In our daily life most of us are both customers and suppliers of a service. And let's face it, we are more critical as customers than as service deliverers. When you walk into someone else's business - a hotel, restaurant, or bank - how quickly do you make judgements as to how it could be run better? Most groups I have posed this question to respond, "straight away" or "almost immediately!"

wordle image for why are the instructions always in germanFrom the outside we are experts, from the inside we can easily become wrapped up in the thousand and one distractions that prevent us from giving the service we ourselves would expect and demand as a customer. It's one of life's great blind spots, to truly see ourselves as our customers do. Focus groups, questionnaires, and even mystery shoppers don't quite do the trick. Highly attuned imagination and empathy are the only tools that can really achieve the kind of intimacy we realise in our hearts that customers deserve.

This article is a plea for all of us to become better customers as a necessary precursor to giving superb service to others. Let's compare two kinds of people - or attitudes - we are all familiar with. The first type of customers are so demanding that they always expect to be let down. Miraculously, they are usually right. I'll call this attitude Mr Dark.

I used to run seminars on service with a consultant for whom the glass was always half empty. She would arrive at the session with tales of service woes she had experienced on the lengthy journey to the venue.

This kind of person is rather like the traveller in Douglas Adams' hilarious novel, So Long And Thanks For All The Fish. He is a truck driver and everywhere he goes rain follows him. Finally he realises that he is in fact the Rain God!! Many who consistently experience bad service are Bad Service Gods, or in this case, Goddesses.

Of course, this does not mean to say that bad service doesn't exist in objective terms. Who hasn't experienced a sunny demeanour crumble when faced with surly and unhelpful so-called 'service' representatives? But the second type of person, the one who expects others to be friendly and helpful loads the dice in favour of more positive outcomes. Let's call this Ms Light.

For example, a colleague woke up one morning before a long business trip across the USA feeling happy and content. His daughter had just got into college, the sun was shining, and he felt good. He smiled at everyone, was polite and charming, and arrived at his destination after what could have been tortuous travel with tales of how positively helpful everyone - cab drivers, airline check in staff, restaurant waiters - had been to him. Powerful testimony for the idea that "the world is as we are."

Training customers!?

But, I hear you say, certainly you can train your own people to be more positive, more 'Light' themselves in expecting a positive interaction with customers. And skilled in handling the situation when the customer turns into Mr Dark. How though can you 'train' customers? It sounds outrageous to all of us who have been drilled over the last 15 years to believe that the customer is always right, is "number one" and can do no wrong. A far cry from the Dark Ages of mass "markets" when our expectations were so low that great service seemed a ridiculous dream, particularly in the uncomplaining UK culture.

Today the pendulum has swung too far. Not that service can't be improved everywhere. It can, and there are role models to be learned from: Virgin Atlantic, the revived Asda experience, Richer Sounds, et al. But in trying too hard to accommodate the Mr Dark behaviour all customers display at times in this stressed age service providers are often driven into feeling subservient or battered. Thousands of assaults - verbal and physical - are recorded on service people annually. Airline research has found that on average every 35th passenger is abusive to some degree to the staff member who welcomes them onto a flight. How then does that person act warmly towards the 36th and subsequent passengers? They'd be inhuman if they didn't convey some measure of resentment.

The answer is a mirror image of our own experience of being a customer. Ms Light behaviour of our people can predispose more of our customers to acting that way also. What's needed is more sensitive application of the best idea in customer service not to have been fully tapped, the 'Moment Of Truth'.

Moments of truth revisited

As most of us know, Moments Of Truth are perceptions customers build up of us based on apparently small interactions - making a phone call, checking in at a hotel, ordering a piece of machinery, receiving an invoice, etc. We can liken these interactions to a series of still photographs the customers takes of our business, needing very few to be able to play in their mind a 'film' of their own service experience. And it can be a comedy, tragedy, or happy ending sometimes based on as little as a single encounter! Unfair, subjective, even uninformed it may be, but we have been taught that the customer's perception is always right, and there's no arguing with the bottom-line that increasingly they have the choice based on the quality of their experience to take their business elsewhere or to stay loyal.

However, the idea is so elegant and simple that it seems to have eluded most businesses in practice. The customer's Moments of Truth well managed are often so small to the service provider that they somehow get underneath the corporate radar.

For instance, one of Europe's leading motor correspondents wrote recently that he was tired of reviewing yet another 16-valve, fuel injected, technological wonder when all he needed was a couple of extra inches of leg room and a proper glove compartment. Simple Moments of Truth, simply ignored.

One of my clients makes some of the best lifting machinery in the world. They rarely receive complaints about the product's quality, but frequently experience customers ranting in Mr Dark fashion about the incomprehensibility of their invoices. Again, underneath the corporate radar.

What follows are examples from one industry I have great personal experience with, the hotel business. These are instances viewed by the average Mr Angry who is angry because these things should not be difficult to put right. They're the small Moments Of Truth which if handled well can "train" our customers to respond in a more friendly Ms Light fashion. Hotels are really a metaphor here - the tips make the connection to service in general.

Hotel horrors - Mr Angry's questions

Why are hotel maps so often misleading?

