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A Customer First Approach

Everywhere I’ve worked has had the goal of providing great customer service. Most of us agree that customer service is important for the success of a company. So, what exactly is great customer service? The English Oxford Dictionaries definition of customer service is “The assistance and advice provided by a company to those people who buy or use its products or services.”

Assistance and advice? What about going the extra mile? Or the line about customers always being right? Providing assistance and advice to people buying a product sounds like a customer service rep 101 talk. If it’s that simple why isn’t everyone doing it? Are some places not providing their customers with assistance and advice?

I liken customer service to “common sense” in that the definition is basic. It’s sounds easy to execute, yet it’s rare to find it.

I thought I provided great customer service in the seven years I worked in retail. I was quick to provide assistance and personal advice. Now, looking back, I was providing average customer service at best.

My first job out of college was at Enterprise Rent-A-Car. It was there I started to learn what excellent customer service looked like. It wasn’t simply assistance and advice, it was making customer service the top focus of all company actions.

Simple, right? Nothing complicated or hard to execute. Put the customer’s experience and needs over the profitability of the transaction. Does that sound too sunshine and roses, a little too good to be true? Is it feasible for a company to find success if their main focus is on customer service and not profitability?

Rather than trying to write a compelling argument, I thought it would be easier to illustrates the success of this model by highlighting a couple companies that live by customer service.

For starters, here’s some statistics on Enterprise Rent-A-Car. Jack Taylor launched the company in 1957 and they have remained a privately-owned company to this date. In 2016 Forbes listed them as the 15th largest private company with an estimated $19.4 billion in revenue, making them the most successful rental car company in the US.

Zappos is another example. They claim to be a customer service focused business that just happens to sell shoes. After ten years of business, they were purchased by Amazon for 1.2 billion. I find it fascinating that companies like Zappos and Enterprise describe their businesses as providing customer services and not selling products.

Another company that has made their brand synonymous with customer service is Nordstrom. The company credits this to two main things; attention to detail and empowering their employees. While doing some research on Nordstrom, I found a great piece of information on their training. Their employee handbook has one rule: “Use best judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.” The company lets all new employees know that the number one goal is outstanding customer service and that they don’t want anything holding back their employees from delivering. This was similar to my experience at Enterprise, where from day one employees had the ability to write any amount off of a rental to ensure that the customer was completely satisfied.

Companies like Zappos, Nordstrom, and Enterprise have one goal; make the customer happy no matter what.

Sounds easy, and it is until the only way to make a customer happy will result in losing money. Is there ever a scenario where the customer is unreasonable and it’s ok if they’re unhappy? Not if you ask any employees that work for one of the companies I’ve spoken about. I had a manager who would ask me after dealing with a challenging customer, “Would you rather be right or get promoted?” The way Enterprise was set up,  employees were not eligible for promotions without customer satisfaction scores at or above the company average.

Excellent customer service isn’t a light switch that you turn on and off when it’s convenient for your business.

I’ve been talking with a lot of people in Denver about my new career and how to help customers. I find that inevitably I find myself talking about being customer focused and not transactional focused. I’m lucky to have spent my career working for great companies and even better managers who, through example, have shown me the value of being customer focused. Doing right by your customers and focusing on their needs isn’t the quickest way to grow a business, but it’s the best way to find long term success. Look at Jack Taylor –  it took him over 30 years to grow his business into the leading rental industry in revenue, but since the late 90s they’ve left the competition in the dust.

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