On customer service

Blogger’s note: Jim’s recent post about customer service on the CRN blog was a result of observations, experiences and by-the-water-cooler conversations. One of the internal debates was whether Exemplary Customer Service (ECS) can be taught; I argued “no.”  At CRN we take pride in our service and philosophy.  I believed from the start ECS is an inherent characteristic.  The following was an internal memo I wrote a while ago, which inspired the debate and Jim’s blog post.  It was suggested that we run it in a public forum.  So here it is.  We welcome your comments.

Exemplary customer service is ingrained.  It is in the company’s genetic coding and intrinsic to the culture.  It permeates everything.  It is both conscious and unconscious.

It cannot be taught or acquired.  It can be enhanced, embellished, celebrated, championed and tweaked.

It cannot mysteriously occur just because it is written on a mission or values statement or published in an annual report.

It is the air an ECS organization breathes. It is instinctive and can be triggered in a nanosecond.  The people who populate these organizations are keenly aware of service even when they are not at work.  Their endorphins kick in when they experience it at restaurants, shops, and their day-to-day dealings.  They bristle in frustration when it is absent, or when they are put on hold for hours.

People who work in these companies get excited – almost in a nerdy way – by stories of great customer service.

If your company doesn’t have it, don’t sweat it.  There are a lot of awful customer service companies out there – one giant telecommunications company is about to become close to a monopoly and its service record is notoriously dreadful.

Some sketchy customer service companies do quite well because they are the lowest cost provider, and don’t make ECS a priority or value. You know who they are.

Exemplary customer service is not the measure of success, but it sure helps.  An ECS company can’t help being that; it is in its DNA.  It doesn’t mean it is perfect or never slips, even in service.  But like a rubber band wrapped around a pole, a great customer service organization always snaps back to its core.

Defining ECS can only be done by stories.  When you ask for a 30-cent brass wing nut in a hardware store and the associate walks you to the aisle until you’re happy as opposed to just saying, “Aisle 45,” you’ve just experienced ECS.

Conversely, the other day, we asked a media sales rep at a company we deal with for an MP3 file of a segment of a show that featured our company.  He sent us an email back with a name of a person we can call to get it.  And while he did reply, an ECS employee would have walked the halls, secured the audio and sent it to us.

ECS isn’t always obvious; in fact, most of it exists out of customer sight.  I recall a small business Microsoft project.  Something was troubling.  Even though we planned to deliver way beyond spec and Microsoft would have been overjoyed, we noticed that the plan was not gender balanced.  We did in-depth research into the product target — census track, small business data — and found their buyers and influencers were disproportionately male. We made the internal decision to adjust the media plan at our cost to insure its success, also adding more news stations. And unless someone from Microsoft is reading this, to this day, they never knew. The campaign exceeded everyone’s expectations and began a five-year relationship with the software giant.

There was never a moment when we hesitated. No need to brag to the client. This is not a business strategy, it is an unconscious practice. An ECS company does not look at short-term gain; it’s in business for the long haul.

A so-called “client facing” example of ECS, which earned CRN a 20-year relationship with Hormel, came early.  Hormel took over the Ski Watch radio syndication sponsorship from Campbell’s Soup.  CRN also printed an ad-supported Ski Watch Ski Atlas with comprehensive maps and information — 125,000 copies.  As part of Hormel’s sponsorship, it received a credit on the front page and full-page product ads on the back and inside covers.  There were other advertisers. Among them was an ad provided to Campbell’s as a freebee for an unrelated project we were doing for them.

The marketing director of Hormel called me up screaming mad.  “How dare you have an ad for a competitor in the Ski Watch Atlas.  We are the Ski Watch sponsor.”  I started to explain that the atlas was an independent publication, quite like Ski Magazine.  I stopped in mid sentence, “Rick, I’ll recall the copies and reprint it.”

He was flabbergasted. We, a small company, were willing to bite the bullet at what must have been a great expense to make him happy and feel whole.  Beyond expectations.

Every year for 15 years at an annual Hormel-CRN dinner, Rick would get up and retell that story.

Not a strategy. It’s as natural as walking. It’s how an ECS company thinks, feels, hires, acts, and chats around the water cooler. It’s in every high-five. And 40 years later, while we talk about the unique things we’ve done, our broadcast and marketing innovations, and the results we’ve garnered for the largest companies in the world, it’s the tales of how CRN went way beyond to help our clients that bring us the most joy.