptional customer service.

What customer service is not?

When we hear the term ‘Customer Service’, we imagine support tickets, customer complaints, customer queries, toll-free numbers, maybe a live chat button. Many startups don’t even start considering it as a proper business function, before they have reached a certain degree of scale.

It’s important to recognize that support tickets are primarily reactive and situation-specific in nature, and they are just one of the many facets of the larger concept of customer service. Customer service is a more holistic and proactive approach to customer interactions, whereas support is the one part of it that specifically deals with customer concerns.

What is customer service?

All in all, customer service is an underlying feeling that a business gives off wrt ‘serving’ their customers. In other words, customer service is the intrinsic essence of how a business attends to its customers, irrespective of which team does it. This also means that customer service can’t be viewed as an optional add-on to businesses. Rather, it needs to be accepted as its inherent aspect – one that’s present and intertwined with every customer interaction. 

Wherever a customer interaction resides, customer service resides too. At least the customers see interactions that way. This is mainly because such interactions reflect the company's values and play a role in significantly shaping customer impressions and brand perceptions. That's why, customer service begins the moment a customer engages with a business, be it in-store or online, and can go on for years after a sale has been made, depending on the nature of the product or service.

Memorable customer service

Think about your last visits to a coffee shop, a hair salon, or a gift shop. Chances are, those were regular, forgettable experiences. What stays with us long enough are the extremes – either really bad or really good experiences. Obviously, businesses need to focus on creating the exceptional customer experiences to stand out from the crowd. This is how they can build a fan following, turn visitors into loyal repeat customers, who bring in even more with them. Basically, it's the outstanding experiences that make a lasting impact. 

The stats from a recent survey support this too:

Stats on how customers pay more for great experiences

Building an outstanding customer service culture

Building a strong customer service culture requires a foundational, bottom-up approach that depends on developing a strong service core. As opposed to this, a top-down approach is usually seen in companies, where the leadership sets the service standards and provides standard responses, or at least typical customer communication ways, to its employees. But this is not always in favour of practicing exceptional service because every situation and customer is unique, so their experiences must be tailored too.

The key is to create strong relationships with customers by understanding their needs, and meeting them in ways that nobody imagines. It’s actually as simple as understanding human emotions and making your most cherished relationships as a business, i.e. with customers, extremely special. It’s about walking an extra mile and showing customers how you are always on their team.

To make such a culture a reality, conventional methods like telling employees to be friendly with customers, or using templated return policies just because everyone does it, won’t cut it. To make all this happen, there are some ways, as explained below.

Defining customer service for the organization

An amazing customer service function is not a one-size-fits-all deal; it must align with the specific mission, vision, character and values of every company. Start by understanding the core vision that birthed the business, and therefore, figure out the ideal way to make customers the happiest. In simpler words, understand what change you seek in your customers’ lives and serve that purpose by serving the customers well.

P.S. I recommend reading this article that explains what vision really is, why it matters, and how to find one. 

For eg. If the vision of a hotel chain is to ensure that their guests have smooth and successful stays no matter what, then customer service for them must go beyond a 24-hour reception. The one living example of that is The Ritz-Carlton. The staff at every Ritz Carlton branch goes out of their way to create “wow” experiences for their guests. Here’s one of their many stories for inspiration: A young guest left behind their stuffed giraffe at Ritz-Carlton, Amelia island. When the dad called at the property looking for it, the staff not only found it but also helped the dad substantiate his lie that the giraffe was just taking a few extra days of vacation. The staff took the opportunity to create a memorable experience. They took pictures of the toy enjoying various hotel amenities – chilling by the pool, enjoying a meal in the restaurant, getting a massage, etc. The photos were then compiled into a storybook for the kid, and sent to their home.

The Ritz-Carlton sets a golden standard in customer service by finding ways, not excuses, to make their guests as happy as possible. The hotel chain even gives its employees up to $2000 per guest, empowering them to provide exceptional service without seeking managerial permission.

Similarly, there’s a story from Sainsbury's about how they ended up renaming its “Tiger Bread” to “Giraffe Bread” after receiving a letter from a 3 year old girl. 

The clearer the vision and values for the organization, the better the customer service can be. A generalized customer service excellence standard––one that revolves around a customer-centric approach––might be okay for a while, but can't be sustained without the guidance of the company’s true purpose. What the company really wants to contribute to the lives of their customers and in what way, aka vision and values, is crucial knowledge. Knowing what the customers’ preferences are, what they expect or deserve as a golden standard, and how that can be best done through the company’s service, hold the key to creating exceptional and meaningful customer service experiences.

However, ensuring everyone in the organization lives up to this service vision is not the easiest thing to do. This brings me to the next point.

