_____ Keep your customer
_____ base healthy

"We have many things in the country, but good service isn't one of them. Here, good service is about as unfamiliar as the idea of Eugene TerreBlanche managing to stay upright while riding a horse."

 - Carol Lazar in The Star.

eople who give you business like to be treated with deference. Greet them in a friendly manner, remember their names, go out of your way to be helpful. Give them more than they bargained for - even a little more - and you'll soar to the top of their hit parades. It's called adding value, and it's all part of customer service, a concept alien to many businesses in South Africa.

Maybe you do deliver what you promise. Maybe you do offer your customers real value. Value that exceeds their expectations. But, for some reason, your relations with your customers are strained. To put it bluntly, they're difficult.

So where have you gone wrong?

The customers may not always be right. But, as Greg Vance, author of Delivering the Goods: Developing Sales & Service Excellence, says: The customer is the customer and won't enjoy your know-it-all attitude.

If you win, you lose

He advises you never to argue with a customer because even if you win, you lose.

Ego or personal pride can force you to needlessly take an opposing stand on principle.

Vance points out that unless your integrity is involved, it costs little to give the customer the benefit of the doubt.

Perhaps you've adopted an overly paternal attitude towards your customers. You've made them feel incompetent or just plain stupid. After all, you're the expert. You know best. That's why they approached you in the first place. They had a problem and they wanted you to solve it.

Even the big guns in American business, who popularised the term "Have a nice day", frequently get customer service wrong. Mort Meyerson, chief executive officer of Ross Perot Systems, has publicly admitted it.

Listen to yourself

To overcome the problem, he suggests that you dispassionately listen to yourself and others -- even your competitors -- when you and they deal with customers. You'll probably find that because you profess to know it all, you'll sound arrogant, rigid, high-handed. And your take-it-or-leave-it stance will turn customers off.

Meyerson says you don't always have to be right. Leave your customers room to negotiate ... to save face. Ask them for their input. Find out what they think. Don't treat them as customers. Treat them as valuable partners.

What exactly is customer service?

Most people perceive it as something intangible. It is.

And it isn't.

Here's how Super America, a petrol and food chain, defines it: "From the customer's point of view, if they can see it, walk on it, hold it, hear it, step in it, smell it, carry it, step over it, touch it, even taste it if they can feel it or sense it, it's customer service.

Forget customer service rhetoric

If you've been in business for the last few years, you must have heard all the rhetoric about customer service, buzzwords that roll off glib tongues like water off a duck's back. We're exhorted to "dazzle" and "delight" customers, "knock their socks off" and produce "raving fans" or "customers for life".

Trite as many of these "Commandments" may appear to be, they're still contain a lot of customer service truths.

Delight me

If you want me as your customer, delight me. I want to be wowed by your remarkable service. I want to be dazzled.

Don't for one moment think that we're still in the era of customer satisfaction. We're not. We're now in the era of customer delight.

But most customers, like Carol Lazar, who I quoted at the beginning of this chapter, are far from delighted. They're not even satisfied.

Let's assume you've improved service delivery by introducing Total Quality Management (TQM), re-engineering, restructuring and other trendy management programmes. Yet your customers want more. They'll always want more. Every time you leap to clear the service bar, they raise it. So how can you delight me?.

Practice your high-jump technique

Here's a tried, tested and proven four-phase method of clearing the bar to improved customer service every time:
  1. Really get to know me.
  2. Balance systems with people.
  3. Put customers to work -- they like it.
  4. Offer knowledge.

Really get to know me

Make a point of introducing me to each member of your staff who has anything  to do with me. That means everyone from the receptionist to the managing director.

Get to know me on my turf.

And don't procrastinate.

Invite me to your premises and introduce me around within seven days of our first contact.  And insist that your personnel visit me at my premises within the first 30 days of our initial interaction.

Don't stop the visits.

Keep them going. Make sure I have face-to-face contact with your team at least once every three months.

Scandinavian airline chairman Jan Carlzon, of SAS, coined the phrase "moments of truth". He used it to describe how a customer formed a perception of an organisation through any contact with its facilities, written material, advertising and personnel. This phrase has been used for at least 10 years as the criteria for discussion of service quality.

