***6 STAR*** Customer Service – Part 1

customer-service.0822.12At my company, we coined the phrase Six Star Service.  My VP of Sales was the kind of guy you love dealing with as a customer. His office was right next to mine, so I could often overhear his conversations with our customers. There really wasn’t any rocket science to what he did. He was polite, empathetic, and would jump to the pump for his customers. He came from a background of commission sales which in hindsight, probably helped him develop these skills. After all, if you didn’t make the customer happy 100% of the time, you didn’t eat.

When he became VP of Sales, he wanted his team to have that same level of caring. I am a huge fan of branding everything, as it is a powerful way to convey emotion and intent. He had recently finished a book about the Ritz Carleton and wanted to brand his new customer service strategy as Five Star Service.

I suggested that in today’s day and age, everyone was claiming to provide Five Star Service. I related a personal car-buying experience to him to prove my point. I had gone into a local dealership to buy a van. I had done my homework and knew exactly what I wanted. I have a rule that I don’t pay full list but I also understand that dealerships need to make money. So I am what you might call a fair customer, and if the price is within a few hundred dollars, we have a deal.

The young salesman I was talking to had to do the usual song-and-dance and check with his manager. Usually dealerships have the smarts to put this guy out of sight, and after a few excused absenses, your salesperson will come out with a deal. In this case, the manager was standing in the showroom within ear shot. I could literally hear him swearing as he spoke to the salesman. I am not sure exactly what was being said, but he was either frustrated with the sales guy for not bringing him a better deal, or with me for asking for one. Regardless, after much back and forth, he eventually came back and we shook on a deal. I had thought about walking out, but I really wanted the vehicle. Moreover, I had just experienced even less professional treatment at another dealership, so I pressed on.

Next, I was ushered to the “Finance Manager.”  I did not need financing, which did not seem to impress him, but he insisted that I purchase undercoating, as the vehicle could rust. He also strongly encouraged me to take the extended warranty. After all, he had recently had a lady come in with a blown transmission and she was, thankfully, covered. In fact, he had another customer who experienced the same fate after only 3 short years. Any work that the salesman had done to convince me of the quality of their products was quickly starting to dwindle!

Despite the dealerships’s best efforts, I still wanted the van. As I walked out that day, I felt drained. I thought to myself, shouldn’t buying a new vehicle be a happy experience? Somebody’s second- largest purchase, next to a home, should rank up there, no? And guess what I saw when I opened the door to leave? A big, permanent sign outside that said this was a 5-Star Certified Dealer. They didn’t even have to “re-earn” it every year. They were lifetime certified by the fact the sign was not going anywhere.

In relating my story to my VP of Sales, I suggested to him that if that was 5-Star Service, we had to strive to be a six. The point was not to declare ourselves to be at that level as the dealership had done, but to allow us to communicate what level we expected of ourselves.

My VP’s next step was to develop standards with his Customer Service Team. Being a lean manufacturing guy, I shared another story of a local restaurant that had done what I would consider to be lean customer service. My VP loved this restaurant for its consistency in service and in food quality, particularly with regards to steaks. I had a friend who had intimate knowledge of how the place was run, and got a true understanding of how they pulled it off.

Firstly, everything had a standard “tact time.” Tact time is a lean term relating to the time it takes to perform a specific task or process. There was a list of how long each activity should take, including everything from seating to getting your bill after the last bite. The water glasses could never be more than half empty, and prepared food had to be delivered to the table within “x” amount of minutes. As many restaurants do today, they had a system of tag-teaming, whereby another waiter may deliver the food if yours was busy.

All processes were documented step-by-step, ranging from food prep. to cooking, to cleaning. All of this was the “magic” behind the scenes that allowed the customer to experience consistent service from server to server, meal to meal, and from location to location. My friend who worked there also shared that rookies that didn’t cut it stuck out like a sore thumb because of the standards. He joked that some newbies would be there one day and that he would just never see them again. The point I took from this is that performance evaluation was perhaps more objective and issues that negatively affected the customer experience were dealt with quickly.

My VP did a great job emulating some of this in our company, including implementing key phrases like “my pleasure, glad I could help.” As a side note, he also insisted that these standards be followed with our internal customers, the other employees from other departments. That did a lot to help set a professional and caring culture inside our company.

As I was told when we were thinking of starting lean manufacturing, some people will get it and some won’t. Setting these standards and discussing their importance with our people often helped solidify who was on the team and who wasn’t.

It is often said that you should hire for attitude and train skill. But the question is, which attitudes? One of my key criteria for determining a successful team member has become a level of empathy. Simply put, if a person can put themselves in other peoples’ shoes more often than they wear his/her own, he/she is most likely going to be a great team player. This empathy requirement holds especially true for customer service.

In the course of developing Six Star Service, we spent a lot of time educating our people on what it was like to be our customer. In most cases, we were dealing with buyers at huge OEM’s (Original Equipment Manufacturers). Their jobs could be extremely challenging as they were responsible for coordinating thousands of parts daily to feed their production lines. If another supplier let them down or something didn’t ship, they would have to scramble to accommodate a newly created build schedule. They would call us daily to see if we could accommodate the changes.

Being on the other end of those calls can be challenging. But if our people understood the buyer’s world, it made it that much easier to empathize and help the customer. If we managed those requests professionally and with flexibility, we would look like heroes.  (The flexibility part of this is a whole other story which really formed part of our secret sauce.  But that is for another day).  And we would get numerous emails like, “you guys rock” or “you saved me again”.

The Six Star Customer service strategy became a competitive advantage as our service was viewed by many as far superior than our competitors and other suppliers to our customers. It became apparent that doing the simple stuff right often had a bigger impact on our customers than a lot of the complicated stuff we did behind the scenes.

So that’s my story.  The first part anyway.  Hope you enjoyed it!  Please feel free to contact me: stratplus@shaw.ca

André Kriening is an Advisory Services professional with a background in manufacturing and commercial lending.  After selling his business in 2013, André founded Strat+ Advisory Services, assisting other business owners with Strategic Focus, Leadership Development, and Operational Excellence.

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