Employee enablement

Ensuring consistent and smooth experiences for customers can’t be done with only a few people excelling at it; everyone in an organization should live it. This starts with leadership, and is carried by the employees. When leaders lead the way, everyone follows. If they make customer service a big deal, it spreads across the whole team. 

Amazon demonstrates this pretty well. They have a dedicated “Leadership Principles” page that starts with customer obsession itself. A friend who once worked at Amazon told me that the company takes these principles so seriously that colleagues can give special mentions to each other for showing any of such leadership skills. Additionally, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, personally writes annual letters to his shareowners explaining the company’s contributions so far, strategies, future plans, etc. Some common themes from his letters include customer and employee centric approach, technological investments, diversification, long-term thinking, etc. Many people call it a mini MBA, claiming that the insights given in such letters are great lessons for CEOs.

After great leadership, comes great employees. To ensure that every customer service experience is outstanding, it is important to enable employees instead of ‘controlling’ or standardizing their interactions. That’s because no situation or customer is standard on its own, and it’s mostly the employees who interact with customers, not the top level managers.

Another reason to enable employees is that they are like internal customers for a company. If they enjoy the work, they’ll pass on that positivity to the customers. Let's say a customer comes to return something broken that the store sold. The employee knows it's the store's fault, but if they can't help the customer because of strict rules, both the customer and the employee get upset. When rules become more important than making customers happy, it's a problem. Therefore, trusting employees with freedom to make decisions and build genuine connections with customers is crucial. Of course, this needs to be clubbed with careful interview processes, and thoughtful training sessions, as we will see later in the article.

Employee enablement is best demonstrated by Nordstrom, a leading fashion retailer from America. Their exceptional service has become the benchmark known as "The Nordstrom way", also turned into a book of the same name. The book talks about empowering employees to use their judgment and creativity to meet customer needs. The authors discuss how Nordstrom salesmen build strong relationships with customers and provide personalized service. Some personal shoppers even maintain specific diaries, remember customer names, styles, preferences, family details, etc. They make genuine connections, and some even end up celebrating Thanksgiving together.

Service Vision Statement

So when companies enable employees, and not provide them with templated responses, it becomes crucial to instead provide a guiding compass. One great tool to guide such enabled employees is having an internal customer service vision statement.

One such example I found was from the book “The Customer Service Revolution”. Starbucks wanted a new vision, and had approached the author to advise for the same. They eventually settled on: "We create inspired moments in each customer’s day. ANTICIPATE - CONNECT - PERSONALIZE - OWN." This vision statement is written on the inside of every employee's apron. This simple statement reminds the employees to always anticipate customer needs, make meaningful connections, personalize for their needs, and own the customer’s journey.

Such service vision statements serve as a reminder for employees who may not be sure at times as to what to do because they have enough freedom to interact with customers the way they want, and no rigid rules to rely on. So every time they feel unsure, they can just think about the service vision statement and make the best decisions.

Empathy, proactiveness and responsiveness

Being empathetic, proactive, and responsive is inherent in delivering exceptional customer service experiences. When you have a clear picture of what outstanding service means for your organization, you don't wait for customers to voice their expectations – you just take action. 

JetBlue does this well. There’s a well-known story about how Dave Clark, the Chief People Officer at JetBlue, turned a possibly negative experience around. The passengers on a flight were asked to report two hours earlier to the airport because JetBlue was overhauling their computer systems. The queue was long, and JetBlue folks were seen handing out water bottles. But shortly after that, Dave started entertaining people by hosting an impromptu trivia quiz and giving out free flight tickets. Naturally, this made the story viral and earned the airline a lot of loyal customers, despite the fact that people had to spend two extra hours at the airport. P.S. This was neither possible without having a service vision to rely on, nor without employee enablement.

Functional aspects

There are some practical organizational aspects that are necessary to ensure consistent customer service excellence within an organization, as explained below.

Interview processes

It's important to hire people who are naturally helpful, show empathy, are good communicators, and love the idea of serving others. If these points are ignored during interview rounds, it becomes a liability later because it's hard to ‘change’ people.

During interviews, carefully assess candidates for their interpersonal skills, how well they connect with others, how capable they are of showing empathy, and if they have a genuine willingness to serve. Without these qualities, it’s possible that the employee will not be able to do justice to the service vision.

To make it interesting, interviewers can present candidates with prior scenarios that existing employees may have faced, to understand how they would approach such situations. Or, the hiring team could get creative and get customized tests prepared to understand the candidates’ ways of thinking.

