We need to set our sights higher. I know, because I read the label on my mustard pot. It said, “For complaints, please contact the Customer Service Department.”

wordle image for Customer Satisfaction Is Dead Long Live Legendary Service!This is what happens when a new field – as customer service could still claim to be – gets labelled, specialised, and functionalised. Customer Service people may take on the role of fixers, even sweeper-uppers, the frontline cannon fodder, justifiably complaining about the size of the gap between the Marketing Machine’s blasé promises to the customer and the organisation’s competence to deliver these promises.

Most Customer Service professionals see their role as far wider than dealing with complaints, or merely satisfying customers. I would suggest they would only be truly fulfilled working in an organisation whose the service is legendary.

By legendary I mean:

  • Redefining the customer’s expectations of your industry or sector – as,
    for example, McDonald’s originally did with food retailing and Virgin
    Atlantic have started to do with airlines.
  • Generating passionate customer loyalty – beyond the temporary pull of
    loyalty cards.
  • Becoming famous for service: where the service legend is spread by your
    customers. Ninety-five percent of owners of Saturn cars in the USA
    become passionate advocates of the product to others.
  • A recognised leader in Service to the community and environment.
    Nike’s 69% slump in earnings in the last quarter of 1997 may be in part
    attributed to the discovery of alleged poor treatment of its many Chinese
    and Indonesian workers. Not exactly service to the community!

The goal as a company is to have customer service that is not just the best, but legendary.”

Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart

The questionnaire at the end of this article, Legendary Service – How Do You Measure Up?, is an indication of how high I believe the sights need to be raised. Just two or three of these characteristics of a world beating service provider would be enough to give you competitive edge in your market if you could really perform superbly in them.

Why legendary?

Legends are constantly told and re-told. Americans tend to have Nordstrom or SouthWest Airlines stories that become an indispensable part of the company’s image-building, branding, and customer attraction efforts. When were you last regaled by, dare I say it, a Marks & Spencer or British Airways tale of delight and wonder? And they are supposedly among our best examples of reliable service providers!

Come to think of it, it’s not been in our culture. Probably the highest superlatives in the UK are “quite good”, “rather nice”, and (wait for it) “not bad!” So it’s hardly surprising that expressions like Customer Delight, Wowing The Customer, or even Exceeding Customer Expectations are quite high on the ‘Cringe Scale’ over here.

But it’s time to change. Achieving fabulous service is hardly worth it if our customers, potential customers, and our own people don’t spread the positive word. A word in the Marketing Department’s ear – a market never bought anything. . . people do. And these individual tales of legendary service experienced can become your most formidable marketing tool.

A legend is not the same as a myth, which for many people means untruth and fantasy. It has to be grounded in day-to-day reality, although a strong emotional content and the human tendency to embellish the truth may be there. A powerful legend predisposes the customer to positive expectations, although that may rebound if you fail to deliver.

I expect a Virgin train to be late, and therefore even if it’s on time the crew have to work harder to make me even semi-satisfied. On the other hand, I anticipate that in the downtown San Franciso branch of Nordstrom, I will get great service – I’ve heard the legend – and oddly when I can’t find an assistant (twice) I still believe in Nordstroms due to the weight of legend-building stories I’ve heard. Perception is stranger than fiction!

This is where it’s critical to choose the key ingredients of your brand offering. Nordstrom has clearly chosen service, whereas Virgin stands for innovation, freshness, and fun. All fine, but train customers want service as first, second, and third priorities!

Beyond satisfaction

Another strong reason why I champion the notion of legendary service is the confusion caused by too many “beyonds” – Beyond Customer Satisfaction, Beyond Quality, Exceeding Customer Expectations, etc.

There is a case for a new language of service because a ‘satisfied’ customer – is not enough to guarantee loyalty. Xerox, relentless as ever in searching for an edge in their fiendishly competitive markets, found this out:

“One discovery by Xerox shattered conventional wisdom: its totally satisfied customers were six times more likely to repurchase Xerox products over the next 18 months than its satisfied customers . . . . The only truly loyal customers are totally satisfied customers.”

Jones and Sasser, Harvard Business Review, Nov-Dec 1995

“Total satisfaction” is another beyond. It might be the difference between a 4.8 and a 4.9 out of 5 on your customer satisfaction rating, but it’s enough to shift the customer from being a friend to a lover!

The Japanese have many concepts that don’t quite translate into business English. For instance there is the notion of Miryokuteki Hinshitsu, Business Week, October 1990:

Just as US car makers are getting their quality up to par, the Japanese are redefining and expanding the term. The new concept is called Miryokuteki-Hinshitsu – making cars that are more reliable, that fascinate, bewitch, and delight.

Fascinate, bewitch, and delight? Hold on a minute, I’m not sure the British can be delighted. Or the French or Germans come to think of it! But that is what we need to aim for to become world class.

