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Leapfrog Strategy Consulting on Brand Image – Classifying Service Excellence ‚ Is it just one thing or many things?

I spent all day yesterday in the company of three other fellow judges as a jury member for the TRRAIN awards for service excellence.  TRRAIN (www.trrain.org) is a non-profit set up a few years ago and one of its missions is to recognize and reward customer facing sales and service staff in the retail sector for the extra-ordinary customer service provided by them.

The method is simple, TRRAIN sources stories of outstanding service from customer-facing staff from modern and modernizing retail companies.  These are scrutinized and verified by an audit firm.  After several rounds of elimination, the top 14-16 in a region are provided to a jury in the region to meet the candidates in person/via telecall, listen to their story in their own words and then bring the list down to a shortlist of 4.  The final set of the national 16, are vetted by a grand jury to select the winners.

The stories are truly heart-warming and it is incredibly inspiring to meet the simple folks who go to extra-ordinary lengths for their company’s customer.  They do so out of a genuine and high level of kindness and honesty, coupled with ingenuity and a rare level of commitment to creating customer delight – the words and jargon that we marketing folks bandy about so easily.  For all of them, what they did was less due to training and incentives provided, more due to the great satisfaction that they derive as people when they help another person who is in need.   All management and motivation theory says that the human potential to be extra-ordinary is less activated by “Pavlovian” incentives (which may be necessary but are not sufficient) and more by values and emotions.  These front-line staff we met (sales and customer service staff in retail stores) re-confirmed the theory once again.

As many of the stories had their own unique flavor and it became harder and harder to grade them into performance levels, it got me and other jury members thinking about and classifying the stories themselves in terms of what sorts of service excellence they represented.

Is there only one kind of service excellence or are there millions of unique stories which cannot be categorized?  And do they all have equivalent impact on a customer – what does a customer value more or less?  Equally, are they all parity as role models or inspiration for millions of front-line sales / service / delivery staff to emulate?  These were some of the questions that we debated and discussed as we tried to pick the most meritorious entries.

I found that the entries comprised three types of service excellence – customer crisis resolution/service heroics; turnaround of delivery failure whosoever be at fault, and lastly, doing their given job at an extra-ordinary level of performance.  There were also a few stories of pure Good Samaritan actions, for a person who needed help, irrespective of whether he was a customer or not.

The first category of service excellence was all about solving the customer’s  crisis with extra-ordinary levels of empathy, resourcefulness and sheer commitment to go the extra mile – hence service heroics.  Many of these were in the area of “delivering” – reaching the product to the customer before a critical deadline.  This involved recognizing its importance to the customer and moving heaven and earth to make it happen – be it walking for 45 minutes in the rain, picking up oneself after a road accident or travelling to 2 places by bus and train.  Others were in the “lost & found” genre, where the customer was forgetful of important documents, tickets, mobile phones et al – these were found, tracked and restored to the customer in time and in good condition.

The second category, which involved turning around delivery failure was outstanding because the staff did not distance himself from the irate customer saying ‘not our problem’ or ‘system failure’.  The staff member understood the impact of the delivery failure on the customer concerned, given who he/she is (elderly, handicapped or whatever).  He/she worked to ensure that the mistake was not only corrected but that the loop was closed for the customer so that he/she was fully reassured that everything had been set right.

The third category was all about performing one’s job at an extra-ordinary level.  This ranged from using a great deal of ingenuity to address the customer’s buying barriers (high delivery costs / packaging and carrying it all, need for alteration in a limited time) to using a high level of sensitivity and tact in handling customer misbehaviors.

And then there were the instances of sheer ‘good samaritan’ behaviors – accompanying an “ill” walk-in customer home and ensuring medical help, helping a store “walk-in” to get his vehicle repaired etc – nothing to do with sales and customers.

The interviews with the staff revealed that their acts of service excellence had indeed created a bond between the customer and the staff member/his company.  Most spoke of how the customers came back to the store many times, that they always asked about them if they were not around or available and even referred their friends and family members to the store.  These staff wouldn’t know about customer lifetime value or the economics of referrals and repeat customers to their company.  They just came from a place of intuitive and genuine empathy and concern for people, which they expressed on the job.

My conclusion – “service excellence insaniyat aur imaandaari se banti hai, sirf paison se nahin”.  People come into the organization with these qualities inbuilt into them.  What organizations can do is to hire for it, develop higher levels of skills and capability to support the motivations and finally, create and sustain a work culture that fosters, nourishes and enables the spirit of customer service excellence to flourish.