World Class Service: Don’t Give your Customers a ‘Definite Maybe’

by Peter Cheales  

Business people in South Africa overdose on promises, particularly when it concerns service. But a promise isn’t an irrevocable commitment. An uncommitted pledge gives whoever makes it the leeway to wriggle out of a promise. In effect, it gives him or her the latitude to continue delivering standards of service that are abysmal, if not worse.

Most companies make some reference to customer service in corporate mission statements. In practice, it’s usually nothing more than a group boardroom hallucination. Bosses instruct their underlings to promise the earth and even throw in the moon  until you sign on the dotted line or part with your hard-earned cash. If anything backfires, the actual or implied fine print comes into play. And, inevitably the dissatisfied consumer, is left holding the unwanted baby.

In my books and talks on World Class Customer Service, I point out that too many businesses rely on over-promising to snare customers. And then they under-deliver, almost forcing the customer to vote with his feet and take his business elsewhere.

Even before its recent change of ownership, Dion, the discount store chain, heavily punted its catchy slogan: ‘A promise we make is a promise we keep’. Sure they matched any proven lower price for an identical article. And they did it without quibbling. But in-store customer service was an alien concept.

Consider the case of a friend who bought an expensive stereo home entertainment centre at the old Dion store in Wynberg. The wondrous piece of electronic gadgetry failed to perform. Back to the store it went. My friend could come and collect it in two weeks, promised the man behind the counter.

Six months, a hundred phone calls and the same number of excuses later, the faulty gizmo remained faulty. Although Dion declined to replace it, the store undertook to have it repaired by the agents. They, in turn, couldn’t do anything until parts arrived from Japan. And so in went on ad infinitum.

Well, almost.

After 26 weeks sans music, my friend eventually blew his top. He made threatening noises with heavy legal overtones. He wanted his stereo set in full working order. And he wanted it now. Or he wanted his money back.

The store’s powers-that-were reluctantly returned his cash, which he accepted graciously and departed.
My friend should have demanded more.

Look at it this way: Dion had the interest-free use of my friend’s money for the better part of six months; my friend received nothing but putrid service and aggravation.

But what did Dion ultimately score? A little interest by holding on to the customer’s money, perhaps. And, of course, someone who swore never to darken the store’s doorstep again, and who undertook to persuade his friends to adopt the same attitude.

This type of cavalier attitude towards the provision of customer service is the hallmark of poor management. It inevitably leads down the one-way street to corporate demise. Yes, the Dion name continues to live under new management. But bitter memories of disgusting service probably continue to keep potential customers away in droves.

To my mind, there’s one outstanding way of helping you deliver outstanding customer service. Penalise yourself when you don’t.

I‘m not talking about an ineffectual, limp-wristed slap. I’m talking about something that really hurts. Like taking money out of your pocket and handing it, with an apology, to your long-suffering customers when you make a promise you don’t keep.

I often cite the example of a smallish, trail-blazing bank in the United States  the Seafirst Bank in Seattle. It pays $5 to every customer who has to queue for more than three minutes. And now an Antipodes’ banking group, ANZ Bank, has followed suit.

Let’s go local. Meander through the banking hall of your not-so-friendly neighbourhood money emporium. If it was forced to dish out R5 to every customer who had to queue for longer than three minutes, it would probably be bankrupt inside a month.

Our bankers must learn to put their money where their mouths are. They should be forced to pay a price for reneging on advertised promises. Where are all the chic-looking tellers with friendly, helpful smiles and an encyclopaedic knowledge of finance, whom they flaunt in their TV ads? Where are all the good-looking macho guys who, on-screen, will stop at nothing to ease our paths through periods of financial crises?

They don’t exist. Not in South African banking, anyway. They’re merely figments of imagination created in the fevered brain of some overwrought advertising copywriter. In practice, we’re left to the tender mercies of harassed tellers trying to cope with computer terminals that make a habit of switching between on and off-line at whim. They have far too many problems of their own to worry about without commending us for a monetary reward after we’ve cooled our heels for 30 minutes in a vain bid to cash paltry cheques.

So will giving me little dollops of cash while I ho-hum until I get to the teller cure the ill?

No, not on its own.

Banks should, in addition, insist that those often arrogant and sometimes pompous guys who inhabit the upper tiers of banking hierarchies endure the tedium of standing in queues at each other’s banks during peak periods at least twice a week.

If you’re like me, you find that hanging around draughty banking mausoleums does something for your appetite. It usually destroys it. But a person has to eat to survive, so you take yourself to the nearest eatery. Again, you’re usually condemned to a long wait.

Only the other night I was sentenced to bread and water for 45 minutes at a restaurant (which shall remain nameless) in Sandton Square.

Waiting for service always makes me angry. That night was no exception. I wanted to get up and complain to the manager. But I didn’t. The queue was too long.

Like the nice guy that I am, I didn’t want to cause a scene, so I just walked out. Never more to return.

The episode reminded me of a sign that I saw hanging in a Budapest hotel grill favoured by Western tourists.

 ‘Customers giving orders will be quickly executed.’ In the same grill, a waiter places a 10-minute hour glass on each table. If your order isn’t taken in the 10 minutes it takes the sands to run out, you don’t pay for your meal.

Now that’s what I call putting your money where your mouth is.

One of the first business people who penalised himself for not fulfilling his promise to customers was an American, Thomas Managham. If his Domino’s Pizza Parlour didn’t effect a delivery with 30 minutes of the customer placing a phone order, he’d reduce the bill by $3. And Managham has exported his ‘speedy Gonzales’ philosophy to South Africa.

Domino’s, operating from Illovo in Johannesburg, solemnly promises to knock R5 off the bill if it doesn’t deliver your order ‘hot and tasty to your doorstep in 30 minutes’.

If it makes its promise a commitment, Domino’s is going to cream the local pizza market.

Service, as I continually point out in my books and talks, is about more than the cost of anything or even the quality of a product.

In the old days, ‘a retired but still shrewd marketing boffin recalls, ‘people needed products to survive. Now products need people to survive.’ And one of the ways that you can ensure that your products enjoy a prodigious life is to give your customers added value. It needn’t cost you a cent. It can be as simple as the way in which you greet them when they walk into your store, showroom or bank. It may merely be extending to them the courtesy of answering your phone promptly ‘ say within three rings. Greeting your customers by name always adds perceived value to your product or service. It makes them feel that they’re special and wanted.

This reminds of a little how-not-to-do-it incident that occurred one of Cape Town’s posher hotels.
A newly recruited porter had been given a crash course in the correct form of behaviour when dealing with guests.

Always try to welcome each guest by name,’ the hotel manager told the young man.

The porter looked puzzled. ‘Please, sir, how can I do that? How will I know their names if I’ve never seen them before?’

It’s simple,’ said the manager. ‘Each guest usually has his or her name written on a label to attached to their baggage.’

I was near the reception desk when the new porter greeted his first guests: ‘Welcome, Mr and Mrs Simulated Genuine Leather.’

To sum up, you can dramatically enhance your level of customer service by penalising yourself for non-delivery, by extending friendly greetings to each customer and making your promises firm commitments. Don’t, as legendary film producer Sam Goldwyn was wont to say, give your customers ‘a definite maybe’.