Customer service isn’t a strategy.

For decades organizations and leaders have tried to determine the secret to successful customer service. We have developed strategies and implemented processes all in an effort to get closer to engaging customers and selling our products/services. But does all of that matter?

About a week ago, I was on Facebook and I stumbled upon a video that most of you have likely already have seen. If you haven’t, please take a minute or two to watch.

Exhibit A for great customer service right? Now before you go thinking that this is a great little viral ad for Starbucks (which it is), I think we need to look beneath the surface and determine where great customer service comes from.

This is Sarah Campbell. She is also a Starbucks barista. Do me a favor and watch this video and “listen” to what she is saying.

“You have to understand, the reason I started working for Starbucks is that I love communicating with people. Oh my goodness, I love it so much!” – Sarah Campbell

So where does great customer service come from? It’s roots are grounded in empathy. Truly caring for another person. Seems Starbucks is doing a pretty decent job of finding people who actually care.

You can develop customer service strategies. You can enlist best practices. You can train your people how to smile, greet, and talk to kindly to people. But if they don’t truly care, the proper strategies, best practices, to-do’s and processes make for some great icing, but in the end, the cake will crumble.

Customer service isn’t found in expediting a product delivery process. It’s not optimizing your product life-cycle. That’s par for the course. Customer service is found in caring, looking beyond your product and service and meeting your customers where they’re at.

Because, let’s be honest, you don’t define customer service. Your customers do.

Why your brand needs a heart.

For years I’ve been fascinated at how communication can effect organizations, inside and out. Consider the last time you went to an establishment where you were purchasing a product or using a service. How were you greeted? Did you feel a sense of belonging, did associates make you feel welcome and/or comfortable?

Photograph: jess-sanson/Flickr/CC
Photograph: jess-sanson/Flickr/CC

Our family went bowling recently. We had never been to this bowling alley, so I had zero expectations. We walked in and up to the counter where two gentlemen were waiting, and I said hello. The older gentleman followed with a solemn hello and proceeded to gaze at us with a “well, what will it be?” stare. Needless to say, the feelings of “welcome” or “comfort”, were not at the top of the list.

{Sidebar: Okay, so I need to give him the benefit of the doubt. I mean he’s managing a rotating used shoe stand on a Saturday afternoon…}

This experience happened on the heels of an article I read titled, “It’s Time To Get Real: Humanize Your Brand“. In the article one of the terms used was “Brand Humanization”. This is a term used to define how a brand can develop more “human” characteristics.

Um, am I missing something here? When did organizations start implementing the “Tin Man” strategy? Like the woodsman, it seems we have forgotten to give our associates a heart.

“I can barely hear my heart beating!” – Tin Man

Let me put your mind at ease. I don’t believe this challenge requires a new fandagled “brand humanization” process. It simply takes leaders, managers and individuals who are willing to get emotional. So let’s press the reset button and highlight just a few ways we can help the Tin Man find his heart.

Emotion is a competitive advantage: There was an article written by Olivia McIvor in a medical tech journal many years ago titled “The Business of Kindness – Building Leadership Character Traits”. In it Olivia describes a simple concept that could transform our businesses;

“Kindness in business is simple. Always remember before you speak or take any action, ask yourself three imperative questions; Is it truthful? Is it necessary? And above all, is it kind?” – Olivia McIvor

Business is a funny thing. We develop strategies to effectively operationalize our workflows, we implement processes to optimize our go to market goals. But so many leaders leave out the most important part of running them; that people are what bring it all to life. And what better way to impact your associates and customers, than to understand how “they” operate. The Tin Man needed oil to keep moving, we need emotion.

Photograph: © Wizard of Oz/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Photograph: © Wizard of Oz/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Associates are not made of metal: I’ve had the opportunity to work with some incredible organizations over the last 15 years. Fortune 100 and 500 companies alike. Every business that desires growth, develops continuity. The goal is to ensure that each customer has the very same experience with the business, products and/or services. But creating systems and processes can leave your associates feeling lifeless. If we replaced the “10 steps to delivering great customers service”, with the vision of “delighting the customer”, I think we’d be well on our way to having more human interactions. This approach requires trust to be sure, but with the proper guidance, enabling your associates to have their hands on the drivers of change will empower them to make decisions that come from the heart.

Relationships are human: Relationship is key to the business model. For years, conducting business has been relegated to performing “transactions”. This is where many businesses miss out on a huge opportunity. Organizations are made up of people. Customers are people. So where has the relationship gone? A transaction is the act of buying or selling. But a relationship is a “connection”. It has meaning and purpose. It is a bond that goes beyond a product or service. When we remove the emotional nature of business from our interactions, we take away one of the most important elements of business. The relationship.

“When we remove the emotional nature of business from our interactions, we take away one of the most important elements of business. The relationship.”

But this relationship goes both ways doesn’t it? As customers, we are an equal part to the equation. I firmly believe it is our responsibility to not simply request service that is full of heart, but to reciprocate it. In the face of a difficult customer experience, what is our response? Do we diffuse the situation or fan the flame? It’s a two way street.

