A Publication of WTVP

In this era of “we always have to be celebrating something,” it seems everyone and everything are guaranteed their 15 minutes in the sun. And what used to be one-day celebrations have turned into week- and month-long events. From National Peanut Month to National Chainsaw Week, even the most seemingly trivial things are begging for attention.

But when I came across some literature promoting Customer Service Week (October 7 to 11), I could hardly believe it. First of all, do we really need a special week to remind us of the importance of customer service? Besides, how does something as important as customer service only get a one-week celebration? If you ask me, it should be called something like “Customer Service Eon” or “Customer Service Millennium.”

In the world of business, customer service is king. Or to be more precise, great customer service is king. With it, we have a chance to succeed. Without it, we’re destined to fail. And it goes far beyond making sure our employees always have a smile on their faces and a pleasant tone of voice when dealing with customers. It’s a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week, 365-day-a-year commitment to making every customer experience a positive one.

Great service abounds at Nordstrom. This upscale retailer is recognized as America’s top customer-service company. And for good reason. The company is organized as an inverted pyramid, where the top position is held by customers. Right under them are salespeople, followed by department managers, store buyers, regional managers and so on. The leaders of the company—Nordstrom’s president, vice presidents, and board of directors—are at the bottom of the pyramid. In other words, the people who deal directly with the customers are empowered to make the best customer-service decisions, and it’s the role of everyone else in the organization to support the sales staff.

There are countless real-life stories about Nordstrom salespeople going beyond the call of duty. One involves a men’s apparel sales associate who received a call from a regular customer saying he mistakenly washed the shirts he just bought in hot water. The shirts shrank, and the customer knew he was at fault. He was just calling the sales associate to ask his professional advice. Without hesitation, the sales associate told the customer he would replace those shirts—valued at hundreds of dollars—at no charge. All he asked was the customer mail back the ruined shirts—at Nordstrom’s expense, of course.

Obviously, not every business can afford to live up to this type of economic commitment to its customers. But we can all capture the Nordstrom spirit. That means being customer-driven instead of operations-driven. And it all starts on the front lines—with our employees who deal directly with customers. They must be empowered to solve problems, improve systems, and enhance every customer’s experience. The bottom line is instant action. No employee should ever have to give an excuse like “I don’t have the authority to do that” or “It’s not my responsibility.”

Ritz-Carlton, also known for outstanding customer service, goes beyond training its staff to serve. It empowers them to take care of problems whenever and wherever they arise. To that end, each employee is authorized to spend up to $150 to immediately take care of a problem or help a guest in need. This type of approach not only empowers employees to solve current problems, it also helps encourage them to be on the lookout for problems or situations that could develop into much larger headaches, if not dealt with immediately.

But empowerment alone does not a good customer service organization make. Without the right people and, equally important, the right training, all bets are off. Employees must be trained in the basics of knowing their product or service, their company, their customers, and how to communicate all this effectively to the general public. They must also be trained in—believe it or not—how to listen. Whether it’s a question, a complaint, or a digression about a customer’s dog, people know when we’re not listening. And that’s the quickest way to end any business relationship.

Developing a great customer service infrastructure is a major commitment—in time, money, people, and patience. But once in place—and with ongoing attention—it becomes a dynamic force. Today’s business-savvy customers know and appreciate when an organization is completely dedicated to not just meeting their needs, but anticipating them. And that’s what will keep them coming back, over and over again.

So when does your Customer Service Week begin? IBI