Generally, companies try to stay on their best behavior all year long. But during this holiday season—with decked halls, crowded malls, shrinking bank accounts, and frayed nerves—providing great service is even more critical than usual. Much like Santa, customers have their own "naughty or nice list," and Ron Kaufman says they won't hesitate to give you the business equivalent of a stocking full of coal (i.e., taking their business somewhere else) if you make your way into the wrong column.
"There's no better time of the year than the holiday season to uplift your customers with great service," says Kaufman, author of the New York Times bestseller Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Your Customers, Colleagues, and Everyone Else You Meet. "Unfortunately, there's also no easier time of the year to do or say exactly the wrong thing."
Often at the holidays companies find themselves overbooked and short staffed. Supplies of popular items run out of stock. Departments aren't prepared for the increased volume of customer inquiries and complaints. Employees are too distracted by holiday events or travel plans or shopping lists to give customers their full attention.
"These practices are precisely what land companies on customers' naughty lists," says Kaufman. "But usually, these are not isolated incidents. Instead, they are evidence of a bigger problem in the organization's overall service culture."
Kaufman is at the head of a growing worldwide movement to uplift service in general—for customers and for colleagues. His new book takes readers on a journey into a world of uplifting service with dynamic case studies and perspective-changing insights. Readers learn how the world's best-performing companies have changed the game in their industries through service and the action steps anyone can take to achieve an uplifting service transformation.
"Holiday happiness and great service needn't be incompatible," says Kaufman. "In fact, one of the true forces driving the holidays is our desire to take care of the people we love. And that's what's at the core of uplifting service—taking care of the needs and concerns of other people. When companies build a service culture that keeps this top of mind, they'll find themselves on the nice list every time."
How can you be sure to land on your customers' nice lists? What behaviors will banish you to their naughty lists? Read on for a few tips from Kaufman:
To Stay on the Nice List:
Make it seamless. For many of your customers, the holiday season is the busiest time of the year. They will be shopping, ordering, and asking more questions than ever across every possible channel: in person, over the phone, at their computers, on their mobile devices, at work, in their cars, and from home.
"When you provide integrated, smooth service across channels, you're making your customers' lives a lot easier," he says. "From web to email to ATM, to counter to SMS to phone calls, to social platforms and home deliveries, when all information about your customers accumulates and moves seamlessly, then your customers can get what they need from you quickly and get back to doing everything else in their lives."
Customize for your customers. Sure, your customers know they aren't your only customer, but that doesn't mean they don't want to be treated that way. Personalized service makes people feel special.
"When you offer options, choices, range, and variety and create more value through customization and personalization, your customers will feel like they're your favorite," notes Kaufman. "Implement processes that allow you to recall your customers' questions, preferences, and choices in all future interactions. Then customize your offers and suggestions for their next visit or purchase. This increases your value each time a customer comes to you, and helps you become the vendor, store, or supplier they are glad to talk about and comfortable recommending to others."
Say "Yes!" to service recovery. Companies on the nice list know that great service recovery turns "oops" into opportunities. Don't treat customer complaints like they're annoying or a waste of time, advises Kaufman. Instead, be grateful when unhappy customers give you a chance to win back their business. Why? Because for every customer who does complain, there are several others who had the same problem, but didn't give you a second chance.
"Companies that 'get' service recovery understand when a customer complains, he is really telling you what he values," points out Kaufman. "If he says you weren't fast enough, he values speed. If he says he's tired of not being able to get anyone on the phone, he values human interaction. 'Nice' companies quickly seek to identify what complaining customers value. And then they make sure that employees are empowered to make amends and offer an appropriately generous and valuable new action."
Remember that happy (engaged) employees = service with a smile. Especially during the holidays, it can feel like the businesses, stores, and restaurants we frequent have been invaded by employee drones. Many service providers seem exhausted, frazzled, and too overwhelmed to do anything more than provide the minimum service to keep customers moving along.
"Companies on the nice list know how important employees—both customer-facing and non-customer-facing—are to providing uplifting service," says Kaufman. "Your employees should be switched on and energized by their role at your company. When they're clearly aligned, vigorously supported, and joyfully connected to the brand, to colleagues, and to customers, then job satisfaction fuels customer satisfaction in a virtuous cycle."
