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Last updateThu, 20 Sep 2018 3pm

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Ten Commandments of Exceptional Customer Service

Customer Service help phoneIn the 1980s, American businesses were often being outstripped by competitors from other highly competitive nations. Improved customer service was recognized as one of the prescriptions back to health. An organization that came to the fore around that time was the International Customer Service Association (ICSA). The outstanding work of ICSA continues to this day, but the hoped-for improvement in customer treatment isn’t yet what it could be.

While service excellence is no doubt the goal of every business, there is always room for improvement, and this article aims to help you reach the next step in customer service.

Here is what I consider to be the most important tenets to follow:

1. Build personal relationships. You want customers to feel so good about you that three things happen: (1) they keep coming back without having to re-sell them; (2) when you do have to resell them you have a distinct edge over the competition; and (3) when you make a mistake up they’ll cut you a lot of slack.

2. Reveal your value proposition. Tell your customers (and by extension, your employees) exactly what they can expect your service to look like and more importantly what outcomes they can expect to derive from that service. What they really want and need to know is how what you do for them will either add pleasure to their lives or remove pain from them. An example of a value proposition is:

“We partner with our customers to lower the cost of execution and ownership by providing on-time, quality-engineered solutions with committed support.”

3. Say what you need from them. Expectations never go in only one direction. Have you told your customers what they can do to help you meet your goals for them? Once you’ve built a great relationship with customers, and once you’ve promised just short of the world to them, they’ll be willing, even eager, to learn the role they can play in making it happen.

4. Serve them. Customers shouldn’t have to ask more than once for what they want. You should understand them and anticipate their needs so well that you respond even before they ask. Nor should they have to lift a finger to get quality service. You should make the call, fill out the form, “walk” them to where they need to be, smooth over their mistakes, and go the extra mile. They are not in business to make your job easier; it’s the other way around.

5. Affirm them. All customers should leave your presence feeling they are important to you and to your company. They’ll believe this, or not, depending on the tone of voice you have used in your conversation with them. Is it warm, understanding and supportive? Your words are equally important. Do you say “hello” rather than “hi”? “May I help you?” rather than “Can…?” and “My pleasure” rather than “No problem”? Your body language counts as well. Do you look at your customers with smiling eyes?

6. Provide solutions, not service. You’ve not done your job once you’ve done your job. Your employees need to know that “I did what you told me to do” is not a substitute for “The customer is thrilled by what I did.”

7. Head off betrayal. President Ronald Reagan commissioned a study on the state of customer service in America. One of the outcomes of that study was astounding! It revealed that for every 27 times a company causes its customers to be dissatisfied, only one of those was likely to return to the company as a voiced complaint. Furthermore, each of those disgruntled clients is likely to badmouth you to another 10 people who will relay that displeasure to another five. Ultimately, 90% of those mute malcontents will stop doing business with you.

What’s the significance of this finding? We don’t hear enough complaints! So how do we get them? Learn to ask your customers “one-finger” questions. Stop asking, “How are we doing?” which almost always elicits a dutiful “fine.” Instead, put the word “one” somewhere in your request for customer feedback. My personal favorite is, “What’s the one thing we could do to lose your business?” Are you willing to hear the answer?

8. Make it right quickly, happily, remorsefully, generously and thankfully. General George S. Patton once said, “I don’t measure a man by how high he can climb, but by what he does after he falls down.” In the same way, most of us are looking for service providers to always get it right the first time. That’s not possible. However, we do expect a vow to get it right the second time.

I no longer use National Rental Car because of a 20-year-old disappointment. It occurred when they failed to offer any comfort or compensation after my family spent hours one scorching vacation summer day on the side of a road and in a repair shop waiting for their van to be repaired. By contrast I didn’t mind waiting in a 20-minute line to check in at a Chicago Marriot where Notre Dame’s prom was being held that evening—not when a server presented everyone in the queue with a complimentary glass of champagne.

Where are the other two commandments?

It’s your turn. Share a customer service gem you would add to this list to help round it out to 10. I’ll pick what I believe are the two best ones submitted. Contributors of the winning ideas will earn a 25% reduction in tuition for the VMA Leadership Academy scheduled to begin in March 2015. Send your submission to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. For more information on the VMA Leadership Academy, click here.

Sam Deep served as an adjunct professor of leadership and strategy at the Carnegie Mellon University Tepper School of Business and is currently master instructor at the Sam Deep Leadership Academy.  

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