This lesson is about my quest for finding the grand customer service philosophy that fits all businesses; what is the best approach to customer service?
An older professor at my university, who is from the UK, was briefly talking to us about the importance of good customer service as it came up while talking about something else. She told us a story about the experience she had visiting an Audi dealership sometime back. Here’s how it went. (By the way, some of the details in the story were not mentioned by her but I added them in to accurately describe the mental images I had formed by listening to the story.)
She and her husband visit their local Audi dealership to buy a car. They have always had Volkswagens and are looking to upgrade.
It’s a sunny weekend morning probably around 9 am. They walk in through the door, and before walking much further, pause to have a look around.
The inside of the dealership looks quite posh. The light from the many small white lights tucked inside the ceiling reflect off of the swooping metal panels of the cars and the tall glass panes that face the street like dozens of tiny diamonds sparkling in unison. The air is clean, comfortably cool, and slightly scented with a scent that makes you think it came from a blue colored flower. The floor is light grey and spotless. Well groomed salesmen in neat and fresh suits, with their perfect posture and purposeful body language, are quite busy showing the cars to rich middle-aged couples.
Now, my professor is not wealthy by any means, but she and her husband are quite well to do. A brand new Audi is well within their means. So they wait, standing close to some of the cars there, waiting for one of the young fit salesmen to notice them and come assist. Quite a lot of time passes, but nobody seems to notice them. They’re all busy assisting the other customers there.
Now, I should mention, my professor is not the type of woman to take sh*t from anyone.
So she tells herself, “Why should I give my money to a business place that doesn’t want to bother to pay me attention?”.
So they storm out, go to the Volkswagen dealership right across the road where they get themselves a good deal for the latest version of the model they currently have.
This story was told to us by my professor to highlight the importance of good customer service. If you don’t treat your customers well, they wouldn’t want to buy from you.
Now, the best way I can explain the perception I had about customer service at that time, like I mentioned at the beginning, is that there is a grand theory/philosophy of customer service that fits all businesses, and every business should strive to reach that point of perfection. If the perfect customer service approach was a perfect circle, then the customer services of every business that existed was a less than perfect circle that tries to follow along the lines of the perfect one, but steps in and out of track here and there every now and then. I remember my idea of perfect service was primarily based on not offending any customer of a business.
In my head, the perfect (as far as customer service is considered) employees would talk in a perfectly diplomatic, polite and politically correct way. They would leave all of their personal prejudice out of work. They would not offend anyone.
I remember sitting in that class and thinking about how that dealership lost a sale that day simply because they didn’t pay attention to a customer who was willing spend money there. They could have sold one extra car that day. How stupid, and at the same time, arrogant of them to not treat every customer that walks in as equally important… how naïve. They probably ignored the couple because they couldn’t be bothered to assist them buy a not-so-expensive model, which they assumed they would buy, based on their appearance.
In business, you can’t afford to make mistakes like that, I thought. If you lose even a single sale a day, they can add up to make a huge difference in the profit at the end of the year. It seemed like an inefficiency in businesses that they haven’t yet learned how to take care of fully. Their weakness of narrow-minded prejudice has costed them valuable sales, I thought.
I had heard about how in product manufacturing they go the extra mile to squeeze out the tiniest bit of advantage. What would those efforts mean if you’re casually discarding potential sales? Isn’t the sales floor the final stage of a business where all those previous efforts come into fruition by bringing in money from the customers? You simply cannot make stupid mistakes like that.
So I made a note to myself; in the future when I start a business, I will make sure to treat every customer that walks in as equally important… no judgments… hat should make sure I don’t waste any sales coming my way; a lean customer service. Customers would absolutely love it, I thought. People would love spending time in my stores. It would be one of my competitive advantages over other businesses.
I started picturing what it would look like. For some reason, I saw myself as a polite old Japanese man that looks like a mix between Jackie Chan and Mr. Miyagi from the Karate Kid. I would bow down to them as they enter my store, with a smile like Miyagi’s, but the enthusiasm of Chan. Rich-poor, young-old, white-black, male-female, whoever they may be, I would treat them all the same. I would completely ignore all of my prejudice and preconceived notions… throw them out of the window. That’s what perfect customer service would look like, I thought. I would never talk down to them. No question is too dumb; every one gets answered just as politely as the other.
