When I was 12, I had a paper route. I worked for the Hartford Courant, a morning paper. I was pretty good at getting up early and delivering the papers. But getting paid for my work was another matter. In those days, the paperboy would have to go every week and get paid from the customers individually for the week of papers on Friday night. Then on Saturday morning, I’d have to go to the paper’s offices and pay the wholesale price for the newspapers I had delivered during the week.
So Friday evenings were an important time for paperboys to work. But, it was also an important time for 12 year old boys to go to the local skating rink to hang out with their friends and pretend girls were remotely interested in them. So, invariably I would go and collect just enough money to pay my newspaper bill and get into the skating rink, thinking I would make it back sometime on Saturday to get the rest. Never quite worked out that way and created some customer service issues for me.
In one instance, there was a Mrs. Gaudette who was on a strict weekly budget and insisted I come every Friday night. After a few times of missing a collection and the ensuing reprimands, then missing a few more times, I just stopped going back out of fear. I kept delivering papers for 2 years and just didn’t get paid for that house. What can I say? I was twelve and she was mean, but she was the customer and she made her expectations known.
On the other side of the coin, there was Mrs. Buckley on the next street. It was 1971, she was alone and her son had been killed in Vietnam early in the war. She would invite me in while she got her $1.10 together and then talk to me for an hour about her son. Brutal, but I was polite and I felt so sorry for her.
When we think of customer service, it seems we think of some person on the phone sitting in the midwest or India or my favorite “Peggy” in the Capital 1 commercials. Basically they exist to listen to our complaints and offer some kind of mediocre or inadequate fix to our problem (whatever it is.) So really, we think of the worst job in creation. A never ending array of complaints and demands and anger.
In reality, customer service is one of the most simple concepts in business and at the same time the most complex. Especially for Artists, who are just more interested in the creative elements of the business. There are Mrs. Gaudettes who intimidate and then are happy to get stuff for free because of it (no, I’m not bitter) and Mrs. Buckley’s who are needy and take a great deal of time.
But, customer service needn’t be the extremes and can be broken down. First of all, customer service implies or assumes that you already have a customer. Once someone is a customer, only then can you worry about customer service. Before that it’s called marketing.
Once you have a customer, the whole drill can be boiled down to one concept: REPEAT BUSINESS. For all the fancy business rhetoric, charts, facts, figures, personal development and techniques, this is the only real measurement. How much repeat business are you getting? If you have consistent repeat business, you are doing something right. If you don’t have enough, you are doing something wrong in your working process.
Customers do not forget a great experience and they do not forget a bad experience. But, they do forget an average experience or even an above average experience. So, what’s the fix? Give them a great experience, first time, every time.
What is that supposed to mean? It means giving great care to the entire process. In the book ‘Purple Cow,’ author Seth Godin puts it simply: “be remarkable.” The premiss of the book is that if you’re driving through the countryside and you see some cows grazing, you notice them and may think they’re cool. But, as you keep driving and you keep seeing different versions of brown cows, eventually they just blend into the background. However, if you see a purple cow, now that’s something you’ll remember for a long time. Because, lets face it, a purple cow is remarkable.
Customer service is a lot of things, but mostly it’s going way way beyond what is expected. Way way beyond starts with listening to the customer about their goals, but listening even harder to their concerns and expectations. Nothing can be beneath you to address, no matter how ridiculous and no lengths are too far.
In Tony Hsieh‘s book about the culture of Zappos.com “Delivering Happiness,” the CEO recounts the story of how he once goaded a client into calling the the Zappos customer service line in the middle of the night to ask “can you tell me where I can order a pizza in Santa Monica and get it delivered at 1am? Remember, Zappos is an online shoe store. They put him on hold, found the information and gave it to him. That’s customer service!!
It’s preparation, it’s execution, it’s follow up. But, it’s not THAT you do these things consistently, it’s about HOW you do these things. Do you do some of these things begrudgingly? DO you become stressed and yell at subordinates in the heat of battle? Are you onto the next project after and do minimal follow up? It’s all seen and it all counts.
A few years ago I heard a great and challenging quote by the speaker and author T.Harv Ecker. It goes: “how you do anything is how you do everything.” I think that deep in each of our minds we are programmed to reason: “once I see someone do something, that’s how they do it every time.” That simple concept has kept me from all sorts of laziness, half measures and half cocked stress related mistakes.
So how do you do things? Are you inconsistent in your marketing? Do you shy away from the business end of being professionally creative? Is repeat business alluding you? You have to ask yourself the tough questions to begin to move forward.
After all, with no customers, there’s no point in thinking about service and with no service there are no customers. It’s a tricky ‘Catch 22.’ What are you going to do about it?