Training programs

Design employee training programs to educate them on the company’s products, their history, story, vision and why it all matters. Educate them on the service vision, quality standards expected, ways to maintain it, and inspiring stories. Ensure that every team member sees the bigger picture, recognizing how their minutest of efforts directly contribute to an enhanced experience for the customers.

This not only trains employees well, but also adds substance to the employee experience and gives them meaning in work. This, in turn, contributes to employees feeling more empowered, getting more creative, and creating more genuine relationships with customers.

Feedback programs

Establish two-way feedback programs, where both the managers and customer facing employees can openly connect to provide feedback to each other. This way, employees can openly share their experiences, insights, and ideas based on their personal customer interactions. This approach also allows the team members to highlight what works well in customer interactions and suggest improvements, all without falling into a standardized service approach.

Reconciliation meetings

Implement periodic meetings where employees can share interesting situations with customers where they weren't sure what to do, and discuss possible solutions. Similarly, employees can share success stories where they nailed the customer experience and how, if at all, the customer service vision statement helped guide their choices. Such stories will help circulate ideas, approaches, and help everyone in the team become a customer service pro.

Measuring progress

Find ways to measure progress and customer satisfaction, while setting a minimum bar of quality. You may or may not set up key performance indicators for every customer facing employee, depending on the nature of the kind of service you provide. But take special care to not do anything that goes against the service vision, like chasing customers for their feedback and being intrusive or annoying in the process. You could rather incentivize the employees who consistently deliver outstanding customer service. You could even gamify the process and make the workplace more fun.

Customer complaints

We had established how customer support is one aspect of customer service which deals with customer complaints and queries. When customer support or customer care teams follow vision from the customer service vision statements, they also interact with customers better. They focus on keeping customers happy, dealing with complaints seriously, and learning from mistakes. This not only applies to responding to complaints, but also bad reviews. With the correct vision in mind, customer support teams can assure people that things are being fixed, and use feedback to make the product and services better.

Other things to note

  • Exceptional customer service generally means walking an extra mile, and pushing the standards higher and higher. So, find the right balance for yourself – one that makes both the internal customers (employees) and external customers happy.

  • Don’t only define the customer service vision, but also the little things within the company culture that energizes it. For eg. It is important to give employees the freedom to take regular breaks, and disconnect in ways that best suits them.

  • Many founders and teams worry about not being able to scale delightful customer experiences. So they skip it altogether, never starting it in the first place. I think Paul Graham, the founder of Y Combinator, addresses this concern well. I recommend reading the ‘Delight’ section of this article to find out what he has to say about this.

  • Keep everyone motivated. :)

Some good ol’ Zappos inspiration

Being outstanding can either mean doing the same thing better than others, or doing a completely different thing. I can possibly not be writing an article on outstanding customer service, and not give a special mention to Zappos, a shoes retailer. They seem to have perfectly embodied all the principles explained above.

Zappos is famous for its 365-day return policy. They even returned a tire once, even though they don’t sell it. Their support reps are known for helping customers browse their website for finding fitting shoes; the longest recorded call is six hours. When a customer fails to find the preferred shoes on the Zappos website, the rep helps the customer even browse the competitors’ websites.

All this is possible because the team at Zappos is: 

  • Clear about what they want to contribute to their customers’ lives (vision statement),

  • Enabled by the management to create lasting relationships with customers.

  • Proactive and motivated

Here’s something the Zappos CEO once said: 

“When one of Zappos’s rep found out that because of a death in the family, a loyal customer had forgotten to mail back a pair of shoes she’d planned to return, the rep sent her flowers; now she’s a customer for life.” ~ Tony Hsieh, CEO at Zappos

The Zappos’ About page mentions their service vision clearly:

A description of the values and principles at Zappos

Some don’t find such ideas amusing. But I feel like the sanest is the average, therefore the craziest can be the smartest.

In conclusion

Customer service is not just a department; it's a mindset ingrained in the very fabric of a business. It’s also an opportunity to lead a certain way of life; a choice to spread happiness. By understanding and implementing the principles outlined here, businesses can outdo the conventional notions of customer service and provide an unparalleled experience—delivering true value and care to their customers, and becoming legendary in the process. I am sure that being legendary is an unbeatable way to sustain a business in the most profitable ways possible.

Sure, the customer is not always right, but businesses can try to be. Trying to serve customers with the right intention at heart, and not waiting for a situation to arise, generally opens up many creative ideas on what service must look like for an organization.

Meanwhile, initiate action! Your journey to exceptional service may just be a choice away.

Due credits to the books that helped me build an understanding of this subject:

  • The Customer Service Revolution, by John R. DiJulius III

  • Legendary Service, by Ken Blanchard

  • The Nordstrom Way to Customer Service Excellence, by Robert Spector, Patrick D. McCarthy.