Feature Article - April 2002
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The Art of Customer Service

What goes around comes around when you give customer relations more than lip service

By Elisa Kronish

Think about the last time you had a get-together in your home. You vacuumed, mopped and even dusted the top shelves; you stored the kids' toys (and yours) where they belong, double-checked for toilet paper and gussied up a little more than usual. When guests arrived, you were the gracious host, taking coats, offering drinks, serving appetizers—and they, in turn, were the grateful guests, enjoying the attention, pleased by your warm welcome and resolving to reciprocate soon.

Treating your customers like your best friends
is a golden rule of customer service.

Now, think about the most recent customers who visited your facility. How were they treated? Did you offer them similar heights of hospitality? If you have to stop and think about it, you probably didn't. Everyone talks a good game when it comes to customer service, but it takes more than words to win at it. Learn how to go beyond good customer service and achieve great customer service. Then you'll have something to talk about—and so will your customers.

And the bottom line is that excelling at customer service can expand your bottom line.

"We know that if we provide excellent service to our members and show that we value their business by our actions, they will eventually refer their friends and family, renew their memberships and purchase additional products and services," says Bob Stewart, assistant vice president of customer relations at Bally Total Fitness.

Best friends forever

In "How to Provide First-Rate Customer Service," an article from the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), editor Barbara Darraugh refers to the success of Alamo Rent A Car, Inc. To gain competitive ground and grow the company, Alamo instituted its "Best Friends" program in 1989. Its principle, "Make your customers your best friends; treat them that way and they will always be your customers." It took some attitude adjustment, but pretty soon, the number of business transactions had increased, the quantity of repeat customers had skyrocketed, and complaints had decreased dramatically.

As another example, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company has always been rated superior in customer service. From the top down, through every aspect of the business, The Ritz-Carlton employees are taught to uphold the "Gold Standards" that encompass the hotel chain's values and philosophy.

"Instead of just selling beds, The Ritz-Carlton is in the service business," says Shelley Marlow, account manager at The Ritz-Carlton Learning Institute based in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. The international hotel chain continues to win guests with its service approach, not to mention major awards. It was the first and only hotel company to win the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, which recognizes achievement in the practice of total quality management principles, and is the only service company to win the award twice.

"Oftentimes, companies will ask what the secret is—and, frankly, there is no secret," Marlow says of The Ritz-Carlton's success. "Put a simple process in place, be true to it, place a significant importance on strategy and standards, and never sacrifice these for shortcuts," she explains. The Ritz-Carlton advocates three service basics that inspire employees' day-to-day interactions with guests: (1) a warm and sincere greeting, using the guest's name if and when possible; (2) anticipation and compliance with guest needs; and (3) a fond farewell, using the guest's name if and when possible. For example, Marlow says, "If it looks like [a guest] has had a bad day up until now, ask them, 'Is there anything I can do at this time to assist you? Can I get you a cup of tea or coffee?' Demonstrate that you care about their well-being." Not unlike you would for a guest in your home, she says.

Incorporating such fundamental principles seems a no-brainer, but many companies don't have any plan—and if they do, it's not always followed. The Center for Customer-Driven Quality at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., studies consumer behavior by surveying thousands of companies about their people, processes and facilities. Executive Director Mike Trotter says the surveys reveal that some basics are frequently overlooked.

"You've got to see your business through the eyes of your customer," he says. "Understand you can't change a customer's emotions, understand there are right and wrong customers and start to weed out the wrong, understand it's a journey and a constant challenge, and know what the customers' expectations are."