I should also mention that I felt like if I were to deviate even a little bit from the perfect circle, I would have failed completely. In my head, there were the business people who haven’t yet figured out customer service on one side of the fence, and on the other side me… because unlike them, I was not ignorant. So I was pretty judgmental on myself.
But I was wrong… way wrong. It’s not that I realized later on that perfect customer service is about being impolite and discriminative to customers, obviously no. And also not because of realizing that being perfectly courteous so as not to hurt a single person’s feelings is virtually impossible (which it is). What I mean by wrong is that, this was the completely wrong approach to customer service.
This whole thing about there only being one right way to do in every thing related to business, which I felt I needed to figure out, made me feel like I’m walking on eggshells. In my head, I had made a division between the right set of things to do (which would lead to success) and the wrong things (which would lead to absolute failure). There was no in-between. No room for error. One mistake and you would completely disappoint you
If you have ever been in a similar headspace, you would know that this is a very agonizing exercise.
It’s like watching yourself from above as you walk on a tight rope tied above a pit of bubbling lava. But instead of a regular rope, it’s a strong, shiny, and VERY thin steel wire. As you step on it, it cuts into the bare soles of your feet almost like the sharp edge of a razor blade. And the fumes from the larva beneath you burn your skin to the point where it becomes sticky. And as you tread, you are constantly anticipating the eminent fall to your painful death by completely submerging your whole body in angry molten Earth.
You get the idea.
What led me to second-guess my quest to find the one correct way to do business, which I assumed all the successful people in the world knew, was a slight revelation.
When I was fantasizing about the perfect customer service my future business would have, that other businesses could only dream of, I compared it to the services of existing businesses that I knew about. Where I live, there is a clothing store that is famous for its excellent customer service. But, get this, they ignore their customers!
Now, I should clarify, by ignore I mean the employees do not approach you unless you ask them for their assistance. Otherwise they mind their own business, like you are not even there.
Here’s the thing. The reason people (including me) like this sort of service is because in most of the other local clothing stores, an employee would follow you around like your personal butler, waiting for you to show the slightest interest in an item of clothing so they can take it from the shelf and show it to you. People hate this.
It makes them feel like they’re being pressured to make a purchase soon, whereas they would rather browse through the collection first before making up their mind. Also, it makes you feel guilty (because you wasted so much employee time) if you want to exit the store without buying anything. Also, in my culture, people take their social status quite seriously so they wouldn’t want the employee to think they didn’t purchase anything because they couldn’t afford it. I’m sure this is somewhat true for people of all cultures.
Now, if you haven’t noticed already, the perfect customer service I theorized after listening to the Audi story is the complete opposite of what the good clothing store offers!
I had hit a roadblock. My theory was flawed.
Maybe waiting on customers’ hand and foot is not the best way to treat them. Sometimes doing so could be seen as annoying? Yes, that sounded right to me. Sometimes ignoring customers and letting them wander around freely for as much as they like without facing any judgment from the store could be seen as a benefit? Yes, that sounded right to me too… but so did assisting them like they were royalty. Which one is correct? Maybe a mix of both? Wait until they ask for assistance? Maybe it depends on the type of store and products. Assist for cars, ignore for clothes? Sounded correct enough, but how do I figure it out for other types of businesses? I wanted a business philosophy that I could slap on to any business. And I was sure it was it was out there… in the minds of the top businessmen in the world… the secret code to conduct successful business.
Well, I did eventually find it. Spoiler alert, it was not some secret wisdom hidden out there, but one that had been right in front of me the entire time. As I mentioned before, the fault had been in my approach to finding the truth.
We will discuss in detail the approach that helped me figure out what good customer service actually looks like, in the second part of this series, which starts with the next lesson. And in the final part of the series, you will find out how you can give it to your customers.
My professor was not entirely wrong. But the implication she made misled me. Good customer service is real, but not in the shape or form I imagined, which always going the extra mile to pamper them.
I had in my mind the idea that all kinds of discriminations and prejudices were weaknesses of businesses that didn’t know it better. All the “elite/advanced” companies had already figured out that the “correct” way to do business (which gives the most profits) is to get rid of them completely