Merely surface factors

Sure, moments of truth are important. But they're merely surface factors. More -- much more -- is involved in the provision of good service with built-in customer delight.

That's why, very often, the quality of service delivery climbs to a certain level and then remains static.

It never improves.

As Dr W Edwards Denning once observed: "Service is what a customer thinks it is." It's therefore important that you get to know what I think. This means probing, albeit discreetly, to a depth beyond chance encounters with me.

Well-defined niches

One effective way of doing this is by sorting your customers into well-defined niches. It's a move that will pay handsome dividends. But your knowledge needs to be deep. Really deep.

Many business people take a shot in the dark. They guess.


And don't rely on the results of one or two big customer surveys a year. You need, fresh, up-to-date knowledge. This means receiving a steady stream of information based on hard research and anecdotal evidence. The sort of evidence doesn't just throw itself at you. You have to look for it.

How one hotel chain does it

Every year, the Marriott Hotel chain sends out 800 000 guest satisfaction surveys. A remarkable 250 000 people respond. Then, to track shifting tastes and build up a broad profile of its guests and their preferences, senior management arranges with meeting planners to regularly organise focus groups. This gives the hotel chain the feedback it needs to identify the attributes of quality service through its guests' eyes. For example, a recent poll showed that guests cared most about the speed of the check-in process, cleanliness, value, friendliness and breakfast.


Who could have guessed that the day's first meal was a major concern? Yet it turns out that how Marriott handles the feeding of its guests, particularly just after wake-up time, is an important determinant in whether they'll return.

Best-forgotten breakfast sessions

This reminds me of a couple of best forgotten breakfast sessions at a Port Elizabeth hotel that definitely wasn't in the Marriott group. On the second morning of my stay in this alleged home-away-from-home, I phoned room service. "Please send me two pieces of charred toast, hard-as-rock butter, a pot of cold coffee, a jug of sour milk and a couple of raw eggs," I said.
"We couldn't possibly do that, Sir," came the reply.
"Why not?" I asked, "You did yesterday."


If you want to jack up your service delivery to more than just acceptable levels, under promise and over deliver.

This "under promise and over deliver" has been bandied about in business circles for a while now. Yet many people still aren't sure how to apply it. The answer can be reduced to two short words: Be specific.

Customer delight arena

Tell me you will deliver my car/the documents I need by three o'clock this afternoon. Then deliver it above expectation. Deliver it to me at twenty-to-three and you're in the customer delight arena.

So make a point of being specific in every statement you utter. Consign to the scrap heap phrases like "as soon as possible". I and your other customers want to know exactly when you going to deliver on your promise.

But be wary. You can go overboard on the provision of customer service. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Over-enthusiastic sales people and fawning waiters and waitresses fall into this trap. When they try give you a service you don't want, they annoy you. In this regard, let's look at another "over-the-top" hotel scenario.

A friend, let's call him Ray, stayed in a hotel in Bangkok for a couple of nights. What attracted him to the establishment was the claim in its advertising: "We cater for our guests' every whim."

On his first night in the hotel, Ray was bushed. So he went to bed early. A persistent thumping on the door woke him up at about 10 o'clock.
"What is it?" he called out.
"Do you have a girl in your room?" the hotel manager bellowed.
"No," Ray replied.
Asked the manager: "Do you want one?"

Back to Marriott. Gathering data about customers is all very well, but on its own it doesn't mean very much. To make collecting it a meaningful exercise, you have to ...

Use the information

For example, at Marriott, the house-keeping staff are now trained to keep rooms clean to the standards prescribed by guests. In addition, the hotel chain has speeded up check-in procedures through the use of a database that remembers guests' names, preferences credit card numbers and other pertinent personal information.

Regular guests are invited to call ahead and say when they expect to arrive. A member of the hotel staff will wait for them by the reception desk with a key. This allows them to bypass the check-in hassles altogether.
A statician is a person who draws a mathematically precise line from an unwarranted assumption to a foregone conclusion.
Although surveys and statistical research are important, you can't rely on them totally to help your formulate an effective customer service policy. A guy who rejoices under the name of Aaron Levenstein has been credited with the truism: "Statistics are like a bikini. What the reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital."

