At my company, we strive to provide a superior customer experience. In other words, we try to close deals every day in the commodity space without compromising on price. We work to build strong loyalty and customer happiness metrics, as well as good margins. Somehow, we have built a tidy competitive advantage “moat,” as Warren Buffett would say. How did we build this type of customer service organization?
Here’s how we didn’t do it: genius or foresight. It’s been quite the opposite. I have figurative skull fractures from over a decade of running into brick walls. What has worked? Curiosity tempered with humility. And, when arrogance creeps in, another skull fracture with a healthy dose of humility appears. I’m going to make my pain your gain by telling you the three things you need to do the same.
First, you need context. At my company, we’ve always told the market we were superior in the customer experience realm. And (this is important), we’ve always believed it. It hasn’t always been true. Our success has come as a direct result of closing the gap between our talk and our walk.
1. Accept the truth: What you most need is where you least want to look.
Make no mistake, this is the hardest step. And it’s 100% mental. It applies to you as an individual, and it applies to any team. You aren’t what you could be. Your team and your company aren’t what they could be. In the early days, we built an identity on world-class customer service. But, it was unsupported by data. It was a vision masquerading as reality.
As a leader, you need a certain level of confidence and swagger to convince people to follow in the first place. Don’t be on the side of who you are; be on the side of who you could be. Insist on surrounding yourself with people who feel the same. If you can compartmentalize your swagger with the reality that every day you fall short of your brand promise, you can proceed to the next step. Once you’ve gotten there, you aren’t done. Ego will betray you. I struggle every day to remember this truth.
2. Turn on the mics: Create systems for listening.
Whatever you’re differentiating on, you can bet credible people have insightful thoughts about how well you’re doing. You can also bet that people are talking and you aren’t listening. There are myriad ways to properly create feedback loops in your organization (and in your life). I don’t endorse any particular methodology. At my company, we started with a simple net promoter score survey. We added complexity over time, and now we have a sophisticated customer experience system. Our early NPS surveys weren’t a source of pride; they were a long, hard look in the mirror. They were also a gold mine.
Jeff Bezos famously said in his 2016 shareholder letter, “Customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied.” In my experience, most customers will never tell you they are frustrated or disappointed. The same goes for your employees, suppliers, shareholders, etc. So, start small. I believe you must listen poorly before listening well. I’ve seen that companies can often get hung up because they overcomplicate version 1.0 of how they receive feedback. You might feel there’s shame in being told what you don’t want to hear. But receiving criticism is like a muscle, and like any muscle, it grows with exercise. Go to back to step 1.
3. Pick the right benchmarks.
Let’s get the boring stuff out of the way: Your feedback system should be measurable, and your team should be accountable for raising the metrics. Start small, and make it automatic. Whatever methodology you adopt should have this part built in. The more important component is the “what,” not the “how.” At my company, for example, we have two benchmarks for customer service: Ameriflex and Apple.
Our primary benchmark is us. Ameriflex is our short-term, week-by-week, quarter-by-quarter benchmark. Are we a better company than we were yesterday? Does the data support this? You and your team need to see and feel incremental progress. When you take a step back (and you will), you and your team need to know immediately. This generalizes beyond your brand promise.
Why is Apple the other benchmark? In full candor, it’s not really Apple per se. Any “halo” brand that you aspire to can suffice.
There’s a practical reason for benchmarking here: Users now expect the best consumer-grade experience across the board. If a customer uses your phone app, you are sitting next to Instagram, Twitter, etc. The comparison doesn’t always flatter. Your customers’ reference point isn’t always your competitors or your industry; it could be the Silicon Valley unicorn with a $500 million research and development budget.
Our brand promise has narrowed since we began. It’s now very niche-specific and quiet, as in, “We keep your world quiet.” It came from years of listening, processing, measuring and refining. “Quiet” means seven specific things in our domain: relationship, responsiveness, positive emotional experience, regulatory protection, financial risk mitigation, credit protection and data security. Each domain has its own metrics. As those metrics reached tipping points, we saw the gap narrow between our potential and reality. We’re walking our talk. Our bottom line shows it. Your answers are different, but the questions are the same.
If you want to build a world-class customer service organization, realize you have nothing to fear from truth. Then, and only then, can you create systems to listen, measure and improve.