13: Removing Obstacles

The author opens with an anecdote about an attempt to get what he wanted at a restaurant: he couldn't substitute mashed potatoes for the fries, even if he was willing to pay more, and the diner didn't offer side orders of potatoes. He was only able to get what he wanted by asking the waitress to serve everyone's side dishes on a separate plate, and swapping his fries for someone else's potatoes. In the end, he got what he wanted, but it was a minor hassle - and it was clear that the waitress wanted to help, but the "policy" of the restaurant made it impossible for her to do so.

The author provides a list of micro-insults, which include: added charges on bills (hotels are awful for this), things that are poorly maintained (a lamp in a hotel room that doesn't work), things that are inconvenient to use (a door with a "pull" handle that must be pushed to open it), a customer service number that isn't toll-free 9especialyl if the ordering number is free), an inordinate waiting time (being on hold, waiting three days for a repair), etc.

Over time, the minor hassles and petit disappointments add up, to the point where they overcome the value of the service. Back to the restaurant metaphor if you waited too long for the server to take your order, the fork was dirty, you were told you'd be charged extra for bread, the table wobbled, the chair was too short, the bathroom was dirty, they didn't have artificial sweetener, and so on, you wouldn't care if the mean they served was the most delicious you ever ate.

In many instances, this comes from companies that seek to have efficient operations, or put in strict policies to protect itself from fraud - but in the end, it degrades the customer experience for all, and that is ultimately more damaging to your bottom line than a few pennies in waste or the losses to a small number of dishonest individuals.

What to Do?

An anecdote: a restaurant near the local fairgrounds, traffic backed up for miles, and people came pouring in to use the restroom. Employees asked the manager what to do - most businesses would insist that restrooms are for customers only - but the manager saw this as an opportunity. He told his employees to make sure the bathrooms were immaculate, well stocked, and offer free samples to people waiting in line. (EN: the author doesn't elaborate, but the point is well taken: each person who showed up was a potential future customer, and the way the manager chose to treat them in this situation made a positive impression rather than a negative one.)

You should "walk through your business as if you were a customer." Start by looking at your advertising to see not only your message, but necessary information (your location, hours, etc.). Then call your business o ask a question and see how it's handled. Observe your lobby to see the wait time.

The author notes that good servers are often relationship-oriented, and you'll often find service is best in places where they serve local customers, who return time and time again. (Compare a neighborhood diner to the sandwich shop at an airport.) The author considers this to be a matter of anonymity - where the customer knows the server by name, and vice versa, poor service is extremely rare.

The author suggests that name tags are often misused by companies and customers alike: the customer who asks a server's name is generally in a mood to complain to the manager, who is likewise looking to scapegoat an employee for bad service. This is exactly the wrong way to use them: a customer who calls a server by name is likely to get their attention - and a manager, frankly, should know his people well enough not to have to read their nametags.

The author refers to a few brands that sell "experience." Places like Starbucks aren't popular because the coffee is good (it quite often isn't), but because of the clubhouse atmosphere - their regular customers hang out there, and are part of an exclusive group of people who are coffee connoisseurs. The same can be said of many small, trendy places: the people who go there have a sense of being part of a group

For the customer, the lesson to take is that becoming a "regular" will get you better service. Call servers by name, treat them as human beings, and they will return the favor.

For the server, take a moment to get to know your customers. Not only will this guide you to deliver better service to them, but it can also help to make your job more meaningful when you recognize you're dealing with real human beings.

For the manager, do whatever it takes to make your business seem smaller - your goal is to achieve a sense of community between customers and your establishment that overcomes the distant, formal, sterility of national franchises,.

When Employees Don't Want to Play

A few anecdotes that suggest that not everyone is onboard by what constitutes "good" service: an employee survey in which the ideas suggested were very simple and expected actions (smile at the customer). An opinion survey contrasted how shoppers felt about the service from local retailers compared to big-box found that 62% of people felt they got good service at small businesses - and 64% felt the service was just as good at big-box retailers.

These examples demonstrate that we may be unaware of what good service actually entails, and are generally willing to accept service that is merely "good enough." It sets the bar fairly low for a company - you don't need to do much to satisfy a customer. The problem is that this same sentiment colors the opinions of employees, who don't feel the need to do much to satisfy the customers, and may be difficult to convince that good service is beyond merely not being rude.

For the manager, you need to do more than issue decrees. You must demonstrate good service, and reward employees who follow suit. Your own behavior sets a standard that your team will imitate. It's especially important to do this when you get hammered - during peak business hours, and when some small crisis might otherwise distract you - to underscore that nothing is more important that satisfying the customer, every time, regardless. Do so, and your team will adopt this mindset, and good service will become "darn near automatic."

Beyond setting a good example, there's a need for "real" training - specifically, training in how to serve customers that goes beyond the mechanical tasks of doing he job. You have to teach servers to provide good service, in general as well as in specific situations, and provide concrete guidance rather than vague notions.

Finally, there has to be a reward system tied to great customer service. The old maxim of "the way you know you're good at your job is you get to keep it" is no longer enough, especially in competitive environments where your competition will seek to steal away your best people.

Show Me the Money

Many companies mouth the proper words when it comes to customer service, but few actually put them into action. The way to tell is obvious: walk into a store. The customer experience you have in that environment is far more telling than what appears in the marketing materials and annual reports.

This comes from making a real investment in your servers - recruiting good talent, training them right, and supporting them - all of which costs real money. It's not cheap, but it is quite a bargain when you consider the long-term rewards.

The fear seems to be "What if we spend a lot of money and the employees decide to leave?" But the fear should be "What if we don't, and they decide to stay?"