Weave yourself into the fabric of the community. Uplifting service works because it makes everyone feel good, from employees to customers to other community members. When your company plays a socially responsible role in the community, then good feelings of service spread farther, and employees want to provide great service because it is so gratifying.
"When your company contributes and participates in the wider community, uplifting the commercial, civil, cultural, environmental, and economic eco-systems, people notice," says Kaufman. "They'll want to give you business because they know you give right back to their community. Being your customer makes them feel like they're contributing, too. Many companies do this with local sports team sponsorships, school internship opportunities, highway and park adoption schemes, and other neighborhood development programs."
To Get Stuck on the Naughty List:
Specialize in the run-around. Doing business with a company should be a choice, not a chore. But unfortunately, many companies make receiving service very difficult for their customers.
"Companies on the naughty list aren't streamlined," notes Kaufman. "Customers have to give the same information to one person after another as they're passed from department to department seeking help. Departments are so siloed that customers can feel like they aren't even talking to people who work at the same company."
Treat customers like a number. Have you ever been to a business, office, or other facility where you had to literally take a number and wait for it to show up on the electronic sign before receiving service? It doesn't feel so great, does it? That's how customers feel when you don't bother to get to know them as individuals.
"When you don't personalize service by taking the time to learn your customers' names or implementing systems that remember their needs, you make customers feel like they're just one of many," says Kaufman. "There's no bond, nothing to make them feel any loyalty to you. Make one mistake and they will immediately go somewhere else."
Exhibit a "the customer's always wrong" mentality. If turning unhappy customers into loyal customers is what lands companies on the nice list, then the quickest way to land on the naughty list is to treat complaining customers like they're ruining your day. This can mean anything from blame shifting to "punishing" an unhappy customer by making the interaction even less pleasant than it already is.
"Companies that don't have a solid service recovery program react to complaining customers by seeking to avoid blame," notes Kaufman. "Employees point the finger at their colleagues or back at the customers themselves and say, 'It's not my fault!' They're too focused on passing the buck to even take notice of the customers' real needs. And to make it even worse, these companies tend to bog down customers even more by requiring a morass of receipts and time-consuming paperwork before they receive even a mediocre level of service."
Put unhappy, clock-watching employees in front of customers. Naughty companies hire employees who are interested only in working for a wage, and it shows.
"For these companies, service with a smile is a pipe dream," says Kaufman. "More like service with a grimace! You know you're at a naughty company when a service representative won't look you in the eye, has no energy to smile, and treats you like the service they provide is a chore. You might leave having received the product or service you need, but you won't leave feeling uplifted or wanting to return."
Put the bottom line on a pedestal. Some companies on the naughty list treat customers like a number; others treat customers like a dollar sign.
"Companies that put the bottom line on a pedestal above their customers can make customers feel like they're being tricked or swindled," notes Kaufman. "They offer deals that aren't backed by great service. Or run ads touting low-cost products that don't offer real satisfaction. Customers end up feeling as mercenary as the companies they buy from. Both parties may have completed a deal, but neither was uplifted by any lasting value."
"What companies should be asking themselves now is, How can we make sure we're on our customers' nice lists?" says Kaufman. "There's no better time of the year to assess your company's service culture. What are your customers experiencing today? What will they expect from you tomorrow? Are you ahead of your competitors, or lagging behind?
"When you commit to creating an uplifting service culture where everyone is fully engaged, encouraging each other, improving the customer experience, making the company more successful, and contributing to the community at large, you'll spend every holiday season on your customers' nice lists," he adds. "And you will reap the benefits year-round."
Ron Kaufman is a popular keynote speaker and is the author of the New York Times bestseller Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Your Customers, Colleagues, and Everyone Else You Meet (Evolve Publishing, 2012, ISBN: 978-0-9847625-0-7, $24.95, www.UpliftingService.com). He is the world's premiere thought leader, educator, and motivator for uplifting customer service and building service cultures in many of the world's largest and most respected organizations, including Singapore Airlines, Nokia Siemens Networks, Citibank, Microsoft, and Xerox. He is the founder of UP! Your Service, a global service education and management consultancy firm with offices in the United States and Singapore.
Ron is a columnist at Bloomberg Businessweek and the author of 14 other books on service, business, and inspiration. Ron has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and USA Today.