Service That Sticks! How Memorable Customer Service Drives Sales.
By Steve Curtin.
Wednesday, 12th November 2008
Given the current state of the world economy, companies should recommit to providing memorable customer service as a way to weather the economic storm.  Too often, when faced with difficult financial decisions in an environment like this, operators make decisions to limit, defer, or cancel investment in customer service training.

Customer service training is a "soft skill" that is frequently treated as optional.  Many operators likely formed this impression based on their own experience with mediocre customer service training that required them to sit through a combination of corny training videos, awkward role play activities, predictable stories about really good and/or really bad customer service, and acronyms that spell S.M.I.L.E.

But what if customer service training didn't have to look like training at all?  What if it took the form of more frequent and less formal interactions between supervisors and frontline hourly employees?  What if pre-shift meetings and regular department meetings always included a customer service component to maintain the focus on serving customers?

Below are seven simple ways to make customer service memorable.  As an operator, the act of simply repeating these suggestions with your workgroup and asking them to identify two or three examples of how to apply them with their own customers will produce positive results.  Not only will this exercise cause employees to refocus on customers, it will provide them with concrete suggestions to support their own delivery of memorable customer service and, if implemented, will drive sales!

Because most operators are skeptical about whether or not a sustained focus on customer service really has an effect on sales, here are seven real life examples of memorable customer service resulting in increased sales.

1. Express genuine interest:
Last month I brought three of my children, ages 3, 5, and 7, to the dentist.  We've been going to the same pediatric dentistry office since our oldest child turned 3 and was scheduled for his first "Happy Appointment!"  (That's the nickname the dental hygienists give to a toddler's first experience at their office.)

From the moment the kids arrived, they were entertained by an oversized aquarium stocked with the cast from Finding Nemo.  A raised platform surrounds the base of the aquarium in order for the really little kids to enjoy the same perspective as the bigger kids.  As their appointments came up, each child was greeted in the reception area and escorted back to the roomy, well-lit patient examination area complete with electric chairs that go up and down, loads of stickers, pencils, and those plastic rings that kids can't get enough of…

On this day, all three kids had their teeth cleaned.  During the cleanings, I heard the hygienists refer to each of their instruments by descriptive, kid-friendly names.  For example, the bright overhead light was "Mr. Sunshine."  The suction straw was "Mr. Thirsty" and the high-pressure water jet was "Mr. Windy."

Afterwards, all the little patients got to select their prizes and choose from a wide selection of themed toothbrushes, toothpaste, and floss ranging from dinosaurs and action figures for the boys to ponies and princesses for the girls.

During the appointment, I had a chance to ask one of the dentists how the current economy was impacting his practice.  He said, "You know Steve, I'm really concerned.  Only about half our patients are completely covered by dental insurance.  The other half either don't have insurance or the insurance they do have covers 50% or less of the cost of the visit.  If the procedure is going to require much out-of-pocket expense, it's easy for people to rationalize delaying a previously scheduled appointment by six to twelve months."

I then asked another question that I felt I already knew the answer to: "So, you're probably already seeing this sentiment reflected in your own business, right?"  To my surprise, he said, "Well, actually no.  But we're sure worried about it."

In reflecting on that conversation, I realize why I shouldn't be surprised that his business is still prospering despite the economy. Everything from the fish to the floss is geared toward making positive memories for the kids.

By expressing genuine interest in their patients, this dental practice fuels a desire to brush well and return to the dentist regularly.  And, as it turns out, it also insulates the practice from the negative effects of a sluggish economy we'll call "Mr. Grumpy Pants."

2. Offer sincere and specific compliments:
A good friend of mine, Shawn, travels nearly every week with his job as a regional sales manager for a large technology company.  Shawn is a member of United Airline's Mileage Plus frequent flyer program and recently achieved its elite status, 100K (which recognizes 100,000 actual flight miles traveled within the calendar year).

Earlier this year, on the outbound leg of the flight that would carry him over the 100,000-mile threshold, a United Airline representative approached him in the gate area, thanked him for his loyalty, and recognized his achievement of a status that very few frequent travelers will ever reach.  As a part of the recognition "ceremony," she took his boarding pass, drew a line through his current Premiere Executive status, and hand wrote "United 1K!"

Shawn was so complimented by the gesture that he saved the boarding pass and uses it as a bookmark.  He recently told me that this simple act by the gate agent renewed his loyalty to the airline to the point that it was the deciding factor to book with United Airlines when comparing flight schedules and fares offered by United and two competing airlines for an upcoming business trip.

And, in case you're wondering, United was not offering the cheapest fare.

3. Share unique knowledge:
A couple of years ago, I was shopping for a garment bag for my wife.  Her job required travel and her current bag was showing serious signs of wear and tear.  I stopped into one of those mall luggage stores and the salesperson showed me a black Tumi garment bag.  As I was inspecting the bag I noticed the price was $400.  I said to the salesperson, "Wow.  I really like the bag but four hundred dollars is more than I was planning to spend.  Do these bags ever go on sale?"  She answered, "The only time I've seen these bags discounted is when a color or style has been discontinued."  I didn't see anything else I was interested in buying at the store and so thanked the woman and left.

