How would you rate your customer service skills?
If you were raised in the US or have lived here long enough, you’re probably familiar with the saying from childhood about what happens when we assume. It goes something like this: “If you assume, you make an a** out of you and me.”
I’m reminded of this every time a server at a restaurant assumes my wishes without enquiring. Now, I can’t get upset because I know their intention is usually good. However, the result of simply assuming what the customer wants (usually based on trends and popularity) is an unhappy customer.
To deliver excellent customer service, (dare I say, exceed customer expectations?) one must get curious and ask what they prefer, what they want.
I’ll share two stories with you that highlight this point.
Why Customer Satisfaction Matters
Last year I was in Chicago delivering a Fierce Conversation workshop. By the time I arrived and checked into my hotel, it was 10 p.m., and the only nearby restaurant still open was a pizza place in an old brick building with flashing neon lights. After a moment of hesitation, I thought to myself, “OK, I’m hungry. Let’s just do it.”
I told the friendly server that I wanted the veggie pizza. Of course, she asked if I wanted a salad and drink, but when I say “get curious” I don’t mean that. Those are standard questions for restaurants, right?
When the food arrived, my expectations were not met: it was a deep-dish pizza. I don’t like deep-dish pizza. I prefer thin crust. When I asked the waitress why I had thick crust when I didn’t ask for it, she replied, “Oh, I thought I’d let you try our deep-dish pizza. It’s what most people come here for and it’s really good. I think you’ll like it. If you want, I can re-order the thin crust pizza for you now.”
I declined and decided to just go with the flow because it was late, and I had to be fresh in the morning. I survived the ordeal, but I left the restaurant feeling strange because other than being disappointed about the pizza, the service was otherwise commendable, it was friendly, helpful, and genuine. I knew her intention was to please the customer and get a good tip. I left a bit displeased after obligingly tipping her 20 percent.
On another business trip around the same time, I checked into the Marriott where I had just gained Titanium Elite status. I knew that I would probably get an upgrade of some sort when checking in. While I normally would welcome the complimentary upgrade to a suite, during business travel, a suite is too large for me and I tend to misplace things and leave them behind. Seriously! On business trips, I prefer a standard room.
So, upon checking in with my newly attained status, the front desk attendant kindly asked me if I would like an upgrade to a suite, to which I replied, “No thank you. I prefer the standard room with a King size bed.” She then told me that she would make a note on my profile for future business trips.
She thanked me for sharing my preference. And then she told me that while most guests appreciate an upgrade, many guests don’t, and that staff is trained to ask guest preferences first. She then began to explain which rooms were available for me, and enquired as to my preference: Courtyard view? Facing outward? Ground floor? Did I still want a feather-free room?
In both examples, neither associate was rude or off-putting, and in fact, both were efficient and friendly. What was the difference in my satisfaction results as a customer? One of them leaned on her own context (all customers love our deep-dish pizza) and assumed mine would be the same.
By not interrogating my reality or being curious, I departed unsatisfied and somewhat miffed.
How to Improve Your Customer Service Skills
In Fierce Conversations, we drill deep by asking questions like, “What else?” And we repeat what we’ve heard to make sure we understand. Providing exceptional customer service is no different – as my example with the Marriott shows. The receptionist knew to ask questions instead of making assumptions.
Customers and people, in general, may not be very skilled or even clear at expressing what they truly want or need. They may ask a lot of questions, but the questions can be misleading unless we understand the context.
We must get curious, ask questions, ask “what else” (or “anything else”) and repeat what we’ve heard to clarify and let the other person know we’ve understood. And in the process, we effectively establish the human connection that makes an interaction authentic and builds emotional capital.
Why is this important? There’s a real cost associated with poor customer service. Research by Forbes indicates that in 2017, US businesses lost $75 billion due to poor customer service, which is up $13 billion from 2016!
Many employers believe that simply being friendly, smiling, and complying with customer requests in a timely manner equals good customer service. Not so.
That’s simply meeting guest expectations. How about exceeding expectations to really gain customer loyalty? How about “wowing” the customer?
Customer-facing employees must do more than be friendly if they are to deliver excellent customer service. We must get over the idea that enthusiasm and a smile are enough (although they are a great start).
I have found that a sincere desire to serve, to please, cannot be trained. It is a natural trait some people have. Processes and procedures can be trained, but sincere caring and desire to please cannot.
According to the ACA Group, an alliance of highly trained and experienced consultants and instructors unique to manufacturing and service organizations, customer service is “the ability of an organization to constantly and consistently give the customer what they want and need.” Excellent customer service is “the ability of an organization to constantly and consistently exceed the customer’s expectations.”
Exceptional customer service is delivered not just by providing what the customer asks for in a timely manner. Nor is it about giving into every single customer request. Providing exceptional customer service is about understanding the unexpressed wishes and desires of the customer.
4 Tips for Enhancing Your Customer Service Skills
So, how do we go about improving our ability to discover and deliver the unexpressed wishes and desires; even providing what customers didn’t know they wanted? By engaging in conversation and getting curious. By starting with the Four Objectives of a Fierce Conversation:
1. Interrogate reality
Ask the customer questions, then dig deeper with more questions. What else? Anything else? Then, repeat what you heard them say, just to be sure.
2. Provoke learning
When the customer is asked questions about their wishes, the learning happens. The person serving the customer learns more and gains a deeper understanding. This also allows the customer to understand more options and various ways their desires can be met.
3. Tackle tough challenges
When customers or clients ask for something we can’t deliver, the temptation is high to dismiss their request out of hand. When we tackle tough challenges, we have the willingness to name what’s true AND go further. Loyal customers stay that way when we offer what can be done and go the extra mile – no matter how “tough” that might be.
4. Enrich relationships
This is key, the lynchpin to keeping customers happy, loyal, and consistently promoting our business and our brand. By offering sincere interest, curiosity, genuine care, and a desire to please – all of which must be authentic and from the heart – we provide more than what a customer asked for – we strengthen the long-term relationship.
Training customer-facing employees to follow these four objectives quickly enriches relationships with clients and customers. And the benefits of such go far beyond repeat pizza orders. Loyalty, high customer satisfaction, and amazing promoter scores (NPS) are just the start.