All of these attempts at describing a ‘beyond’ – semi-mystical at times – can best be encapsulated in the concept of legendary. The twelve characteristics of a legendary service provider described in the questionnaire are clear targets, and all can be measured or monitored. And if the peaks seem unreasonably far off, remember the poet’s words:

“Ah, that a man’s reach should exceed his grasp
Or what’s a heaven for?”

Robert Browning

Creating your own legend

We may think that business legend evolve slowly over many decades. Not necessarily so. Or at least it doesn’t have to be so in the “I want it now” world we live in. Most service legends – for instance First Direct’s telephone banking service in the UK – have been created in a few short years. And so it’s not far-fetched to think of creating your own positive legend. Starting today.

There is an old saying, “Only a new seed can produce a new crop.” The new seeds here are the help you can give your organisation in totally re-thinking its service purpose. Here are some first steps:

1. Don’t Visit The Mission Shop

I have a small fantasy that tucked in between Tie Rack and Sock Shop is a retail outlet known as the Mission Shop where your Managing Director can fit a brief visit into his busy schedule. Here he can buy cheap, off the peg missions like “to be the best”, “to be number one”, “to be the customer’s preferred choice”, and so on.

Or a secondhand set of values which include any permutation of the words: customer - focus - first - excellence - satisfaction. Where’s the elbow-room to become really different when the language is so borrowed? So the first step on the journey to legendary service is to springclean, refresh, reinvent whatever vision, mission, or customer-retaining and attracting strategy you have. Does it feel like your story or legend, or somebody – anybody! – else’s?

2. Cultivate Beginner’s Mind

It is said that in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s there are few! (Suzuki Roshi quoted in “The Dancing Wu Li Masters” by Gary Zukav) In other words, how can we continually see the job, the business, and the customer with fresh eyes. “One month in a job and you go blind” is a client’s comment that has always stuck with me: how hard it is then to ‘reinvent’ our business in the manner that management experts are currently preaching!

If you always adopt “expert’s mind” in your dealings with the customer, they may think you’re impressive, but feel there’s not enough room for true relationship and partnership. There may be a swift courtship, hurried honeymoon, and distinct cooling off in relations. I’m sure this has never happened in your business, so just treat it as a cautionary tale!

Here are some tips for developing “Beginner’s Mind” –

  • Curiosity, curiosity, curiosity
    Why do we have systems like this? What value does that add to the customer? What do our customers really think of us?

  • Be childlike
    Think “what if?” and “why not?” rather than “yes, but”.
    Look at your department or business through new – or through the
    customer’s – eyes.

  • Hang around more
    Jan Carlzon, legendary leader of SAS in the 1980s, got many of his ideas for creating more customer pleasing planes and even airports by ‘hanging around’ where his customers were, recording ideas in a small notebook. Where can you hang around to get a clearer vision of your business?

3. Remember High Tech Means Higher Touch

Futurologist John Naisbitt’s phrase, “high tech, high touch” has never been more relevant – in other words, the more potentially alienating technology we create (tech) the stronger becomes peoples’ needs for human contact and interaction (touch). The great challenge for service providers today is to create customer intimacy, empathy, and “touch” through or despite the brave new world of technology – telemarketing, helplines, the Internet.

The opportunities for reaching and servicing new customers through these methods has been much hyped. Perhaps less so the risks:

“If you have an unhappy customer on the Internet, he doesn’t tell his six friends, he tells his 6,000 friends.”

Jeff Bezos, President, Amazon.com, the Internet book and music seller

Touch starts with your own people. How they are treated will largely determine the quality of contact they pass on to the customer. This realisation is what prompted the American travel agent, Hal Rosenbluth, to post the provocative sign ‘The Customer Is Number Two” around his offices.

How much time, effort, and resources do you put into appreciating, listening, coaching and guiding your teams to deeply empathise with the customers’ viewpoint? In our race to automate, digitalise, and potentially de-humanise business transactions it’s easy to forget that what makes for great human relationships also creates ideal relationships with our customers.

The Human Laws of Legendary Service - or how to put touch into our high-tech environment – are:

  • We all need contact in an alienated world.
    Our people, our customers, our teams. Contact, contact, contact!
  • People need to feel valued and important.
    But have you ever been kept waiting for five minutes on the telephone
    (it seems like fifty!) only to hear the message “We value your call.”
  • People need to be understood.
    We want our problems to be understood - not to hear the service provider’s difficulties.
  • The little touches win hearts and minds. Thank you’s, apologies, human gestures of empathy, small surprises.

4. Try Not To Differentiate In The Same Way!

It’s amazing how many enterprises act as if me-too, copycat thinking can somehow create uniqueness and distinct competitive advantage. Howeasy is it, as a customer, to really distinguish one bank, life insuranceprovider, or oil company from another? That’s the kind of ‘blind’ we should promote as the ultimate customer research!

