What My Parents Taught Me About Excellent Customer Service
Truthfully, my parents should have been pushed out of business a decade ago. For nearly 20 years, they’ve operated the same store, in the same location, in the same way. When the first opened, they briefly enjoyed a monopoly over foot traffic between a convergence of three office buildings and the central train station. But while Ayisha Khan and Mustafa Khan cheerfully served their customers, the world around them was rapidly changing. Competitors began to flood the market. It started with rival convenience stores, health food stores, and food courts. Then came the specialty food stores and hybrid grocery stores. Today, they’re going up against Amazon Prime. And tomorrow, they’ll have to consider smart kiosks. When it comes to the actual products sold in my parents’ convenience store, they have no competitive advantage. There is nothing you can buy from them that you can’t buy elsewhere. But somehow, they’re still in business. And somehow, that business is continuing to grow year-over-year. My best guess is that their lasting success has a lot to do with their excellent customer service.
When it comes to customer retention, the numbers don’t lie. Consider research done by Frederick Reichheld of Bain & Company (the inventor of the net promoter score) that shows increasing customer retention rates by just 5% increases profits anywhere between 25% to 95%. A company’s odds of retaining customers are likely to go all the way up if they invest in excellent customer service. The case studies are all around you. When was the last time you heard of someone switching from using primarily Apple products to non-Apple products? Do you remember Amazon ever implying you’re at fault for a lost package? And have you ever tried to return something to Costco without a receipt? On the other hand, you’d be surprised at the number of companies I’ve worked with that don’t have clear customer service principles, let alone an understanding of the importance of customer retention (and how customer service influences it). The lesson here is simple: if you serve your customers, you’ll win; if you neglect your customers, you’ll lose.
Excellent customer service doesn’t have to be complicated. The mantra you want to follow is also simple: treat your customers like gold. Not your investors. Not your shareholders. Not your agency. Not your boss. Focus on your customers. They are the only thing that matters. To paraphrase Zig Ziglar — help customers get what they want, and you’ll have everything in life you want. These are eight principles I’ve learned while watching my parents outlast (and thrive within) an evolving business landscape:
- Manifest Abundance: Make your customers feel like you’ve got everything they need. And if you don’t have it in stock, proactively manage their expectations about when they can get it. This principle also applies to your capacity — make your customers feel like you have all the time and energy in the world for them.
- Keep Your Promises: Be consistent with your activities, so that your customers can expect when to engage with you (and how). Open for business at the same time every day. Answer your calls/emails/texts within a fixed amount of time. If you say that something’s going to be in-stock on Wednesday, make sure it’s in-stock on Wednesday. It’s all about consistency.
- Personalize The Experience: My parents know the names of every one of their loyal customers, along with tidbits (or chunks) of their lives. When they ask, “How are you doing today?” they mean it. If you share a story with them, they’ll remember it. And the next time you’re in the store, they’ll ask you about it. They’ve got ongoing conversations with customers that span years!
- Radiate Happiness: No matter how rough things might be in the personal lives of my parents, the customers never feel it. My parents maintain a consistently positive, radiant energy. They are always happy to see their customers and greet them with beaming, genuine smiles.
- Hook Them Up: My parents were extremely accommodating and flexible, sometimes to a fault. Whether it was implementing a tab for a cashless customer, or re-opening the til for someone that showed up a minute after closing, my parents quickly developed a reputation for never letting you walk out of their store without the thing you came to get.
- Genuinely Care: You can’t fake it. My parents’ little store is a significant part of their lives: it’s a mechanism that has enabled their financial well-being, freedom, and the livelihood of my sister and me. My parents’ tireless work ethic is the byproduct of the reverence they afforded the store. To care for customers is to care for their family’s well-being.
- Obsess Over The Little Things: My parents would stock a drink that only one customer drank. They’d change the placement of a type of specific candy so that one of their most loyal customers could grab all of their products in one motion. They’d be meticulous about where the price tags went so that they didn’t obscure important information. All of the products were face-up and neatly aligned. The customer experience of this store is seamless.
- Give Them Your Best: My mom and dad are always dressed well and smell fantastic. They look like they want to be there. The store is well-lit, and there’s not a speck of dust anywhere. The customer experience of the store is one that immediately signifies the level of respect the owners have for its customers.
These are simple, timeless principles. But are they enough? Of course not. You’ve also got to run a profitable business. My parents had to adapt to competitive pricing, declines in demand for tobacco, regulation of lottery and stamp pricing, and other market ebbs and flows. At best, they make a few dollars of profit on items. At worst, they make a few cents. But what they’ve got going for them is what Chris Anderson has coined The Long Tail: a loyal contingent of customers who spend consistently. Customers who love them, who will walk an extra few steps to go to my parents’ store versus the impersonal hybrid grocery store with better prices and more selection but with a summer co-op student at the cash register who hates being there. That’s the magic of treating your customers like gold. That’s the magic of customer service. When you achieve a particular level of touch with your customers, they signal to you the things they need to remain customers for life.
As I’ve said before, excellent customer service is not complicated. I’m in meetings all the time where terms like “surprise & delight” and “customer retention” and “lifetime value” are thrown around without any real regard for the customer, and as a result no follow-through. Start by really caring. It doesn’t matter if you’re running an agency, scaling a web application, re-selling sports tickets, or answering support calls. Treat your customers like gold. Feel deep respect for what the transaction signifies: the person you’re dealing with is willing to part with their money to enable your livelihood. All you have to do is help them get what they want.
Now go and take care of your customers.