Give the Holiday Gift of a Remarkable Customer Experience

Published Wednesday, December 21, 2011 7:00 am
by Christine M. Riordan

This holiday season, have you walked away from a customer experience and said, “Wow, that was amazing”? The holiday rush can be hectic and frustrating. Even during the busiest times of the year for retailers, however, exceptional customer service is the best way to win and retain the hearts of customers.

Many organizations tout exceptional customer service as part of their competitive advantage, but few actually succeed in making it so.  Nordstrom, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Whole Foods, and Ritz-Carlton routinely top the charts in surveys of customer satisfaction, attention to customer care, and loyalty.

What makes the difference? At the most foundational level, successful companies begin with employees who truly care and are thoughtful, compassionate, attentive, and interested in their customers—all their customers. Sure, they have good products and services, but the employees make customers want to return because they know the customers are a top priority.

All companies and their employees should understand four principles of caring:

1. Make authentic caring a priority.  In organizations that develop a culture oriented toward people and service, employees show empathy that has two components: the ability to infer what another is thinking or feeling, and the ability to generate emotional responses in sync with the welfare of that other person.

The University of Colorado Cancer Center, rated a top hospital by U.S. News and World Report, makes caring a priority. Its doctors give out their e-mail addresses and cell phone numbers so patients can contact them at any time; its employees listen to patients’ concerns, and apologize if they run late for an appointment, knowing that patients’ time is precious. The Cancer Center sends surveys after every visit to ask patients about their experience, and patients who respond receive a personalized e-mail follow-up from a supervisor. Observing the employees’ interactions with patients, you see clearly that patients matter to them—a welcome gift for people going through difficult times.

2. Ensure that every interaction is relational. Whether the relationship lasts 30 minutes, a day, or many years, employees who succeed in providing a remarkable experience make every single interaction matter. In each customer contact, employees practice behaviors associated with building positive relationships.

Remarkable customer experiences make consumers feel like the most important person around, even if it is their first time dealing with the company. Consumers want to encounter interested, knowledgeable, and skilled employees who treat them with respect.

Additionally, research shows that employees who move beyond surface interaction behaviors, such as smiling or saying hello, to deeper, more meaningful behaviors score much higher in quality of the service. Examples: being uncommonly attentive, connecting to the customer, and sharing key information in conversation.

3. Be willing to work on customer problems. Customers want organizations to show concern for their well-being and for the problems they present. Recently an executive with a major insurance firm shared a story about his experience with Enterprise Rent-A-Car, top in the 2010 JD Powers customer satisfaction study among rental car companies. He and his colleagues, racing from a meeting, lacked time to fill the car with gas and were likely to miss the last plane home. They pulled into Enterprise, piled out of the car, and poured out their sob story to an Enterprise employee who listened intently. After they finished, he said, “So far you haven’t described anything we can’t solve.” He took them to a van, drove them straight to their airline gate, processed the rental paperwork, and sent them the information by e-mail. They made their flight home after having an outstanding customer experience.

An employee who listens to customers and their problems, focuses on the issue presented, shows a willingness to work to find solutions, and cares enough to help resolve their concerns can create a lasting bond with a customer. Empathy and sincere apologies can go a long way toward effective service recovery and ultimately retaining the customer. Sometimes no one can solve a problem to the customer’s satisfaction, but employees who care will work toward service recovery in some way that makes sense for both the organization and the customer.

4. When it doesn’t come naturally, train yourself to care. Research has shown that employees who score highly on emotional and social intelligence tests are more likely to display customer-oriented and empathetic behaviors.

Being nice, authentic, and empathetic is hard to maintain, however, and for some employees it doesn’t come naturally. They may need extra training. Some interesting research shows that training employees to be empathetic with customers has surprising positive effects. For example, when an airline trained flight attendants to see unruly passengers as frightened children, the attendants responded with greater empathy. Similarly, hospitals have trained physicians to read their patients’ emotions. The physicians then learn how to respond with their own appropriate emotions, body language, facial expressions, and words, without losing professional stability. Research also tells us that focusing on the details of a situation rather than only the big picture enhances empathetic responses, by getting an employee to think through the nuances. Companies can help employees develop their own emotional and social intelligence.

The remarkable customer experience happens when the entire corporate culture, from the CEO to the front-line employees, values it.

It may take longer than one holiday season to build a culture of remarkable customer experience,but if you want to create one this holiday season, start by truly caring, and think about what it means to be thoughtful, considerate, and attentive to a customer. In the end, this will pay long-term dividends with customers. And it’s a gift during the holiday rush that customers will enjoy and remember.