High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service

Inspire Timeless Loyalty in the Demanding New World of Social Commerce

 High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service

Author: Micah Solomon
Pub Date: May 2012
Print Edition: $23.00
Print ISBN: 9780814417904
Page Count: 208
Format: Hardback
e-Book ISBN: 9780814417911

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Excerpt

Introduction

Marshall Plympton (not his actual name, although I was tempted) is

the all-too-real proprietor of an ‘‘eclectic American’’ restaurant near

our vacation spot in the central Carolinas. Marshall’s eatery has fortyseven

reviews on Yelp, twelve on Google, and thirteen on TripAdvisor.

The majority of these reviews are actually pretty positive.

Marshall, however, isn’t satisfied with his good reviews and has no

interest in learning from anything constructive in the mixed ones.

Instead, he responds to even the smallest online slight with outrage.

Outrageous outrage. Here’s one example of Marshall responding on Yelp

to a very mild critique:

If any other bleepholes [except Marshall didn’t type ‘‘bleepholes’’]

like ‘‘Jjhamie319’’ are thinking of coming to my restaurant, listen up:

Please DON’T come. Just DON’T. I have enough work serving the

rest of you people without this kind of grief. And Jjhamie319, so

WHAT if your soup was cold. ‘‘Cold’’ is subjective.We are only three

people in the kitchen, sometimes four depending on the season. Can

YOU keep soup hot at YOUR house? Big bleeping deal that it was

quote unquote ‘‘cold’’ twice. Don’t come in again—make your own

soup. Hope you scald your mouth.1

Marshall doesn’t need my book; he needs a new line of work, far away from

customers. But for the rest of you, who’d like to keep your organization

free of what could be termed ‘‘Marshall Lawlessness’’ and learn to get

along with and win over today’s breed of customer, I offer this book.

Social media blundering, even in milder forms than Marshall’s, is

one of the potential pitfalls of engaging with customers today, but it’s

not the only one. And the book you’re reading is not exclusively about

social media, because what an organization needs in order to avoid

responses that evoke our clueless Marshall is much more than nuts-andbolts

training in social media. What’s needed could be more properly

termed training in humanity. Humanity training involves:

> Understanding customers and their desires, unformed and

always-shifting though they may be

> Consciously building an extraordinary company culture

> Understanding, appropriately selecting, and engaging

employees

And, of course, learning the special code of technologically cluedin

commerce, including social media: how to respond, when to

respond, and when, in fact, to keep your mouth (terminal, actually)

shut. All of which I’ll cover as we move through this book.

forearmed is forewarmed

It was behavioral scientist Nicolas Gue´gen who proved the power, literally

speaking, of touch.2 He demonstrated it definitively—and a bit

creepily, I might add. His research experiments showed that giving a

light touch on the arm nearly doubles your chance of getting what you

want: convincing someone to join you in charity work, getting the

phone number of an attractive stranger you’ve spotted on the street,

getting the quiet newcomer in the meeting to take on a thankless

project.

And most relevant to our subject, he proved that this tap can help

convince a stranger to participate in a supermarket taste test and, ultimately,

to buy your product. (Before we get too dependent on Gue´gen’s

work, I feel obliged to note that Gue´gen’s research strays into some

curious territory, such as determining, for female hitchhikers, the ideal

bust size to entice a male driver to stop.3 So I’m not going to be using

the full range of his research in this book.)

Of course, we can’t actually touch our customers on the arm: It’s

not, as far as I know, possible to do over the internet, and it’s prone to

misinterpretation if done in person. Yet, figuratively, we do need to

touch our customers if we’re going to provide memorable customer

service. And touching—reaching—your customers is what this book’s

about.

a light touch at just the right time

I’m going to show you how to succeed at touching customers while

keeping your technological edge, as well as how to make that touch

more effective through your technological edge. You’ll also learn how

to use the right technology, people, and company culture to ensure that

your touch is feather light—not intrusive or more than the customer

wants, and always (and only) when the customer wants it.

The goal in all this is to touch customers in a way that builds true

customer loyalty—loyalty you can bank.

The stakes are high. Since the advent of the internet, and, most

specifically, the broad use of the World Wide Web starting in the

mid-1990s, there’s been a dramatic transformation of the competitive

landscape. The changes wrought by these new communication and distribution

channels are in many ways revolutionary, and they’re causing

disruptions akin to those of past revolutions.

