How to Build a Personal Connection with Customers
Cartoonist Scott Adams’ book ‘Build a Better Life by Stealing Office Supplies: Dogbert’s Big Book of Business’ (1991) includes a memorable chapter called “Weasel Words, Bluffing, and Lying” that satirizes the tendency of companies to avoid problems. “Never present bad news. It just makes the audience hate you. Emphasize the positive, even if there isn’t any,” coaches Dogbert, while Dilbert stares at a report headlined “Problem: Our product is killing customers.” With his sidekick’s prodding, Dilbert eventually softens the proclamation from “Issue: Customer Safety,” to “Decline in Unsatisfied Customers.” This verbal trick perfectly encapsulates the prevailing corporate view of customer service at that time.
If Scott Adams wanted to get an insider’s perspective on customer service paradigms today, he could have done worse than be a fly on the wall at a recent presentation Peter Gurney gave to Microsoft employees. Gurney, a service strategy expert and a cofounder of Seattle’s Cicerone Group, put the following words on a PowerPoint slide: intimacy, delight, wow, knock-your-socks-off, satisfaction, loyalty, apostles, angels and demons, the soul of service. “It’s a list that reads like a teenage romance novel,” he concedes, “reflecting the quasi-religious, apocalyptic and hyperventilated talk that comprises the language of customer service today.”
Gurney, like Scott Adams, is poking fun at current corporate practices—yet like all good satire, his comments contain grains of truth. Today, excelling at customer service means honoring your customers as human beings in your lives, as well as creating “marquee” moments, experiences and memories that they will want to share with others.
Is this approach sappy or savvy? Let’s look at three areas—how companies define their business, how they use social media and how they run their loyalty programs—to find out.
No matter your product or service, you’re in the memory business. “It’s about earning the right to your customers’ stories,” says Jeanne Bliss, a Lands End service veteran, corporate service coach and author of the book ‘I Love You More Than My Dog: Five Decisions That Drive Extreme Customer Loyalty in Good Times and Bad’ (2009). Your goal should be nothing less than to become a beloved company, Bliss argues; companies accomplish this by viewing customer service not as a cost center and a hassle, but as an asset that should be mined and cherished.
Do your customers talk about your belief in them? Do your customers say they love you? Do your employees have permission to impact customers’ lives? These are some of the questions Bliss has devised as yardsticks of so-called beloved companies. It’s touchy-feely, yes, but with practical underpinnings. Bliss points to the work of Rockefeller University neurobiologist Donald Pfaff, who, in his book ‘The Neuroscience of Fair Play: Why We (Usually) Follow the Golden Rule’ (2007), coauthored with Edmund Wilson, demonstrates that human beings are naturally programmed to treat one another in a civil, thoughtful manner. “As employees, we are drawn to companies that allow us to do so. As customers, we become emotionally attached to companies who consider our lives when they make decisions,” Bliss says.
The Hyatt hotel chain employed a bit of this bottom-line psychology when it introduced a “Random Acts of Generosity” initiative last year. Each of its hotels was provided with a set amount of funds, and employees were empowered to spend those funds by randomly providing any guest with a complimentary service: a drink, a meal or a spa treatment, for example. In subsequent customer surveys, Hyatt found an increased preference for Hyatt and higher satisfaction with its Gold Passport loyalty program. General managers surveyed at the end of the year also reported that employees were delighted with an increased sense of empowerment and engagement with guests, and that the “surprise” factor was particularly meaningful.
Put social media in its rightful place
Social media has been widely hailed as the customer’s new best friend—and as a weapon against any and all manner of corporate malfeasance. However, smart companies treat social media less as a one-way megaphone for customer ranting (or alternatively, for broadcasting canned “corporatespeak”), and more as a two-way channel for constructive dialogue.
According to Forrester, corporate spending on social media is forecasted to surpass online display advertising in 2012. In reports with persuasive titles such as “The ROI of Online Customer Service Communities” (June 2009) and “Best Practices: Five Strategies for Customer Service Social Media Excellence” (August 2009), Forrester’s analyst Natalie Petouhoff demonstrates that companies derive all sorts of concrete business benefits from integrating a social media component into their existing customer service channels (e.g., call centers and contact management systems). iRobot, the manufacturer of Roomba smart vacuums, for instance, reduced its customer service agent calls by 40 percent and its call abandonment rate (and presumably disgruntled customer quotient) by 18 percent through social media.
Other companies capitalize on the immediacy of social media to provide useful real-time news and updates for their customers. JetBlue and Southwest Airlines both tweet weather delays and schedule changes to more than one million Twitter followers, and Alaska Airlines similarly shared live updates via Twitter from the Alaska Volcano Observatory during the eruption of Mount Redoubt in March 2009. Such instantaneous, back-and-forth communication is empowering and comforting for customers (particularly when volcanic ash is involved, as it can stall plane engines).
Sometimes such immediacy borders on the surreal. Consider the coffee drinker who tweeted his displeasure over a not-chocolaty-enough mocha in a Berkeley, Calif., Tully’s, only to have a manager rush out with a new one before this customer even left the café. “We have a team of about six people who are tapped into the social media portals, monitoring what’s being said about Tully’s all the time,” explains Scott Earle, Tully’s VP of marketing and business development.