I’ve got it all wrong…

I’ve been listening to the audiobook version of Hit the Ground Running by Mark H. McCormack, founder of IMG, an international sports marketing firm.

The book, which is subtitled “The Insider’s Guide to Executive Travel” is a rambling series of tips and anecdotes from McCormack about business travel. He covers hotels, airlines, taxis, expense accounts and more. He’s repetitive, and in some places confusing, but all and all it’s an interesting listen with some potentially useful information.

The greatest insight I’ve gleaned from the book, though, is McCormack’s approach to service, something he encapsulates as “the personal touch.” His explanation of this approach has made me think I might have it all wrong about customer service and, indeed, that I might have been digging my own holes for a long time.

My approach to customer service is based on a notion that people offering customer service should always be honest, genuine, hard working, well paid, and supported by the resources and management they need to get their job done. It’s also based on the notion that companies should want to give me good service, and that when they do not do this, it is my duty to inform them, sometimes in public, sometimes very loudly.

In some particularly dire situations — like those I’ve found myself in with Island Tel/Aliant over the years — my approach has been extended to include not only public complaint, but also an attempt to extract good customer service, or at least some customer service, from where ever I can get it.

And I think I’ve got it all wrong.

Here’s the anecdote McCormack offers to describe “the personal touch:” you’re in a restaurant and they have a special on, say it’s a ham sandwich and soup for $5, with no substitutions written in big letters underneath it. If you take my approach to customer service, you approach this caveat as an affront, and so when ordering you ask the server if you can get the special, but with turkey instead of ham: “I’d like the special, but could I get the sandwich with turkey instead?” Nine times out of ten, the server will say “sorry, there’s no substitutions” or “I’m afraid not.”

The McCormack suggestion is to take a different approach: make the server feel as though if they are able to achieve the miracle of getting you the sandwich with turkey, you will think very highly of them. He suggests asking something like “do you have enough influence over the chef to get me the special with turkey instead of ham?” My gut tells me that this will actually work much better most, if not all of the time. I know if someone asked me this question in this way, I’d probably take it as a personal challenge to get them turkey.

Indeed I know from my own working with clients that when clients phrase requests like “I know this is probably impossible, but could you…?” I’m usually quick out of the gate to prove to them that it is possible. And, conversely, when clients say “we need this by Monday at the latest, and it has to work like this,” I’m just as likely to slide the project to the bottom of the pile.

My one Big Success with Island Tel was getting them to install DSL service to our old World HQ in Kingston. Our house in Kingston was about 1km beyond the normal limit for DSL installations, but by working with a sales rep who I knew otherwise, the situation was turned from that of a demanding client into a challenge for the engineering team to see how far they could push the technology. And they rose to the challenge and provided me with the service I was looking for.

And so I’m starting to think that I’ve got it all wrong. Rather than taking bad customer service as some sort of bubonic insult that must be trumpeted and extinguished at all costs so as to not lessen human perfection, perhaps I need to become more Machiavellian and use social engineering to shape the world, or at least my little corner of it, into a place that naturally molds good customer service around me.

More thinking needed on this.


Oliver's picture
Oliver on September 21, 2002 - 05:09 Permalink

You’re kidding, aren’t you? Why even have companies with products and services, when with the right words said in the right way you can get your neighbor to do whatever you want? You shouldn’t even need to spend money.

Alan's picture
Alan on September 21, 2002 - 12:42 Permalink

I thought the opposite: “this is news??” To engage in the construct that the service provider sets up is always best. Few are lucky enough to “be themselves” entirely in their work. Once you figure out their limitations, even if arbitrary or counter-productive, working within that set of rules always gets you farther. Otherwise, you are like the stereotypical American tourist shouting at the waiter to better make him appreciate the english he does not speak.

