Customer Service, or serving customers

23 June 2016

It’s been said that there are two kinds of people: those who believe there are two kinds of people and those who don’t. I don’t know about this. But I do know that there are two kinds of companies: those that believe in Customer Service and those that believe in serving customers (leaving aside those that believe in neither). I’ll call them CS and sc (asking government people to read sc as serving citizens, so as not to contradict last week’s TWOG).

Serving customers is not some sort of technique, not a program. It’s a way of life, a philosophy of doing business. Treating customers well because that makes you more $$$ is not sc; it’s CS. In contrast, sc is making more money because you treat your customers well. There’s a difference, namely what comes first in your head. Sure you charge properly for what you give, knowing that if your customers are satisfied, they will come back.

What do the employees see when a customer walks in the door: $$ or a person? Put those employees on commission and guess what they see. (“Now, how about a luxurious little Lincoln to go with your beautiful new Rolex watch? Try it on and see how good they look together!”) Put the company on the stock market, under the influence of people who can’t see past $$, and guess what everyone else is expected to see. Most big companies started with sc—that is what enabled them to grow big.  I admire the few that have managed to remain so after they went public.

I am told by someone inside Johnson & Johnson that it is one of these. Its website says that its Credo was developed by Robert Wood Johnson in 1943, “just before it became a publicly traded company…. Our Credo is more than just a moral compass. We believe it’s a recipe for business success. The fact that Johnson & Johnson is one of only a handful of companies that have flourished through more than a century of change is proof of that.” I can’t vouch for this, but the following, excerpted from the Credo, does sound right: 

We believe our first responsibility is to the doctors, nurses and patients, to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services….

We are responsible to our employees, the men and women who work with us throughout the world…. They must have a sense of security in their jobs…. 

We are responsible to the communities in which we live and work and to the world community as well. We must be good citizens….

Our final responsibility is to our stockholders… When we operate according to these principles, the stockholders should realize a fair return.

What does sc feel like? That’s easy; you can’t miss it. For example, recently we couldn’t find an iPhone and reported it lost to our phone company. Later we we found it and called back. There was no voice saying “We appreciate your business” while forcing us to wait interminably. (If a company appreciates my business, why doesn’t it treat my time as important as its own?) Instead, Patricia (can’t remember her actual name) answered quickly and was genuinely delighted to hear that we found it. Genuinely—the two of us were charmed by the delight in her voice. I can’t speak for that whole company, but I can tell you that the Patricia’s of this world should be staffing the call centers, not to mention the executive suites.

Then there’s that wonderful waiter in a delightful restaurant in Quebec City, charmingly called Le Cochon Dinge (The Wacky Pig). The happiest, jolliest, friendliest waiter we have ever encountered. I can’t tell you his name because he was not programmed to say when we arrived: “Hello, my name is Mestipho and I will be your server today!!”

What does CS feel like? For me, alienating. How about the programmed greeters at the entrance to the Walmart stores. One time, on a weekday afternoon, I wished they had put this person inside the store, to clean up the god-awful mess of merchandise strewn all over the shelves. And then there’s our dear old airline, so devoted to CS. Try booking at the last minute an Air Canada flight from Montreal to Boston, which takes less than an hour in the air. The fare is $1066, one way ($2132 return, if you are not good at math).  Guess what:  Air Canada has a monopoly on that route. Guess what: Air Canada can’t see past this monopoly, to its customers who fly elsewhere too. To hell with those who need to go to Boston. How about to hell with Air Canada when we need to go elsewhere.

And this brings us to $CS$: treat well only those customers with tons of $$$ who spend it lavishly. This requires that they sort the customers the moment they walk in the door, between those who get CS and those who get dismissed. I said to a Honda salesmean [whoops, a typo!]: “Can you please give me your best price.” He replied: “Are you here to buy now? Otherwise, why should I tell you that. You will just go to another dealer and tell him our price.” I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that I am not allowed to do that. The nerve of me for trying to comparison shop for the second biggest purchase I make (after a house). So I went to another Honda dealer. He gave me his best price and I bought the car, right then and there. I couldn’t care less if the other guy’s price was lower.

Of course, there’s another side to all this: respecting sellers (rs). Customers who don’t do that, even ones with $$$, may get CS, but they don’t deserve sc. That is because, if the employees are not treated well, by the company as well as the customers, how can they truly treat the decent customers well? 

© Henry Mintzberg 2016  Follow this TWOG on Twitter @mintzberg141, or receive the blogs directly in your inbox by subscribing hereTo help disseminate these blogs, we now also have a Facebook page and a LinkedIn.