boldtype
   
 
hugh kennedy   introduction  
 
hugh kennedy photo


  On the road to total customer delight. Pursuing customer intimacy. Partnering with the customer. Doing it with the customer. Putting the customer at the center of everything you do.

No snickering, please; the customer these real, live corporate slogans allude to is you. Merely by virtue of the fact that you earn a living wage, and without even having to be a nice person, you are the alpha and the omega of today's global service economy. Highly educated people in consulting firms spend long hours discussing your Needs with the kind of feverish intensity once reserved for devotional prayer. Employees are fired by the dozen for the cardinal sin of not discovering these Needs, not attending to them, or badly executing on them.

What I want to encourage is playing this system a little. Companies know that a happy customer will tell an average of three friends about a good service experience, but unhappy customers will tell an average of ten. They've got it branded into their brains that it costs seven times more to acquire a new customer than to keep an existing one. The upshot? Whine loudly enough to the people in charge about your bruised Needs, and you'll be amazed at what they'll do to placate you.

To put it another way: there's simply no reason to put up with lousy service, faulty products, or inane rules in 1997. If the service, product, or rule detours you from the road to total customer delight, unscroll the hurt to the proper authorities. Put your post-secondary vocabulary to work. Bitch a little. Not only will it relieve stress and educate the service provider, you may end up getting free stuff.

If you don't think this is a new reality, bring yourself back to the late eighties for a moment (providing you can stomach it). I'm walking along Walnut Street in downtown Philadelphia on a beautiful June afternoon. I see a new coffee bar and immediately go inside. I say 'immediately' because this was 1988, when cappuccino was still an exotic, intriguing word outside Italian neighborhoods. In fact, waiters at Philadelphia restaurants had asked me on more than one occasion whether I wanted to go watch the cappuccino I'd just ordered being made.

Since I had a long afternoon ahead, I decided on a large iced coffee. I approached a woman named Wanda at the counter, who could not have looked less interested in serving me or my Needs. Our exchange went something like this:

Me: I'd like a large iced coffee with milk to go, please.

Her: Excuse me?

Me: A large iced coffee to go.

Her: Sorry, our ice machine broke.

Me: Okay. Make it a regular coffee.

Her: What size you want?

Me: Large.

Her: With milk?

Me: Yes, like I said. And to go.
As she walks back to the coffee machine, Wanda calls out: Is that to go?

Me: Yes.

Wanda brings back a small black coffee in a stoneware cup. I look down at it.

Me: What is this?

Her: Your coffee.

Me: I ordered a large regular coffee with milk, to go. Is that so hard to hold in your mind for five seconds?
Wanda glares. It's over between us, that's clear. She dumps the black coffee and brings back the large regular with milk in a wax paper bag. I can already see that the inside of the bag has been splashed with coffee. I wonder, did she drop the cup into the takeout bag and then fill it? I pay the (for then) outrageous bill of $1.58. Wanda hands me my change silently.

I wait until she meets my eyes.

Me: Aren't you going to wish me a nice day?

Her: Why? You ain't gonna have one.
Wanda had a point there, not to mention a quick wit, but all the same try to imagine this scene taking place at one of your local Deathstarbucks today. Inconceivable, right? I can already see the freezerful of free coffee arriving from Seattle to salve my bruised Needs. In 1997 the average Deathstarbucks employee receives enough training to know that the customer's Needs come before their own requirements for oxygen. In 1988 the customer was quite likely wrong; today exceptional service is the cost of entry.

The marketing agency I work for has a thing about service. We've hand-delivered work to clients' homes, picked them up at the airport and found them hotels, babysat their children during meetings, and done eight rounds of revision when the contract only called for two. We smile through adversity. In 99 cases out of 100, the phone is picked up before the third ring. If any gray area exists around whose responsibility it is to make a call or set up an interview, we call it ours. We don't do it in a slavish way; we just believe you should have a great experience working with our company.

Needless to say, we're often disappointed as individual consumers after hours. Anyone who stays up around the clock at a press check for a bank envelope is going to be a bit picky about the freshness of the frisée in their salad the following evening. My boss, who customizes nearly everything I've seen him order in restaurants, keeps a file of his employees' best complaint letters through the years. Though none of us will admit it, it's a bit of an honor to make it to that file. Lord knows we try hard enough. A quick look into this file provides an excellent primer on three essential rules of the complaint letter. Names of individual employees and companies have been changed to disincentivize lawsuits.

* Rule One: Be specific.

Service Offense: Bad dining experience at hotel restaurant.

