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?Attitude? Key to Great Customer Service
23-Feb-06 [ by Larry Chao ] 7569 Read and 2 Comment

The quest to discover a formula to deliver great customer service goes beyond anything you can write in a manual. It is about individual ingenuity and initiative writes Larry Chao (The Nation).

If providing great customer service is high on most chief executives? agenda‚ then why is it generally so lousy? Despite myriads of processes‚ scorecards and policies to direct and measure customer service performance‚ the track record for producing memorable experiences is dismal.

We all have our customer service nightmare: the two hour wait queuing at an airport ticket counter; the bad attitude of a waiter in a fancy restaurant; the shoddy automobile repair work. These experiences leave customers fuming over empty promises of service excellence. What we have learned is that institutionalizing customer service can only go so far. More emphasis must be placed on hiring people with the right attitude‚ and providing them enough leeway to exceed standard operating procedures.

?Companies are recognizing the importance of hiring people with a service mind-set first‚ rather than looking for experience as the most important hiring criteria‚? says Oliver Bonke‚ vice-president of sales & marketing for Starwood Asia-Pacific. ?It is a lot easier to teach people with the right attitude to learn basic customer service procedures than it is to train an experienced manager how to care about people.?

Bonke should know. Starwood owns well-known hotel brands such as Sheraton‚ Westin and St. Regis‚ where customer service rules. Here in Bangkok‚ for example‚ obsession with customer service has catapulted the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit to the top of the highly competitive five-star hotel market segment‚ in terms of monthly revenue per available room. By ?wowing? guests ? a term affectionately dubbed by general manager Richard Chapman to describe how he wants his staff to please guests with great service‚ the Sheraton Grande has lured the business traveler‚ despite being on the outskirts of the central business district.

What executives in the service industry have learned through frustrating trial and error is that customer service procedures‚ no matter how rigorous and detailed‚ can only serve to guide individual behavior‚ not change behavior. Incentives and reprimands offer a more effective method of reshaping behavior‚ but unless a person has the inherent desire to provide great customer service‚ external reinforcement only offers a temporary solution.

At a Nokai management conference held in Manila last month‚ I asked 75 participants to recall a time when they received outstanding customer service and why it was so memorable. I also asked them for examples and reasons behind poor customer service. From this discussion‚ we hoped to transfer some concepts from other industries to Nokia?s business. Two interesting insights emerged.

First‚ the vast majority of responses included personal initiative‚ where some individual went beyond what was expected to deliver great service. For example‚ one participant cited a time when he was on the way to the airport‚ he discovered that his credit card had expired. Rather than following standard operating procedures‚ which would have prevented the manager from receiving a new card until after he returned from his trip‚ the bank customer service representative issued the card and rushed it himself to the manager at the airport.

None of the outstanding experiences related were the result of following customer service procedures. They were difficult problems that required employees to take risks and break ground rules. Unfortunately‚ this does not happen often enough.

Second‚ participants remembered their bad customer service experiences more vividly than their good experiences. The bad experiences were emotionally charged and left participants with a poor impression of the service provider. Moreover‚ these negative experiences were usually the result of someone hiding behind customer service protocol to avoid the headache of addressing customer needs.

Companies need less bureaucracy that dictates how customer service should be delivered and more individuals with the right attitude‚ basic skills and common sense to serve as role models. The challenge is to create a culture where these individuals are given the freedom to act. Then let the benefits ? delighted‚ loyal customers‚ speak for themselves.

Larry Chao is managing director of Chao Group Limited‚ an organization change and training boutique located in Bangkok and New York. (

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