tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Business success is all about service

In the United States of America, we live in a service economy where most businesses have no idea what good service is. You know what I mean. The service at most stores is pathetic. Whether it’s a fast food restaurant, a drug store or one of those big box retailers, it seems every expectation I have about service goes unmet. I always find myself at the checkout counter handing over my money to an indifferent attendant who seems to care little about his employer and even less about me.

Lou Carbone is a Bloomington, Minnesota resident who makes a living telling companies how to create better customer experiences -- that is, how to deliver better service. He has recently written a book called “Clued In: How to keep customers coming back, again and again.” I had a chance to listen to him address a group of bankers on February 12.

He said banks were better at creating good customer experiences 20 years ago than they are today. Many banks faltered, he said, when they began to focus on products instead of customers. He said banks lost their competitive advantage when customer relationship management became data management.

Carbone’s message is that banks – and all businesses, for that matter -- can change, if they really want too. And, most customers have such low expectations for good service, that many are content to be considered just another piece of data. As I thought about that, I realized he is right. Most people today would be so surprised by a truly exceptional customer experience that if they ever actually got one, they’d pass out on the spot. My point is, expectations are low; that should make servicing excellence easier for any business that tries.

Good service is mostly just application of the Golden Rule: treat others as you would want to be treated. We all know what we consider to be good service: we want to be acknowledged, not ignored; we want honest answers, not a run-around; and we want to do business with competent people who seem as if they are enthusiastic about their company and service. Certainly if the employees aren’t excited about their own store or business, then why should the customer ever be?

Carbone described several great customer experiences he has had. One was at a barber shop where the barbers make the customers feel like royalty. The shop is in Toronto, and Carbone said that after one haircut there he began scheduling business trips to Canada just to get another great hair cut experience. He had other examples and in all of them, he was welcomed into the business establishment, given straight-forward service by true professionals, and thanked as if he had just saved their business from the brink of failure.

That’s all most of us want from a bank, a barber shop, a store or any other business – to be acknowledged, served effectively, and thanked. Why is that so hard? Add enthusiasm and politeness and a business can win just about any customer over for life.

If you run a business – big or small – you will beat your competition every time by focusing on service. Carbone notes that most competing businesses sell similar products; people rarely form business loyalties around products. But people will shop where they know they can get good service. In fact, if they find a business that actually delivers exceptional service, they will go out of their way to patronize that business.

If you own or run a business, focus on people before products. Customers can find almost any product anywhere, but good service is truly rare.

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