For a parallel, look at the changes of the mid-nineteenth century.

During this period the stability of rural and village life was thrown into

disarray due to a host of technological advances, including those making

it possible to preserve and transport food. Customers could now purchase

edibles from across the country or around the world: The farmer

in New England who had been able to count on a captive local market

for whatever would graze or grow in his stony fields was now competing

against topsoil-rich Illinois and lamb-friendly New Zealand. The

result was a mass abandonment of farms throughout the region. The

transformation was striking: Go for a walk in the woods of New Hampshire

or Vermont and you’ll still see the proliferation of old stone walls

and foundations that attest to the abandoned farms and homesteads of

this era.4 Or just remember your poetry. This New England exodus is

the backstory of Robert Frost’s stuck-in-his-ways neighbor still trying

to mend a fence: He doesn’t realize times have changed and the fence,

at most, is now preventing runaway trees. There are no cattle to contain

anymore.

You can’t afford to be similarly left behind by today’s transformational

technologies. So many things have changed and continue to change in

the world of commerce. For example, our sense of timeliness: What was

plenty fast this time last year feels draggy now to the very same customers

because of changing expectations brought by mobile technology, social

media–induced restlessness, the incredible efficiency of vendors like

Amazon.com, and other factors. It’s crucial to invest brain cells, time, and

money to keep up with what it takes to hold on to your customers, now

that we’re all playing on a global, digitally connected field.

saying your business is ‘‘on the internet’’ is

like saying it’s ‘‘on the power grid’’

And yet, and yet . . . before you go off the technological deep end and

jettison all that is timeless in customer service, take at least a few shallow

breaths: In today’s high-tech world, where people can pay for their

lattes with the wave of a smartphone, saying your business is ‘‘on the

internet’’ is as mundane as saying it’s ‘‘on the power grid.’’ In other

words, doing business in a digitally informed manner should be comfortable

enough for your business that it becomes background information,

just like having ‘‘eleckatricity and all’’ (as long-ago folksinger Woody

Guthrie creatively spelled it out) was for earlier generations. This has

two implications. First, we need to bone up on what is essential and

timeless in customer service and stop being dazzled to the point of distraction

by all this newfangled internet stuff. And, paradoxically, we

need to realize that the internet, mobile technology, social media, and

self-service technologies of various stripes are now, with absolute finality,

integral to what customer service means today—and there is absolutely

no turning back.

This is the tightrope I’ll walk in this book. To put it another way,

I’ll bring you up to speed on everything that has changed in how customers

expect companies to behave, and how to stay at the forefront of

this revolution. Yet this isn’t a book that throws the baby out with

the digital bathwater, written by someone who thinks the Twitterverse

comprises the entire customer service universe. This is a book that realizes

that customers—how they behave and how they prefer to interact

with you—fall along a wide continuum. The breathless generalizations

and thoughtless cliche´s you hear every day in the technology and business

press about ‘‘today’s customers’’ are just that: generalizations and

cliche´s. This book will teach you how to do business in our threedimensional

world—with customers who walk on two legs and type

with ten fingers (or, just as likely today, with two thumbs).

Our idiosyncratic researcher Gue´gen was right: There is one thing

all customers have in common, in this era and any other: If you learn

to emotionally touch them, through a human-friendly website, via a

correctly designed self-service kiosk, in person, or even by mail

(remember mail?), that customer will respond. Learning to leave the

correct imprint on a customer, whether in an initial encounter, when

the customer honors you with a repeat visit to your company, or when

she lets you know that she’s upset, are key skills in this era, as in any

other. Through these abilities, your organization builds crucial brand

equity and avoids the danger of commoditization in the eyes of the

marketplace—a danger that the ever-expanding technological and

global-sourcing arms race has made more and more urgent.

all you need to know in a rhyming nutshell

Your touch will be felt most powerfully, with the longest-lasting aftereffect,

when you keep your customer’s personal, specific needs and

desires in the foreground, ideally without prompting. This is what I

call anticipatory customer service. Here’s what to strive for through people,

systems, and technology, set in an admittedly dopey rhyme for easy

recollection:

If you can anticipate

You can differentiate.

If customers feel at home

They’re unlikely to roam.