The Letter:

Dear Sir:

I dined with a friend at your restaurant last night, and I wanted to share some of my concerns. To cut to the chase:

* the hostess walked my friend and me into the center of the restaurant, asked us to wait for a moment, then left us stranded there until we were rescued by a waiter several minutes later

* my gimlet tasted like a glass of rubbing alcohol (has your bartender not heard of Rose's lime juice?)

* the bread arrived approximately three minutes before the entrées

* the desserts took much longer than the entrées to arrive, even though we informed the waiter we had a 10:00 show

* the 'Veuve Cliquot' champagne (note typo on the dessert list) at $11 per glass was in my opinion flat. The waiter dutifully brought another half-glass which he explained was poured from the same freshly opened bottle. It didn't seem to occur to him that the whole bottle might be a bit off due to the cork or the bottle's storage. On the whole, these are not huge problems. No one was killed and we had a nice dinner. On the other hand, when I lay down $108 for dinner for two, without appetizers, I expect to be amazed. Instead, as I left (to be wished goodnight by none of the four staff members I passed), I wondered to myself, Is this a real restaurant, or just a hotel restaurant? Or, to quote the late Frank Zappa, "Is that a real poncho or a Sears poncho?"

Net: One voice mail of apology.
Two postcards of apology.
Free appetizers and dessert during next visit.
Thirty seconds of face time from oleaginous co-owner during next visit.

Tips: Note use of objective supporting evidence in bullet point 5: if the place can't even spell Veuve Clicquot, how can they be expected to know whether it's flat?
In the case of multiple owners, copy everyone on your letter, especially the chef/owner/manager. Be sure to have the correct spellings and titles.


* Rule Two: When you bitch, request a reply.

Service Offense: $150 charge to switch cellular packages.

The Letter:
Dear Sir:

I am writing to request a slight clarification. At the moment I carry two Mobile accounts on your Minute Value Plan, which provides 150 free minutes of service for the flat rate of $69.99 per month.

Since signing up for the service approximately two years ago, I have noted that my use of the second phone--while still necessary to run my business--accounts for significantly less billable time. For that reason, I called your customer service line to change my plan to a lower monthly rate with a higher per-minute charge.

Your customer service rep informed me that the charge to change the plan on my second phone was $150.

The reason for my writing is this: could you please justify for me how you can honestly charge $150 to flip a switch and change my account plan, while you offer no alternative such as two-phone usage on a shared account? Given my knowledge of computer networks, I feel confident in asserting that changing my account from one service level to another involves no new purchase of CPU or memory subsystem and no reconfiguration of corporate software.

In fact, if these truly are the customer-focused 1990s, could you please take a moment to explain for me how your company can, with a straight face, charge a small businessman like myself $150 for such a request? I guess the 1990s are a little late arriving at your organization. Rest assured that when my contracts come up for renewal in March, I will explore options with your competitors quite a bit more seriously than I would have previous to this experience.

Net: Meekly apologetic call from Manager of Executive Appeals (nice title), the day the letter arrived.
Waiving of $150 change fee.

Tips: Note how fifth paragraph threatens abandonment of company and globalizes offense to critique entire company culture, thus encouraging a quick reply.
When complaining on behalf of a company, print the letter on company letterhead.


* Rule Three: When all else fails, try sarcasm.

Service Offenses: Being yelled at by copy store employee for claiming type was set crookedly.

The Letter:
Dear Sir:

I don't write thank-you notes to our vendors very often. No matter how well a company may address our needs, I usually take extra effort more or less for granted. I'm not proud of it; that's just the way I am.

Still, sometimes we get a caliber of service such that I have to take a moment to congratulate the people responsible. That's why I'm writing this letter.

On Friday, one of our employees--a young blonde--picked up an order at your shop. Peevish as always, she noticed that the type was crooked and called the matter to your attention.

From what I understand, you gave her just the dressing down she deserved. Virginia has been very bad lately, and she needs to be punished. She knows it. We all do. But nobody here has the heart to take a rod to her.

Praise God for people like you--people who can look beyond a customer's immediate need for a good finished product and attentive service. People who understand what their customers really require: strong, kindly discipline.

In our line of work, we often find ourselves recommending third-tier print shops to our customers. In the future, you can count on us to spread the word about your very caring, very giving style of commercial tough-love.

Net: Store no longer in business. (Believe me, it adds up.)


Oscar Wilde once wrote, "In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it." Cognizant of all that has taken place in the 105 years since then--and particularly in the last ten--I would close by amending Mr. Wilde's words to read:

In the global service economy there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is not taking the time to bitch about it.

See you in the Customer Service line.
 
author's page
Bold Type
     
   
Copyright © 1997 Hugh Kennedy.