A few minutes later I stopped by a second luggage store at the mall and looked around. Again, the only bag that caught my eye was the same black Tumi garment bag.  I checked the price tag: $400.  A salesperson approached me about this time and asked if she could answer any questions.  I posed the same question I'd asked in the previous store, "I really like this bag but four hundred dollars is more than I was planning to spend.  Do these bags ever go on sale?" Again, the salesperson answered, "These bags are only discounted when a color or style has been discontinued."  I thought to myself, "Well, at least they're consistent."  But then the woman said something I hadn't heard before.

She said, "You're right.  This luggage is not cheap.  Four hundred dollars is quite an investment in a garment bag.  Did you know, however, that this will be the last garment bag that you may ever have to purchase?"  My quizzical expression prompted her to continue, "Tumi guarantees its bags for life.  It's made out of ballistic nylon and can withstand the wear associated with frequent travel.  If you do experience a tear, a lost wheel, anything at all, Tumi will repair or replace the bag at no cost to you for life.  Also, Tumi installs a special metal plate in each of its bags containing a bar code that customers register at the Tumi website after purchasing the bag.  That way, if your bag is ever mishandled, there will be a way to reunite you with your bag even if your luggage tag comes off during handling."

Needless to say, I bought the garment bag.  It was ironic to me that I was leaving the second luggage store with the identical bag I hadn't even considered purchasing for $400 fifteen minutes earlier at the first luggage store.  And all because the salesperson took the time to share her unique knowledge and convince me that, as a frequent traveler, I really could not afford not to buy this bag!

While customers appreciate nice employees, they value knowledgeable employees.  And the more unique knowledge employees possess, the more value they bring to the customer experience.

4. Convey authentic enthusiasm:
I recently heard a story about a Paradise Bakery & Café general manager who earned the nickname "Cowbell Sandy" from her adoring staff.

It seems that a couple of years ago she started an incentive program to increase add-on sales of bottled water, cookies, and other high margin items. She worked with vendors to sponsor the prizes, ranging from iTunes gift cards to iPods.

Employees were so enthusiastic about the incentive program that they were constantly asking Sandy to see the printout to determine how they were performing compared to their co-workers. The report was the only way that employees could see who on the team was generating the add-on sales.

That gave Sandy another idea. Instead of tracking the incentive program electronically and then letting people know how they were doing only when the report was printed, she decided to clank a stainless steel container with a metal spoon and hoot and holler just a bit to acknowledge—in the moment—when one of her team members had added sales.

In doing so, Sandy included an element of spontaneous recognition to the incentive program. This not only created additional enthusiasm among the team, it also created a stir with customers in the mall's food court. All of sudden, customers were coming by to see what all the clanking and laughter was about. This increased store traffic in a competitive environment with plenty of other dining options to choose from.

A couple of weeks into the promotion, the staff got together and bought a cowbell for Sandy to use in place of her makeshift noisemaker. From there, the nickname "Cowbell Sandy" was inevitable.

The program was a huge success! Top producers were adding an average of $11.50 an hour in add-on sales. Team members were receiving constant recognition from an inspiring manager in a high-energy environment filled with enthusiasm—and customers!

Cowbell Sandy is genuinely filled with enthusiasm and authentically conveys this enthusiasm to customers and her team in ways that are unique, perhaps even singular, and match her style and personality.  Authentic enthusiasm may be animated or may be reserved, but it will be real.

5. Use appropriate humor:
I once encountered a playful server at a New York City steak house who sold my wife and I a bottle of San Pellegrino sparkling water with the question, "Which would you prefer with your meal: A bottle of San Pellegrino sparkling mineral water or New York City tap?"  We appreciated his humor and enjoyed the refreshing change from bland tap water.  The restaurant grossed another $10 on the sale and our server received another $2 in his tip!

You don't have to know how to tell a good joke in order to use appropriate humor.  Oftentimes, a funny observation or a quick wit is all that it takes.  Always look for opportunities to smile.  For smiles lead to laughter and—as the saying goes—laughter is the shortest distance between two people!

6. Provide pleasant surprises:
For my 40th birthday, my wife and I traveled to Las Vegas where we met up with several other couples to hang out by the pool, see a show, and play a little Blackjack.

My wife had made reservations at Caesars Palace and which, ironically, was also celebrating its 40th year anniversary.  From our first interaction with Joni at the front desk, I knew this was going to be memorable.  She immediately made the connection between the celebration of my 40 years and the hotel's anniversary celebration.

She noted this when she handed me a room key that contained a holograph containing a black and white picture of the front of Caesars Palace in 1966 and then, when rotated slightly, depicted a color picture from the same vantage point in 2006.  During our brief conversation, we joked about the theme song for my 40th birthday celebration:  Toby Keith's hit song, As Good as I Once Was.

Memorable room key in hand, Julie and I headed to our room in the recently opened Augustus Tower.  It was then that I noticed our room number: 4089.  When we reached our floor and existed the elevator, my wife took a picture of me next to the large number 40 designating our floor number.

