The customer’s role in superior service

The discussions on superior service examples yielded a detailed response from management consultant Jane Northcote ( whose take on superior service recognises that it’s a two-way transaction. Jane writes:

Customer service is traditionally regarded as an attribute of a company: Waitrose provides ‘good’ customer service, an electronics discount  store provides ‘bad’ customer service. Equally, however, it is true that customer service is an attribute of the customer.  Some people experience good customer service, and others bad, even from the same organisation. Why is this? After 25 years of detailed personal research on this topic, I offer the following observations.

People who experience good customer service are civilised customers

They turn up on time, they have the right money, they are unfailingly polite and they don’t waste the supplier’s time. I stood for ten minutes in my local dry cleaners while a customer disputed the information given her by the very patient assistant. The assistant was telling her that if she put her waxed Burberry jacket in for dry cleaning then it may become discoloured. The customer was insulting the assistant’s knowledge by telling her that this should not be the case. She threatened to take her business elsewhere. Insulting and threatening behaviour does not obtain good customer service. Similarly, people who insult the waiters,  and make loud disparaging comments about the wine list, are not going to get the best service in the restaurant. Oddly, this doesn’t seem to occur to such people. Perhaps they enjoy complaining.

People who experience good customer service are loyal customers

Robert Axelrod, in his seminal book ‘The evolution of Co-operation’ has shown that it is the repeated encounter which generates co-operation. If the fruit seller knows that you are going to be there tomorrow and the next day, and the day after, he will get you the fresh stuff from the back. If he thinks you are a tourist he will give you the soft tomatoes from the front. This is not immoral, it’s just good business practice. So the much-advocated ‘shopping around’ is all very well, but once you have found a convenient supplier, then stick to them. Educate them in what you want and assure them that you intend to continue to give them your custom. If they provide bad service, tell them immediately, ask for a replacement, and continue to shop there. This is the ‘tit-for-tat’ policy proposed by Axelrod to generate the best long-term co-operation in situations of repeated encounter.

People who experience good customer service complain promptly and properly

If you want good customer service, rather than simply enjoying the pleasure of complaining to all your friends, then complain to the supplier quickly, in writing, and in detail. I am convinced this is the reason behind Amazon’s success. They provide wide-open channels for comment and complaint, particularly about their market place vendors. Tell the supplier what you want them to do about it. Assure them of your good intent. Remind them of your past loyalty. If you do so, they will respond quickly and well. If they don’t, then shop elsewhere.

People who experience good customer service know what they value and are prepared to pay for it

Different suppliers provide different levels of service and different standards of products. It wastes everyone’s time if you try to obtain John Lewis service standards at warehouse discount prices. Decide which you want, and pay for it. If you want after-sales service, go to John Lewis. You’ll pay more, but they’ll listen when you take it back. Don’t try to obtain after-sales service at the warehouse discount store. If you want their low prices, maintain your laptop yourself.

Customer service is often, wrongly in my view, defined as the supplier’s willingness to ‘go the extra mile’. I don’t want suppliers to go the extra mile. If I want miles, I’ll pay by the mile. I want to pay for basic service delivered well. If I want quick delivery I’ll pay for the express service. I bank with First Direct, a paragon of good customer service in my view. They do nothing extra. I ask almost nothing of them. The transaction works for both of us. They neither delight me, nor go the extra mile. I bank with them for free. I pay extra for the text messages. I don’t want things for free. And I don’t want to pay for other people’s definitions of what constitutes good service.

Jane Northcote

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