The customer takes revenge

“THE answer’s yes…now what’s the question?” Customer service doesn’t get any more basic than this, unless answering the phone (and responding) is a challenge. It’s been a long time since I’ve ranted and raved about customer service. And just when I thought I should refrain, an echo of management guru Tom Peters’ admonishments that it’s our patriotic duty to rant and rave kept ringing through my head. Name names, he would say. Demand that companies treat us better. Don’t accept shoddy service. Our companies can’t compete globally if we don’t beat on them locally. I’ll get to my personal customer service story along with some concrete recommendations and resources in a minute. But first… I had the pleasure of attending John DiJulius’s customer service workshop a few weeks ago, where I picked up the opening line of this column. Mr DiJulius, author of Secret Service: Hidden Systems That Deliver Unforgettable Customer Service, also hates the word ‘no’ and strongly suggests it be eliminated from the customer service vocabulary. I couldn’t agree more. And he’s seeing resurgence in interest in improving service now that companies have optimised about as much as they can. I’m seeing a similar trend among the 10,000 executives we communicate with on a regular basis. Witness what’s going on with Dell. The good news is they saw it coming and were already responding by the time the mainstream business press picked up on the story. We were at Dell in May with a group of growth company executives where they outlined their plan to spend $150 million to fix their customer service issues – issues as basic as letting a customer return a product or get a problem resolved in one phone call versus several. These basic initiatives have eliminated more than two million calls per quarter. As Michael Dell has admitted, Dell had simply gone too far in pushing productivity versus serving customers. And the solutions have been as simple as slowing down and helping customers resolve their problems. Which brings me to my story. We moved to new offices this summer and figured we would bring along our phone service. It seems a certain major telco couldn’t master even the basics of answering the phone in a timely manner, or scheduling an appointment they could keep. After six missed appointments and hours each time on the phone trying to find out why they didn’t show up, my team gave up and we called their wireless counterpart that goes by the same name. Yes, we’ve gone completely wireless in the office. And the customer service experience couldn’t have been more different. It still took quite a while to get lines transferred over, again, because the land line firm kept making the most basic mistakes. However, a front line supervisor for the wireless firm gave us his personal cell phone number and actually followed up with us proactively to let us know how our situation was getting resolved. Wow. Just the basics of being polite and helpful with an attitude dedicated to finding the ‘yes’. To understand how powerful the basics can be in driving your company’s success, track down the Harvard Business School case study on Commerce Bank, authored by Francis Frei, the new guru on service excellence ( At the risk of oversimplifying the case, Commerce Bank is making a killing providing outstanding service using a simple interview technique to identify the right employees and an exercise to get new employees to make eye contact with customers. I love simplicity like this. And it comes back to paying attention to the customer. Another basic is having someone welcome people on your website. Otherwise, it’s like having a storefront with no people to welcome the customers. Go to Rackspace’s website ( and see how they handle this internally. Through their ‘Fanatical Support’ promise (click on the link and study what they say and do), they’ve become the dominate player in the hosted server market in five short years. One key? No automated attendants and a policy to answer phones within three rings. Smaller firms, like my company Gazelles, can offer a similar web-greeter service via firms like Our customers seem to love the personal attention and guidance provided by these web greeters. Rackspace also has a service guarantee with real teeth and financial pain associated with failure. Travelocity has instituted a similar guarantee (, which has led to a 59 per cent increase in booked travel revenues, with non-air transactions up 90 per cent over 2005. So answer your phones and website; get back to people with straight answers as quickly as possible; find a way to say ‘yes’ without giving the store away; and institute a catalytic mechanism to make it happen consistently – its time to review the basics inside your organisation. •Verne Harnish was named one of the Top 10 Minds in Small Business by Fortune Small Business. In a one-day seminar on Friday March 2 2007, Verne Harnish will provide those attending the WA Business News seminar practical tools fast-growing companies can use to create focus, alignment, better communication and a winning strategy.

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