Tip: Moments Of Truth occur well before customers visit you. Have travel and/or parking directions to your company been written by a 9-year-old dyslexic on a bad day?! Customers are already judging you before they walk in the door. . .

Why is reception usually the weak link - the least welcoming and helpful - when it should be the most?

Tip: Is exactly the right word here! Porters often save the day by their warmth of welcome and robust good humour. They are getting tipped - so how to create an environment where receptionists are so great that they get tipped also? Perhaps not literally - for instance, if they are greeting people at the entrance to your corporate headquarters - but they need to realise they are the most vital people in creating a positive first impression. Too obvious to think about? Experience shows that is obviously is!

Tip: Naturally, great reception is relevant for any business, so here's one more idea: don't subcontract to a security firm. Surliness comes with it.

Why do I always have to fill in a registration card no matter how many times I've stayed?

Tip: Nearly too obvious to mention - point-of-contact staff in any business should have access to vital information on customers and their preferences. It's hard to say, "we value your business" when you feel you are merely being processed, or are completely unknown.

Tip: For example, I can't sleep with duvets and need sheets and blanket. Has any hotel in my extensive travels ever remembered this? I can feel myself turning Mr Dark! Obviously housekeeping never talks to sales or reception.

Further tip: Whatever business you're in, run regular 'Mind The Gap' sessions where you discuss customer Moments Of Truth that fall in between departments. Especially the small, personal instances which are unlikely to be measured on your Customer Satisfaction Index, or whatever you call that largely irrelevant 'feedback process'. Largely irrelevant, that is, to me the customer!

What happens to room service staff between the time they leave the kitchen and arrive at your door?

Tip: There's no answer to this. It's one of life's great mysteries. Must be some timewarp they enter. It's as mysterious as "where do pens disappear to?" or "why do socks never return from the laundry in pairs?" The real tip is to deliver the small promises exactly when you say you will.

Tip: For this reason alone I rate the Marriott Hotel in Grosvenor Square, London, as an excellent one because they say "if we can't deliver room service breakfast on the dot, we pay!" And they do. Deliver it, that is.

Tip: Again, it's small stuff. Small stuff that is to you, the server. Big stuff to the customer.

Why can't I get proper coat hangers in my room when I've paid £120. a night?

Tip: The signal sent by those unstealable, but unusable hanging devices in hotel rooms is that I am an untrustworthy customer. It's a small Moment Of Truth, but probably one that has frustrated us all on occasion. Why not tackle it head on with humour like Virgin Atlantic, which has aeroplane shaped salt and pepper pots engraved underneath with the words, "Pinched from Virgin Atlantic".

Tip: Every organisation has its coat-hanger examples which demonstrate
in some small, but powerful way that you don't trust your customers (remember biros on a chain in banks!?). And guess what - they won't trust you either. . . .

"Shall I staple your credit card slip to your bill, sir?"

Tip: This is the only question you can guarantee will be asked on checkout. Maybe you will get "Enjoyed your stay?" "Travelling far?" "When will you be staying again?" "Nest time I'll make sure to get in that copy of Pit Bull Terrier Weekly you so enjoy. . . ." Maybe. But certainly you will see the evidence that the cashier has attended a half-day seminar on advanced origami to be able to deliver this folding miracle, but has thought little about the power of a memorable departure in enticing you, the customer, back.

Tip: Ensure your people are aware of what's important to the customer over and above the need for internal systems. Touch wins out over tech every time. Make sure your people remember this and are encouraged to be themselves rather than robotically following procedures. Otherwise customers see the joins in your noble intention to create seamless service.

Tip: If your waitress, for instance, is trained to ask "Enjoy your meal, madam?" help her to know why she's asking the question, and how to cope when a customer actually dares to say "No!" To allow her to become more flexible - that is, more human - within the necessary framework.

Why the instructions are always in German - if that's what is expected!

Hopefully these examples have provoked you - or more likely reminded you - how your people can create a more intimate relationship with your customers. It's clear, however, that for some people the other queue always moves faster; it's always they who are picked on for bad service, and to them the instructions will always be in German!

Don't waste energy on these customers as your own people are more important. America's SouthWest Airlines is the only organisation I know of that receives far more positive than critical mail from its customers. But if a customer is unfairly insulting to SWA staff they will receive a clear note saying that this won't be tolerated, please fly with someone else. The great service providers realise that there's no need to be subservient to give great service. In fact, pride without arrogance is the magic formula.

Actually using a more human understanding of Moments Of Truth can help this pride to be converted into skilful management of those micro instances that form a customer's view of us. The real talent is in perceiving whether it's these small moments badly handled that has pushed the customer into a Mr Dark attitude - that's usually how it is - or whether they are professional Mr Darks, unsatisfiable, inherently disloyal customers anyway.

Finally, remember that what can cloud the issue in our culture is that we actually enjoy a good whinge. I'm writing this in the USA, and have almost reached my limit with "Enjoy!" "Have a good one!" Etc. I'm looking forward to a refreshing dose of British service humiliation. And humour!

Originally published: 19 Jun 2006


Copyright © 2015 Nigel Barlow. All Rights Reserved.