He was right.

You also have to be wary of the people who compile statistics. Treat research with caution. Much of it is the alignment of data in orderly piles, hallowed by sacred hymns and sung to the goddess Objectivity in the shrine of Statistics. With this in mind, it's always better to ...

See for yourself

Check out the best service providers and you'll find that they don't rely on figures and statistics alone for feedback. Among those that don't is Dr Mitchell Rabkin, head of the Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. He still makes his daily rounds to see for himself. So does Arthur Blank, president of Home Depot, the hardware superstore. He reckons that he spends at least 25% of his time in his store helping customers.

Says Four Seasons' chief Isadore Sharp, who spends half his life in his hotels: "Managing a service business through internal reports is like playing tennis while keeping your eyes on the scoreboard."


One meaningful way to keep your eyes on the scoreboard is to penalise yourself or your company every time time you don't keep your promise. Give your customers the pledge: "If I don't deliver it within 30 minutes or you get it for free."

What about this one? "If you have to stand in a queue for longer than three minutes, we'll pay you R10."

Banks in the United States and Australia make such a promise. Judging from my experience in local banking halls, our financial institutions, known for their pedantic pace, would go broke if they followed this route to dazzling service.

However, you can make your customers say "Wow!" by getting together with the rest of your team involved in producing a result. The purpose of this meeting isn't to hold another talk tank. It's to come up with concrete suggestions for penalising yourself if your service doesn't meet expectations. Reject out-of-hand any proposals that include "cheat" numbers like 100% or 24-hours-a-day. They mean zip. Pretentious statements like "I will provide you with 100% service 24-hours-a-day" don't work.

Balance systems with people

Two elements are crucial to service success: good people supported by and working within good systems. The problem is you have to deal with both at the same time if you hope to improve long-term service quality. And remember, this is not a once-off process. It's a balancing act that you have to do again and again. It's like constantly balancing the wheels on your car to keep the wear of tyre treads to a minimum and improve road handling. Some types of business, like companies that specialise in cleaning, are labour-intensive. They need a lot of people. Other companies, like those that make memory chips, replace brawn with powerful technology.

But there are still many companies - possibly the majority - that fall somewhere between the two extremes. They need a mixture of people and technology to perform at satisfactory levels. Just how much of each they need depends on the nature of the business and changing market forces.

Nevertheless, with fast-breaking technological advances, an increasing number of firms are giving more attention and investment to the technology side of the equation. When a job, or elements of a job, can be reduced to consistent, repetitive processes, technology becomes more cost-effective than people. It may also be more customer-pleasing: ask the growing number of people who prefer banking via an ATM than a real live teller.

You can find evidence of technology sucking up jobs everywhere. It was that doyen of management gurus, Peter Drucker, who said, when referring to the encroachment of high-tech in the workplace: "Computers can solve all kinds of problems except the unemployment problem they create."

Automating service jobs may become an explosive issue for the country. As large numbers of people lose their jobs, or are forced into lower-paying, more menial occupations, they lose some of the ability to be customers. The long-term consequences for the economy could be devastating.

Tough luck, add systems

Despite the possible human costs, business has an obligation to deliver customer service as competently and cost-effectively as it can. This means putting systems into the customer loop and adding people as necessary.

So what do you look for in a system that will do wonders for the delivery of service to your customers. Even a superficial glance around the market will show you that there are no end of whiz-bang technologies you can harness to serve your customers better and, often, more cheaply. Here are a few examples:
  • Domino's Pizza - the one in the United States, not the one in Johannesburg - forked out $7-million to computerise 700 company-owned stores. The system tracks sales on a daily basis, oversees marketing, labour and inventory costs. What's more, it can identify the source of a phone order, allowing employees to greet customer by name.
  • Caterpillar uses virtual reality systems to evaluate new designs. This slashes the length of the process from up to eight months to one month. Even more amazing, customers field test these designs, eliminating the need to supply costly prototypes.
  • The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, links its operations to Florida and Arizona via satellite. A camera, capable of magnifying things 200 times, scans a patient sitting on an examination table "down south" and beams the image to a team of specialists in Rochester.

