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VIEWPOINT: Customers in search of the 'wow' factor

August 29, 2005

"Please step up and use the self-service check-in screen," the airline customer service representative told the man in front of me on a recent busy Monday morning.

"No," was the quick and startling response. "I don't want to. I prefer to deal with a human being."

It was the CSR's

response that stopped me in my tracks.

"Then, Sir, deal with another airline," she said as she turned to deal with a luggage issue.

Maybe it was the starkness of the exchange, maybe it was the lack of civility, maybe it was the irony of a CSR for a bankrupted airline telling a passenger (read, revenue) to take his business elsewhere if he expected service, but this exchange left me woeful over the state of America's customer service industry.

If my story were an isolated incident, this vignette would not matter. But this is not an isolated matter, so it does matter.

In my business travels, it is unusual to return from a trip without similar stories. There was the hotel desk clerk last week and the credit card CSR last month and the bank officer before that. And I am not the only one. When I tell people I advise companies about customer service, they open up with their own stories like fireworks on the Fourth of July. For many service workers, dealing with customers seems to be the most distasteful part of their job. The sad thing is, it does not have to be this way.

Somewhere along the line, we have lost focus on business's most essential asset-customers.

Growing up in the 1970s in a small Midwestern town, I learned this lesson in my father's shoe store. For Dad-and for everyone who worked with him-the customer was king (or queen). Whether you were a factory laborer looking for work boots or a country club wife in search of stiletto heels, you were the most important person in the world when you walked into Dad's store.

A particular shoe may bring customers in once, Dad often reminded me, but it's service and relationships that keep them coming back.

That is why Dad kept a card file with each customer's name and each pair of shoes that person had ever bought. That is why he sometimes drove 20 miles or more to deliver a pair of new slippers to a hospitalized customer. That is why he often gave full refunds for shoes that had been worn for months, but returned because "they don't fit right." That is why each customer received a heartfelt, "Thank you," whether they bought or not. Dad did not only sell shoes, he sold a feeling.

Dad made you feel like your new pair of shoes was the most important thing in his world. It was. It was personal. He understood then what we seem to have forgotten today. Good business starts with good customer service.

For too many companies, customer service is a lost art. It is a "marketing strategy" to be deployed if all else fails. ("Gee, our product is inferior and our price is too high; let's talk about service!")

But good customer service isn't something to be turned on and off with a whim; it is the product of a business culture that must start at the top and be expected from there on down. It is a culture that looks at things from the customer's perspective, then goes beyond that. How do I expect to be treated? OK, now what would top that? What makes the customer say, "Wow!"?

Consumers are crying for quality customer service, and ready to reward those companies that heed the call. For those that rediscover this notion, good fortune awaits.



Johnson, a local attorney, advises corporations on customer service and consumer advocacy issues.
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