Legends are told of extraordinary feats, of stunning success in the face of adversity, of heroes and heroines who have dared to stand out from the pack. Witness Richer Sounds’ vibrant, can-do anything culture, TGI Friday’s focus on body language and face-to-face interactions (it’s amusing how threatening we find eye contact in this country), Brazilian maverick Ricardo Semler’s revolutionary practice of letting workers at his chemical company, Semco, do their own hiring and firing and even set their own salaries.

When Glenn Miller, the legendary big band leader, was told by a journalist that surely his greatest aspiration was to have a band just like other successful ones, he replied ‘no’, that he wanted to have a band that was like no other. This is differentiating in your own way!

5. Learn From The Future

Here’s a simple equation:

  • Benchmarking + Customer Listening = Securing The Present
  • Imagination + The Courage To Create Your Own Destiny
    = Securing The Future

To succeed you have to do both, but in practice most organisations focus more avidly on the former. It’s more tangible, secure, and measurable.
What this approach misses out on is the flair, passion, fun, and sense of adventure palpable in organisations which have a deeply held belief that the future isn’t something that happens to you while you’re busy making other plans, but can really be invented.

It takes imagination, courage, and even some ‘crazy wisdom’ to work backwards from your dreamed-of future rather than incrementally from where you are today. And if you’re going to all the trouble of creating your own future – which is, after all, determined by what you focus on today – you might as well make it different and more true to your own business personality rather than borrowing a secondhand vision.

Change is discontinuous; jumps in performance are inspired by unreasonable targets and sky-high visions. The legend of ‘continuous’ improvement is not a great story. It goes on, it’s necessary, it’s admirable, but the real legends are told about those who have the courage to make step changes. Following the route of incremental change, planning, research and measurement means Service is in great danger of becoming as boring to managers as Quality!

There is an old saying, “it is later than you think.” If you are still thinking of customer satisfaction, it may already be too late! And if your company has the mustard pot label approach to customer service, pity the poor customer. We are here to accomplish something greater. . . the stuff of legends.

Characteristics Of A Legendary Service Provider

How Do You Match Up?

The following checklist describes an organisation that consistently provides its customers with more than satisfaction: Legendary Service. Rate yourself, or pass it around to your colleagues and compare notes.

  1. Widely respected as a trend setter in serving the needs of the community
    Scores, from 0 to 100 per cent
  2. Famous for taking the lead in serving the environment.
    Scores, from 0 to 100 per cent
  3. Consistently delivering World Class Service; i.e. outsiders and competitors see the organisation as setting the standards they would love to emulate.
    Scores, from 0 to 100 per cent
  4. Providing a unique service experience that creates devotees of customers loyalty for life.
    Scores, from 0 to 100 per cent
  5. Inspiring customers with the positivity and pride of all those who work in the Legendary organisation.
    Scores, from 0 to 100 per cent
  6. Demonstrating superior levels of empathy for a customer’s situation and needs.
    Scores, from 0 to 100 per cent
  7. Partnering customers in a way that transcends Service Level Agreements, and operates on the level of the heart.
    Scores, from 0 to 100 per cent
  8. Sharing business goals, successes and failures with suppliers.
    Scores, from 0 to 100 per cent
  9. Creating systems that are intuitively loved by customers. Far more than just ‘customer friendly’.
    Scores, from 0 to 100 per cent
  10. Operating transparently where the promise to the customer is explicit, and the customer is happy with the deal.
    Scores, from 0 to 100 per cent
  11. Generating a culture where people find real meaning in giving service to others.
    Scores, from 0 to 100 per cent
  12. Becoming a positive Legend Creator generating an unstoppable belief in your people that they can ‘invent their own future’ rather than be restrained by outside forces: the market, competition, industry regulations, management dictates, etc.
    Scores, from 0 to 100 per cent

Scoring code
  • 0 - 25%
    Go to jail. Do not pass GO or collect any money whatsoever, as your business probably can’t afford it, but don’t feel guilty about calling Service Legends for immediate help. Although not trained therapists, we are good listeners.
  • 25 - 50%
    Work to be done. Perhaps pick the three items that you most need to work on and put them on the agenda for your next Away-Day/ Team Meeting. Therapy not needed, but you’re unlikely to be showing a clean set of heels to the competition. . . especially when they’re in front.
  • 50 - 75%
    Pretty smart! We could learn a thing or two from you. However, remember that today’s successes can be the enemy of tomorrow’s triumphs and focus on one aspect you score well on, and attempt to make it world class.
  • 75 - 100%
    You probably don’t think you need to call us. However, do email us with your successes: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Health warning!
  • We don’t know an organisation in the world that is truly legendary, but some exhibit one or more of these characteristics. This list is constantly being updated and revised as we believe that the ‘achievement horizon’ is always beyond today’s performance, and measuring yourself by today’s winners is a sure recipe for being tomorrow’s loser. We take full responsibility for having frightened you a little.

Originally published: 19 Jun 2006


Copyright © 2015 Nigel Barlow. All Rights Reserved.