Banks, always perceived as ultra-conservative business institutions, have also climbed on the systems bandwagon. A good example is the Wachovia Corporation. It studied 40 of its bank branches and found that each employed a person who spent six hours a day handling phone calls. It overcame the problem by expanding its centralised phone service centre in Georgia to reduce the number of calls each branch handled by half. That freed up an extra three hours per branch for one-on-one sales and service contacts.

Make no mistake, these one-on-one contacts aren't important.


When your employees personally interact with your customers constantly, they get to know their individual requirements. There's nothing better to promote a culture of service excellence. But there are many techniques that can help.


Give your staff something meaningful for providing excellent customer service. Give them money ... trophies ... parties ... expense-paid holiday weekends. The more rewards you offer the better. Reward your employees every time you receive letters from delighted customers. Reward them for showing initiative by above-average performance in adverse conditions ... for going that extra 100 kilometres to make the customer's life easier and more pleasant. For example, there's a bank clerk who dropped off a client's bank statement on his way home from work because the computers "crashed" during business hours.

Make this type of service the rule, not the exception.

Keep your customers delighted - regularly delight your staff by making worthwhile rewards for extra-special customer service an integral part of your business. Write them into your budget.

Dish out rewards to deserving employees once-a-month. Then select an overall winner for the year and shower that member of your staff with accolades.

So pass around the "honey spoon" as often as possible. It rubs the people who work for you up the right way. It does wonder for their self-image. As consultant and author Edward de Bono says in his book Tactics: "I would name self-image as the prime motivator."

Lord Charles Williams concurs. A former managing director of the London-based merchant bank, Ansbacher & Company, he intimates that anybody who thinks different is a liar.

So motivate your employees to dispense customer service excellence with everything you've got.

Put customers to work - they like it

Let your customers play a role in the creation and delivery of the services they desire. They'll love you for it. It's also good for you in more ways than one. Look at it this way: if you control an entire relationship or project yourself, you'll be lumbered with all the expense. It's cheaper to find co-operative customers who know what will satisfy their needs. This beats going off at tangents to find the solutions. Another plus: if you get customers involved, they're more loyal and, therefore, more valuable than customers who stay at a distance.

Many business people make the mistake of assuming that customers don't know what they want. It might have been true yesterday when, for example, they needed your help to choose clothes, a car, a camera or a holiday.

But those days are gone.

Most customers are knowledgeable about what they want and they have the confidence to choose correctly. That's why they downgrade the on emphasis on support services. Instead, customers look for points of access that reward them for using their own initiative.

When a customer buys, say, a VCR, he's saying he doesn't need anyone to tell him about the unit's finer points. He or she will come into the store and tell you what features he wants. All you need to is point him or her in the right direction. So ...

Empower your customers

It isn't difficult to empower your customers to drive your bottom line steadily deeper into the black. Here are three ready-to-use methods:

  1. Cultivate a self-service mentality wherever possible. In the words of a catering industry magazine, self-service in restaurants is a "trend to watch". Citing buffets as an example, the publication says they give customers the power to choose the quantity and mix of foods desired.
  2. Unlike other segments of a stalling economy, do-it-yourself businesses have potential for growth. Many such businesses depend on customers' sweat. Examples include athletic clubs, gymnasiums, discount brokerages, car washes, fix-it-yourself car workshops and cut-your-own-Christmas-tree farms. Kinko's Copy Centres also fall into this category. They position themselves as branch offices for the "self-empowered self-employed".
  3. One way to build in more options for your customers to control in small ways is to send them invoices that allow them to choose the time and amount of payment. Most credit card companies already do this within certain stringently prescribed limits.

 In effect, you have to ...


Delegates have often come up to me after I've delivered a presentation and asked: "But what about difficult customers?"

The only effective answer: manage their expectations.

To do this, tell me exactly what I can expect from your company, when I can expect it, and then periodically update me on the status of work in progress.

