Critical Priorities for Extraordinary Service

Manager at desk

Ask yourself this question: What are the vital few ideas and actions that really make a difference with customers and clients?

After reflection, it seems there are thousands of tiny things that all make a necessary and positive contribution, but just five areas that are make or break.

Hire People who Care

You can teach a person to do a better job of faking a service attitude, but why not just start out with people who actually care about your customers.

They cost the same amount (unless you’re paying so little that McDonalds is stealing your best reps), but the caring person will actually go the extra mile and solve problems for clients when it counts.

Anyone can provide great service when everything is going well, but you need the big league empaths to share the love when the customer is scared and angry, all the systems are down, and the management team is out on the links wooing the next client.

One very large retail store in New York City had signs posted by all their cash registers: If any employee is particularly discourteous, please let us know. Normal discourtesy they don’t care about, but that particularly discourteous clerk was going to be toast.

Invest in the Value Chain

There are many variants on this value chain idea but the simplest formulations still work. Happy employees create happy customers, which creates happy shareholders; in that priority order. Break any link in this chain, reverse the order, and the entire focus on quality falls apart.

These are not just words, they have to be supported by the budgeting process, by the actions of senior leaders, and by the company’s investment priorities. If you tack up the value chain banners and then cut your service staff to make the quarterly numbers, you’ve just wiped out the last five years of happy talk about quality.


We did a study of employees processing claims manually versus employees processing claims with an automated system. It wasn’t the greatest automated system in the world, in fact it was ugly and rudimentary.

The error rate for the manual solution was 74% higher than the automated system. People are blessed and cursed with highly flexible short-term memories. So flexible that they forget tasks they haven’t completed and remember, as complete, tasks they haven’t even started. Automated systems just have memory, no flexibility, no forgetting, and no daydreaming.

Modern CRM systems can raise the bar on service quality so high that no one can compete effectively without them. Client expectations are raised beyond the performance capabilities of legacy implementations.

Training & Re-Training

The commercial insurance brokerage industry relies primarily on on-the-job training. That is a euphemism for no training. Their error rates typically require 30-50% of their transactional activity to be corrected and their files have enormous gaps in both accuracy and completeness.

By contrast the financial service industry invests 5-10 weeks of classroom training in each front line employee and then assigns a coach to each employee for another one to six months. Their error rates are usually under 5% and their files are highly automated, and predominately, both accurate and complete.

On-the-job training has a fatal flaw: the trainers themselves don’t know what they’re doing or they don’t know how to teach. They’re happy to teach, but they might as well be teaching juggling or macramé to the employees; at least the going out of business sale might be more entertaining.

Leadership Involvement

Everyone thinks of leadership involvement as the Chairman or CEO wandering into the service center twice a year and pretending to answer calls. Senior involvement and symbolic support for quality initiatives is certainly important.

The real leadership involvement has to start with the supervisors. Very few companies invest in their supervisors. Often the supervisors are experienced front line representatives selected for their first and last promotion in the company.

The reality is that these supervisors are accomplishing one of the most difficult development transitions in the organization; from individual expert to team leader. Those 10-25 people who are now in their charge will succeed or fail with the customers based on how well they are led by someone who is often leading for the first time in their career. Having highly technical supervisors in place who are also accomplished coaches and leaders is a make or break for world class quality.

Focusing on getting these five areas right will establish a solid foundation for the delivery of an extraordinary customer experience; and afford you the time needed to take up the other thousand tasks that complete the picture.

About the Author

Steven Grant is a former customer service executive from American Express with over 25 years devoted in Fortune 500 companies analyzing, improving and delivering on enhanced customer experiences.

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