The good news is that our bowling alley experience didn’t end at the front counter. We had planned on ordering a pizza but when I asked the kind woman behind the counter how long it would take, realized that it would not be ready in time for us to eat it. Five minutes later, the same woman came to our lane with a pizza that had not been prepared correctly for another customer and they were going to toss it. She offered it to us, and we gladly accepted.

At that moment the bowling alley became “human”. Instead of following a procedure or process, the woman acted on an human instinct and created an incredible impression on our experience, and stomachs.

Homework: I’d like to offer the challenge posed by Olivia in her article. “…in the next 48 hours, stand up for an ideal, and send forth a tiny ripple of hope. Commit an act of kindness and participate in transforming the world…” by being human.

What do you think? What are some other ways we can add heart back to into our brand experiences? Let’s continue the conversation on Twitter.

Waiting is a breeding ground for…

We have all been there; our local Department of Motor Vehicles, the grocery store checkout, traffic jams, airport security and the abyss called the airline boarding process, just to name a few. These are all infamous places well known for testing our collective patience.

We complain about our meetings taking too long, our wifi/satellite signals moving like molasses on a cold winter day, and even stop lights are becoming dreadfully slow.

Recently I read a New York Times article titled, “Why Waiting Is Torture” and reflected on why we have such a difficult time waiting for, well…anything.

Americans spend roughly 37 billion hours each year waiting in line. The dominant cost of waiting is an emotional one: stress, boredom, that nagging sensation that one’s life is slipping away. The last thing we want to do with our dwindling leisure time is squander it in stasis. We’ll never eliminate lines altogether, but a better understanding of the psychology of waiting can help make those inevitable delays that inject themselves into our daily lives a touch more bearable.

Photograph: Mark Hillary/Flickr
Photograph: Mark Hillary/Flickr

The research fascinated me. It tells the story of an airport determined to improve the wait time for disgruntled passengers who felt they were waiting too long to receive their luggage at the baggage claim. To solve the problem, the airport added more baggage handlers and waited for the complaints to disappear.

They didn’t.

So the airport decided on a new approach: instead of reducing wait times, it moved the arrival gates away from the main terminal and routed bags to the outermost carousel. Passengers now had to walk six times longer to get their bags. Complaints dropped to near zero.

Let that soak in for a moment. The “TTB” (time-to-baggage) metric wasn’t reduced, yet passengers were content. Why? It was the perceived time lost that aggravated travelers, not the actual time.

This got me thinking. Why do we see the act of waiting in such a negative light? Why do we have such a difficult time being patient? Whether we are in lines at the grocery store, or going through a challenging season in our lives, I’d like to provide some thoughts for why we should reconsider our posture when waiting.

• Waiting breeds opportunity. I was watching a football game with my son a few weeks ago, and as one of the quarterback’s hiked the ball, he proceeded to hand it off to the running back. Then something interesting happened. The running back literally stopped. “What is he doing?”, I thought. I was curious to understand why he would step on the brakes, as men twice his size began to bear down on his position. However, as he paused, the blockers in front of him produced a gap. And then he took off. If he had not waited for his teammates to do their job and allow the play to unfold, he would have run into a wall of 300+ pound defenders. But instead, he waited until the window down the field was opened, and then proceeded to grab the opportunity at the perfect moment. How many of us “run” before it’s time? There could be an incredible opportunity waiting to surface.

Photograph: Paul/Flickr
Photograph: Paul/Flickr

• Waiting breeds endurance. Endurance is defined as;

the ability to enduring an unpleasant or difficult process or situation without giving way. (source: Google)

I like this definition. With endurance, two things come with the territory; waiting and hardship. But look at that last portion, “without giving way”. If successful, endurance = strength. Waiting during a challenging circumstance can simply be the method whereby we achieve strength. Three years ago I remember waiting to adopt our two children from Ethiopia. Agonizing could be an accurate word that would describe how we felt. Waiting brought about an opportunity for endurance. And since that time, as we encounter other circumstances in our lives that require waiting, we are able to weather it with determination and the strength to not give way. Which takes us to the last point.

• Waiting breeds hope. What does hope have to do with waiting? More than you might think. How did you feel the last time you had to wait for something? Waiting often brings about what’s described as “annoying stress”. Our brains are reacting to feelings of anxiousness because we are in a situation we don’t want to be in. But what if the outcome of our waiting brought about an incredibly positive result? Would we be so stressed or aggravated? During my career, I’ve worked for different organizations that have weathered difficult financial times. These moments could have induced panic and stress among the workforce, but in one of these organizations, leadership remained calm and hopeful about the future. And eventually, that hope became contagious. Ultimately, the organization remained focused and succeeded. So, if we approach our waiting as an opportunity to bring a positive outcome, we will feel much better about enduring it.

Let’s go back to the airport example. If we feel like we are waiting, it can induce stressors and ultimately bring out the ugly in us. However, if we refocus our attention on the opportunities around us, waiting can be a breeding ground for greatness.

So consider this. Will the act of waiting test us? Absolutely. But let’s not allow it take from us the very thing that it can deliver; strength, opportunity and hope.

Homework: What if we took time to wait with purpose? The next time you are standing in line, look around. What opportunities are lying dormant, waiting to be awakened?