That, in a nutshell, is how you turn customer service into a competitive

advantage that will sustain your business year after year. If you can

anticipate what your customers want, before they ask for it, even before

they’re aware of or can express that they desire it, they’ll never feel the

need to go elsewhere. Your service is anticipatory when:

> Your product or service is what your customers are looking

for—specifically what they are looking for—before they have

to look elsewhere or raise their voices to ask you for it

> Your pricing, whether high, low, or in the middle of the marketplace,

fits the model customers hold mentally of what is fair

> You already know details about your specific customers that are

important to them, thus giving them a sense of belonging and

saving them time and the need to explain themselves and you

take the logical but rare next step of using these details to bring

your customers additional value—for example, suggesting

related purchases that suit them to a T.

homeward bound

If you can make your customer feel at home—no, not a home like my

old bachelor pad with a sink full of dishes and garbage that needs to be

taken out, but a magical home, like the one where, ideally speaking,

your customers grew up as kids, where the lightbulbs were automatically

changed and the groceries in the fridge were chosen to fit their

preference, where they were missed when they went to school and

welcomed back when they came home—why would they ever stray?

This homey image won’t be entirely new to my readers. As discussed

in Exceptional Service, Exceptional Profit (Inghilleri-Solomon, AMACOM

2010), this was a revelation of the Ritz-Carlton’s founder, Horst Schulze,

who graciously contributed to our book. Schulze, early in the days of

building the Ritz-Carlton brand, working with a highly skilled team of

linguists, parsed survey after survey to find out what his customers meant

when they said they wanted his luxury hotels to be ‘‘just like home.’’

Ultimately, Schulze and these language experts discerned that his guests

were looking for a business that functioned like a home run by a caring

parent. I have yet to find a better archetype for how a business can build

a customer experience that will command true loyalty.

where tech makes loyalty easier

Here’s the great thing: Technology can make anticipation and ‘‘homekeeping’’

much simpler, and much easier to reap dramatic benefits

from. For example, custom-tailored, automated anticipatory messaging (see

Chapter 10) helps you respond in advance (‘‘pre-spond,’’ I suppose)

to customer needs and would have been impossible before the digital

communications revolution. Anticipatory design (see Chapter 4), used so

extraordinarily by companies like Apple and Google, can help simplify

your customer’s life. Well-designed ‘‘My Account’’ and other self-service

technology (see Chapter 8) has made it so many customers are willing,

even eager, to do much of the work for you to keep track of their

preferences and other details—information that, in turn, makes anticipatory

customer service easier to pull off. Customers will let you know

how to improve more directly than before if you keep your ear to

your electronic listening channels (see Chapter 13), thus facilitating a much

quicker feedback loop for future anticipatory service. And, once you

delight your customers with anticipatory customer service, they can

spread the word much more quickly via social media (see Chapters 11–13)

than was ever possible in the past.

Technology, properly directed, is the faithful friend of the

customer-centered company. But technology alone is almost never

enough to bring a company out of the danger zone of being considered

a commodity. Technology needs people—and a culture that supports

those people’s best efforts—to effectively direct technology to the service

of emotionally touching your customers. Providing great customer

service in our technologically altered world isn’t a fundamentally different

proposition than it was a decade ago, but it’s faster. More transparent.

More twitchy. Unforgiving. Viral. Magnified. But still created by,

and for, people.

Since people are central on both sides of the service interaction,

that’s where we go first in this discussion, with a peek at today’s customer.

Care to join me?

how this book is organized

This book is organized into three parts. Part One, ‘‘Timeliness and

Timelessness,’’ addresses the basics of doing customer service right, and

what it looks like when you do it wrong, in any era. Part Two, ‘‘High-

Tech, High-Touch Anticipatory Service,’’ begins to address what it

takes to create a true loyalty-building level of customer service: by

anticipating customer needs through the right people, culture, and

technology. Part Three, ‘‘The Rise of Self-Service and Social Media—

And Other Seismic Shifts,’’ extends the technological focus by covering

in detail the trends of self-service, social media, and electronic customer

input in general—and ways to stay ahead of competitors in these areas.

Within these sections, each chapter is followed by a Cliff ’s Notes–

style cheat sheet for your quick review and as a memory aid (put together

by me, not by those selfless experts at the actual Cliff ’s Notes who got

you through The Iliad). This summary is called, inevitably, ‘‘And Your

Point Is?’’ (If my point is still hard to decipher, shoot me an email at

micah@micahsolomon.com or visit me at customerserviceguru.com

and let me know how I can clarify it for your individual situation.)

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