If you keep me and your other customers fully informed, we're unlikely to be difficult. Remember, you're not working on a process. You're working to produce a result. Look at it this way: business itself is one huge manufactured waste of time. It's the result that counts. Here are 7 proven steps that will get you the outcome we both want:

  • Determine the results you aim to achieve for me, be it an advertising campaign, the delivery of a new car, the construction of a building or whatever. In other words, start with the result.
  • Work your way backwards, dividing the project into steps that I can see and understand.
  • Decide on a checklist with me so that we both use the same method of evaluating performance.
  • Determine the frequency that you want to communicate with me and your other customers. Diarise the dates and the times.
  • Insert self-imposed penalties into the specs of the project. And make them meaningful. It's pointless telling me that you'll give me R10 if you don't contact me when promised when we're dealing with a R2-million building.

  Be pro-active, not reactive
Once I have contacted you, the supplier, to make an initial enquiry, that is the last time I should have to contact you.


After that it's up to you to contact me. In other words, if your customers continually bug you, you're doing something terribly wrong. But if you are constantly in contact with your customers, you're doing something wonderfully right.

Become performers
Today there should be no such thing as "I'm not a people person. I'm just a backroom boy". If any employees have the audacity to say that to you, fire them. You need people-orientated people. I doesn't matter what position they hold in your company, they must give customers a performance. A consistent, delightful performance.

So get the members of your team together in next 48 hours and work out exactly the scenes and acts of your play.

I'm the customer and I'm the audience. I don't only applaud the leading actor and actress. Even the walk-on parts can make or break the performance.

Extensive market research in Australia revels that many consumers find most retail stores, shopping malls and commercial and industrial premises dull, boring, repetitive and predictable.

Analysing the results, Barry Urquhart, managing director of Marketing Focus in Perth, says this doesn't imply that consumers want to be entertained when they go shopping.

"They simply want shopping to be entertaining," he notes.

To make doing business with you an entertaining experience, Urquhart suggests:

  • a regular change of interior dcor;
  • mounting dynamic, animated window displays;
  • Dress employees in costumes to celebrate special occasions;
  • Display merchandise in an outrageous manner, and
  • celebrate customer service achievements by individual employees and promote them to customers.

  EMPHASISE the service bookends

A service bookend is the beginning and the end of every single interaction that you have with your customers, be it written, telephonic or face-to-face.

What happens when I phone you?

Do I have to wait for seemingly interminable minutes listening to some corny rendition of In An English Country Garden?

What happens when I visit your premises?

Am I left to sit in some ho-hum reception area to read a ridiculous corporate mission statement hanging proudly on the wall, or listen to the receptionist while she imparts all the gory details of last night's date to a friend?

Again, be specific.

Ensure that I wait in the reception area for a maximum of three minutes. Penalise anyone who doesn't greet me, offer me a cup of tea or coffee or generally make me feel welcome.

Involve me

Make me a member of your club. Make me a member of your family. Invite my input, face-to-face, once every six months. Include me in your focus groups once every two years. Ask me to deliver a presentation to your staff about what I do, and the importance of their role in helping me produce the results I need.

Become my fountain of knowledge

Whether you sell antiques, ball bearings, or blow-up dolls, invite me to seminars every six months. Get in guest speakers, provide transcripts of their addresses for your customers who are unable to attend. In a nutshell, ...

Offer knowledge

During the 18th century, the inimitable Samuel Johnson said: "Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it."

Because knowledge is power, go out of your way to ensure that you become your customers' fountain of valid information. When you give us access to knowledge, our loyalty to you grows. A company that appreciates this and has cashed in on it is Dun & Bradstreet Information Services. It integrates a client's customer database with its own larger "bin" of stored information. When combined with analytical software, it provides a powerful resource clients can draw on to aid in the making of strategic decisions.

Another business that believes that smart customers are more profitable customers is Print Quad/Graphics. It brings people into its Wisconsin plant for intensive training that helps them buy printing services more knowledgeably.

Neatly summing up the knowledge issue, a captain of local industry said at a recent function: "Knowledge is the only instrument of production that is not subject to diminishing returns."

In Chapter Two, I look at what you can do to cultivate customer and employee loyalty to enhance bottom line performance.

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  Authors Note
1. Keep your customer base healthy
2. Introduce fresh makeover ideas for better business
3. Power drive motivation
4. Control your business workout regime
5. Meet the challenge of corporate change
6. Keep your focus
7. Update your circuit
8. Come out fighting
9. Cultivate sparring partners
10. Avoid Regressing
  Return to FunZone!