Taking Care of Service Air

There is no season that announces its arrival as loudly as the winter holiday.  Drive down the neighborhood streets at night and you witness an array of colorful decorations.  It reminds me of my first Christmas as a married adult.  We bought a tree early so we could get the best shape.  I built a wooden tree stand.  We spend hours meticulously decorated it—with icicles, ornaments, lights (“no two colors the same near each other”).  It was absolutely beautiful.

But over the days that followed the dark green tree became an ugly brown.  More and more of the tree needles fell off.  By the time Christmas finally arrived…when you want it to look its very best…the tree was practically bare except for our decorations.  When I built the tree base, I didn’t add a container the tree sat in that would hold water added every few days—that’s is a basic requirement for making a Christmas tree go the distance during the holidays.

Customer service is a lot like that Christmas tree.  If we spend our investment decorating the customer’s experience but we forget the basics, we risk losing the customer.  I call these basics, “service air.”  I’ll bet you’ve not thought much about the air you’re breathing right now.  We all take air for granted—that is, until it is removed or threatened.  Then, we can think of nothing else.

If the flight I am on has really great flight attendants, wonderful food, and a very comfortable seat, but the plane lands in the wrong city, I am not a happy camper.  All the extras that made the experience wonderful are suddenly erased from my mind and all I can recall (and tell my friends) is not the glitz of the extras, but the failure of the airline at the basics.

“So what?” you may say.  We are doing an okay or even pretty good job with our service.  Recent Convergys research has shown that nearly half of customers have had a recent bad experience with a company.  Almost half of customers believe that companies do not understand what their customers’ experience.  And, the worst part is that over 40 percent of those surveyed said company’s do not listen to and act on customer feedback.  We all know that customers today are much more vocal than they have ever been about service.

The impact is this--with lowering switching costs, more choices, and customers who are far more conscious of getting worth for their hard earned money’s in recessionary times, they simply walk.  Research shows that nine out of ten customers put service and “how they are treated” ahead of product, price, or brand.  The old sales adage of “I can give it to you fast, good or cheap, pick two” is completely untrue today.  Today’s customers want all three, and they want it their way.  But personalization, as exciting as it might be, only has value to customers after you have taken care of the basics.  And, when customers fail to get what they want, they leave--many without ever saying a word about their experience—these silent defectors simply vote with their feet.

Taking care of the basics means knowing what matters most to your customers—the channels, features and benefits that are important to a particular customer segment.  Would your under 25 customers want an automated channel?  Would customers in the NE prefer a VRU to a live agent?  At what point in the process would a live agent become a basic, not an extra?  Basic to your customers is probably giving them knowledgeable employees not just ones with a winning personality.  Basic is probably being able to address their needs in the first contact and not getting passed from Pammy to Paul to pillar to post.

The subtle part about taking care of the basics is the ease with which customers can generalize their experience to your entire offering.  If you pull into a restaurant parking lot and there is trash all over the parking lot, you don’t say to your family, “Gosh, look at that trashy parking lot, let’s go eat!”  You think about the restaurant kitchen.  When I lower a serving tray on an airline and it has coffee stains, I think about engine maintenance.  That might not be a rational connection.  But, it is a fact that customers perceive their experience in their own unique, idiosyncratic, end-of-the-day, and totally human terms.  What they perceive in the basics are signals that fairly or unfairly get generalized to their whole experience.  Failure at the basics can erode their trust in your brand.

Decorating the customer’s experience, just like a Christmas tree, helps make it special and differentiated from other trees competing for the attention of passerby’s.  But, without water in the base—without taking care of the basics—it will not remain a valued source of satisfaction.

© Chip Bell Group, 2023.  Courtesy of John R. Patterson (www.johnrpatterson.com).  Permission is given to download and distribute this article as long as it contains this copyright notice.