Thursday, March 01, 2007

When it Comes to Customer Service, We Still Love Heroes

I tell my corporate clients that if they want their company to build competitive advantage, they’ve got to focus on caring for the customer in extraordinary ways. But that’s not enough. I also tell my clients that if their customer-care systems and culture are tepid, they can’t rely on the occasional good-hearted employees who go out of their way to serve customers. That is, they can’t rely on episodic, or idiosyncratic acts of heroism from isolated individual employees. Instead, leaders must institutionalize the customer care process so that customer service is genuinely a #1 business priority—and even more important, so that every employee, every process, every system, and every job requirement contributes to leading customers to a terrific experience. The best customer service companies—like Virgin Airways, USAA, Four Seasons Hotels, Nordstrom—work feverishly to institutionalize great service as a means to brand themselves and justify their price points. And yet, and yet---after all my research-based commentary on institutionalizing customer care, I know that what really and truly touches us are the genuine acts of heroism from those overworked, underpaid individual front-line employees who solve our problems, give us a sense of joy and hope, make our lives better—and in the process make their organizations better and their executives richer. I know. I just experienced it. My parents just moved into a retirement village. New house. Guy from the cable company comes in to set up TV and Internet. After fiddling around everywhere, the cable guy says to my folks: “There’s a weak signal on this property. You’re going to get lousy reception on your tube and your pc’s. We can’t do anything.”Imagine. You’re 80 years old. You’ve just bought a new home. When doing your due diligence with your realtor, you never even assumed that there would be problems with TV and internet access. Now what? The deal is done. This is crazy. It’s crazy-making. So another call to the cable company which to its credit sends out another cable guy right away. Kudos to Comcast for understanding that its individual offerings are becoming commoditized, and that a big chunk of its value add will have to come from success in institutionalizing good after-sale customer service. So the second guy comes out. He reiterated the first guy’s conclusion, which was, in effect, You’re stuck with a lemon house, sucker. But I give him great credit for one thing: he provided my parents with the number of his supervisor in case they wanted to take up the matter further. His boss turned out to be the hero. I was there when it all happened. His name is Bob Hahn, and he called my parents at noon and told them--I kid you not--that he would be at their home “between 3:20 and 3:30 p.m.” Is this a joke? Of course he won’t be there within a ridiculous ten minute window. I was right. He was there at 3:15. What can I say? The guy spent more than three hours crawling in the attic and crawling out in the rain until he finally solved the problem. It wasn’t just the fact that he was ultra-competent (considerly more so than his predecessors); what really impressed us was that he was ultra-authentic and ultra-caring in a calm, professional, and friendly way. He always looped back to explain to us what he was doing and what he was finding. He treated my parents with dignity. And he left only after temporarily rigging up the system so that my parents could enjoy great reception that night, and only after reassuring them that he personally would come back to fix the system permanently. You don't need to have an MBA or Ph.D for this stuff. Why is it so hard for companies to understand its importance? I know this is an “aw-shucks” story. I like to think that Bob Hahn is amply recognized and rewarded at Comcast, and I like to think that more Bob Hahns are being recruited, trained, and groomed at Comcast, but I’m not naïve about these matters—except in companies where customer service is institutionalized rather than just being given lip service (and I’m not certain where Comcast falls on that continuum). But I do know this. My parents are staying with Comcast, probably for the rest of their lives—even though they have choices with competitors like AT&T, DirectTV, and super-low-price Astound. (And they’ve added Comcast’s phone service for good measure). And they’re remaining with Comcast not because of what Comcast’s high-priced CEO, CFO, consultants, program directors, and M & A dealmakers did for them. They’re staying because of what Bob Hahn did for them. Customers love front-line heroes. I wish more executives did.


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