Oliver's picture
Oliver on September 22, 2002 - 05:13 Permalink

It’s no news that using your wits is key to advancement, winning friends and influencing people. On the other hand, I think the old notion that Peter is reconsidering, and which I cling to, is that you pay your money so you don’t have to use your wits (or your labor or your time).You pay for the sky-diving trip, someone else pushes you off the plane and the chute opens for you. I suspect there have been a lot of law-suits won on the grounds that a person should not have had to use his or her wits to avoid death or dismemberment from some company’s product. I concede, it’s a matter of where to draw the line. Car manufacturers are allowed all sorts of reasonable expectations—bipedalism, a certain stature and mobility of driver, the ability to drive, etc. Likewise customer service ought to be usable by a person with minimal skills, and not useful only to Jimmy Carter or other masters of diplomacy.

Alan's picture
Alan on September 22, 2002 - 14:47 Permalink

My thought is that you cannot take the service provider, the actual worker before you, out of the equation. Many times, they are aware of the bad service they are providing, they are subject to poor or obscure policy, they are managed by morons, or they are not interested in their poorly paid jobs. Once in a rare while, they are just insolent jerks. For a human experience as well as best chance to get what you want, working with this knowledge rather than a ideal based on what is in the wallet gets you what you want more quickly. As a service provider, being aware of this knowledge in your customer allows you to provide “just for you” service which can turn a crank customer into a happy repeat customer. After all, it is not that the customer is always right — the customer is the customer.

Oliver's picture
Oliver on September 22, 2002 - 17:40 Permalink

I totally agree about giving a break to service people, in particular the ones whose incompetence for the task at hand is no fault of their own. But I feel entitled to be angry at whatever organization promised to do that task in return for a fee which I’ve paid, and didn’t do it well. I also feel entitled to let it be known—somehow, to someone in the organization—when I feel justifiably unsatisfied by what they did for me. And I think some one really ought to welcome the criticism. Very possibly not the service worker, who may not have the freedom or the time or the financial motivation to respond to that criticism, but some agent of the organization should be able to take it and respond to it, or else the organisation can’t act in good faith.

Alan's picture
Alan on September 22, 2002 - 18:07 Permalink

I agree with aiming at the right place but will the people in the right place see it as their policy error or the bad frontline worker — even when it is a policy decision. Example: Indigo here either has very poor product knowledge education or a large turn over of staff. No one seems to know anything about what they sell. Some respond by shopping elsewhere in town at shops I would not go to for other reasons. I tend to buy on-line for most things to avoid the crappy service or business. I have complained to the “right person” in Indigo only to be told my problem was seeing the issue as one of my understanding of their system. When I see the opportunity I use the “just help me out we have discussed”. If that does not work, I can’t really get mad at the worker, the manager or the owner if that is their decision to be a poor business but I do give Amazon all my business. Likewise for Aliant mobility, the Gahan, and the guy on Kensington Road to purports to sell beermaking supplies. I find that I walk with my money and spread the word.

Wayne's picture
Wayne on September 22, 2002 - 22:39 Permalink

Always strive to lower customer expectations, then work hard at exceeding them.”

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on September 23, 2002 - 00:28 Permalink

I have been critical of Indigo/Charlottetown before, but had a good experience there recently: I asked a clerk if they had the 2003 edition of The Old Farmer’s Almanac in stock, and she led me, without needing to check any reference, to the exact spot on the shelf. I was impressed.

Oliver's picture
Oliver on September 23, 2002 - 18:46 Permalink

I see I was talking ideology, while others of you are talking street tactics. I’d say they’re actually complementary and not exclusive perspectives. I think I got onto ideology because it sounded like Peter was thinking that complaining about customer service might not be justified. But now it seems the issue actually is whether it’s time well spent, or whether it’s the most effective tactic. Still, tactic with respect to what goal? For getting what you want for yourself, talking nicely to the server may well be the best bet. But what about helping other customers and the company itself? If the organization has some way and some will to deal with feedback higher up the policy chain, then you might want to take that tactic too.