We then proceeded to our room, opened the door, and entered to find that our flat panel television set was playing a music video.  That's right: Toby Keith's, As Good as I Once Was.  I was wowed!  And Joni wasn't through yet.  Julie and I went downstairs to do a little exploring of the sprawling facility and when we returned an hour later, there was small gift and a handwritten note from Joni wishing me a happy birthday and a pleasant stay.

So how does this pleasant surprise translate into more revenue for Caesars Palace?  For one, it's clearly documented that there is a relationship between guest satisfaction and ancillary spending in a hotel setting.  In one study, J.D. Power and Associates concluded that guests whose satisfaction was a ten on a 10-point scale spent an average of $12 more per day on supplemental goods and services (e.g., food and beverage outlets, gift shops, in-room movies, etc.) than guests who were less satisfied.

In fact, the first night of our stay I recall canceling a reservation that we had made at a well-known sushi restaurant down the street in order to dine at Caesars' own sushi restaurant, Hyakumi Japanese Restaurant & Sushi Bar.

And the payoff for Caesars Palace doesn't end there.  A week later, in a note to Gary Selesner, the President of Caesars Palace, I committed to return to Caesars Palace the next time I visited Las Vegas.  Now, think about the number of hotels in Las Vegas that are attractions unto themselves.  It would be perfectly natural to assume that customers would experiment by staying at a variety of competing properties—many of which are very uniquely themed in order to differentiate themselves from competing hotels and casinos.

Even so, my commitment to Mr. Selesner was "to return to Caesars Place the next time I visited Las Vegas."  Notice that there are no qualifiers here such as: if the location is convenient; if the price is right; or unless your competitors are offering free show tickets to book.  My intent is to return to Caesars Place.  Period.

Joni, thanks again for the pleasant surprises—and memories!

7. Deliver service heroics:
I was in New York City for a business trip a week or so before my 10-year wedding anniversary.  One afternoon, I stopped by the Tiffany & Co. flagship store on 6th Avenue to look at anniversary rings.  A thoughtful representative named Duncan showed me several rings as he explained some of the nuances of color, cut, clarity, and carat weight.

The rings looked magnificent beneath the showroom lights.  I recall that of the half dozen or so rings that I looked at, there was one that I kept going back to.  Duncan noticed it too.  And, of course, it cost 25% more than the others. 

After about 30 minutes together, I thanked him for his time and told him that I wouldn't be buying the ring today.  I mentioned that I had an appointment in two days with a representative at the Denver location of Tiffany & Co.  He congratulated me on my 10-year anniversary and wished me luck in finding the perfect ring.

Two days later I arrived at the Denver location of Tiffany & Co. and met with a representative named Cynthia.  Cynthia brought me into a private room to show me a set of anniversary rings that she had selected based on the criteria we discussed.  As she revealed each successive ring, she would say something like, "Now, this ring combines the color you are hoping for with the mounting we discussed."

After introducing several rings in this way, Cynthia produced the final ring saying, "Now, this is the ring that you were especially taken by when Duncan was showing you rings at the 6th Avenue store on Tuesday."

I was absolutely floored!  I said something like, "Huh?  What?  How did you…?"  Cynthia sensed my astonishment, smiled, and then explained that she had received a call from Duncan shortly after I'd left the 6th Avenue store and that together they had made arrangements for the ring to be shipped overnight from New York City to the Denver location of Tiffany & Co. in time for my appointment.

Duncan and Cynthia worked together to deliver service heroics that were completely beyond the realm of customer expectation.  I had no reason to expect that the ring I'd looked at in New York would be among the options made available to me in Denver.

Do service heroics influence sales?  Guess which ring I bought?

Similar to my Caesars Palace example above, I wrote to the president of Tiffany and Co. about his employees' service heroics and committed to "never purchase a significant piece of jewelry from a jeweler other than Tiffany and Co."  After customers make such a commitment, there is no coupon or incentive program out there that is strong enough to lure them—and their future spending—away.

According to research by Beyond Philosophy, a customer experience consulting firm, 44 percent of consumers described the majority of customer experiences they have as ‘bland and uneventful.'  Consider incorporating these seven simple ways to make customer service memorable into your team's service repertoire:

1. Use appropriate humor
2. Express a genuine interest
3. Offer sincere and specific compliments
4. Share unique knowledge
5. Convey authentic enthusiasm
6. Provide pleasant surprises
7. Deliver service heroics

When motivating your team to provide service to customers, challenge them to be unique, refreshing, and memorable.  Encourage them to acknowledge customers as real, live people. Suggest that they look up from their computer screens or registers, smile, make eye contact, and add "life" to their voices.  Inspire your team through your own modeling to use the customer's name if you have it and to be more personal and customer-focused rather than transactional and process-focused.

As you begin to reinforce these suggestions with your team, you will notice that customers will become more responsive to them, you will receive more compliments on their service by customers (and fewer complaints), and you will also see for yourself how the "soft skill" of customer service drives cold, hard cash!

Steve Curtin is a customer service, training, and public speaking enthusiast based in Denver, CO.  www.stevecurtin.com

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