What separates a good service experience from a great one?

Getting the basics right – and making the pasta stretch a little further

Good service experience

A few weeks ago, I got itchy feet – again. This time, I decided to visit my friend S in Milan.

He and I used to do an Italian/English conversation swap when he lived here in Cambridge, and we’ve remained in touch online since he returned to Italy. But however HD the video, and however surround the sound, a Skype call just isn’t the same as a face-to-face encounter.

So I decided to head for the bright lights and the big city, and booked my ticket for Milan. But first, I had to find somewhere to stay, as S’s sister’s flat couldn’t accommodate all three of us.

A home from home

Booking accommodation is always a bit of a crapshoot. In the past, I’ve had the misfortune to rent one place where the bedrooms smelt of cat pee and the owner’s hard-of-hearing mother had the television on at full blast in the room above mine (Rome).

Or the creatively photographed apartment that left out the busy road running right past the terrace (French Pyrenees). Not to mention the top-floor flat above a market square that turned into a gathering place for droves of Vespa-riding teens until well after midnight (Florence). 

But now with the sharing economy in full swing, and with everybody rating everybody, things have become a little more transparent. Cat pee and noisy roads will soon sink a listing, so you can book with relative confidence.

But in a world of rising standards, not everybody has hit five stars. So what makes a service experience really stand out? 

  • Communication. My host (let’s call him A) was responsive from the very beginning – confirming the booking within minutes, and suggesting we connect on WhatsApp. From then on, he was available at a moment’s notice to answer any questions or provide advice. 
  • Flexibility. I read in one of the reviews that A had waited up until 1am for a guest to arrive who’d got delayed. And with me, he showed the same flexible approach: no problem with arrival or departure time, breakfast at whatever time suited me, and modifying his schedule on the fly to take me on an impromptu walk through Milan.
  • Going above and beyond. Strictly speaking, I should have had just bed and breakfast (if you haven’t had Italian fette biscottate to start the day, you haven’t lived). But on my four nights in Milan, A invited me to dine with him on one evening, and with him and his partner on another when I rocked up five minutes before they were due to eat (“Join us! There’s plenty of pasta to go around.”). 
  • Making a connection. When I chatted to A about renting out his spare room, he said he started it as a business, but soon realised that it was more than that. Receiving paying guests in his home wasn’t simply a commercial transaction, but a way to connect with people from all over the world and share their lives (and his) for a few days. 

The caring economy

Now renting accommodation on Airbnb or any of the other lookalike sites is not like selling widgets, or providing IT support services or running a management consultancy.

So can the lessons of a holiday experience be extended to business? I think they can. Because what these hosts and guests have realised is that all business is transacted between two people.

And yes, it’s true that you don’t get to meet every customer or prospect in person over a crunchy Italian biscuit at breakfast.

But you can try to imagine what their world is like when you’re writing that marketing email or posting that tweet, when you’re drafting the blog post or launching a sales campaign.

A physiotherapist once told me that it’s been scientifically proven that if you visualise a muscle when you’re exercising it, the manoeuvre is more effective. In much the same way, I think that if you visualise your target audience when you’re carrying out any sort of marketing activity, it works better. 

And that’s why so many marketers nowadays have detailed buyer personas. See the person and you make the connection – which, for my money, is what separates a good service experience from an exceptional one.

I’m already planning a return trip. Because those crunchy Italian breakfast biscuits just aren’t the same here.

Funny that.

Nothing lasts and nothing matters (and why that's good news)

Exploding mobiles, fading memories and managing the message

[Image courtesy of iphonedigital at Flickr Creative Commons]

Oh to be a fly on the wall at Samsung HQ at the moment.

After one of the biggest mobile phone PR disasters in living memory, it would certainly be interesting to know how they’re bearing up in Seoul.

At one point it looked like they were getting on top of things with their recall programme – but then the replacement handsets also went up in smoke, adding insult to injury. At times it felt like watching a mobile phone version of Source Code

In the end, they took the only decision they could, announcing the immediate suspension of production and definitive recall of all units in the market. It’s been a monumentally expensive episode, with the Korean giant steeling itself for a $3 billion hit in Q1 2014.

But here’s an interesting thing: according to some industry experts,  it could all be forgotten in as little as six months.

Why is that?

Because this is a fast-moving environment, where product launches are frequent. Samsung has at least two major events a year, and other manufacturers are clamouring for a share of a saturated market by constantly upping the ante. 

Already people are in post-Note 7 mode, looking forward to the much-anticipated Galaxy 8, which is expected to be unveiled at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona at the end of February.

So what lessons can we learn from the exploding mobiles? 

Memories are short

This is good news, because it means that bad news is soon forgotten.

Back in 2014, commentators were asking whether Malaysia Airlines had a future, after the disappearance of flight MH370 and the shooting down of of MH17 just four months later.

Two years on, people are still flying with the airline, and it’s even posted a profit.

So bad news doesn’t last, however bad it is. In our always-connected world, there’s always something worse to replace it.

The downside is that good news doesn’t last either. It doesn’t matter how slick your product launch is, how revolutionary your service is or how positive the survey results are. Nothing lasts forever, so you’d better have some more good news down the line.

Which is yet another good reason to have a marketing calendar that maps out the next 12 months and has constantly rolling activity.

Don’t sweat the small stuff

OK, so self-destructing phones are pretty dangerous and need to be taken off the market. But that marketing campaign that you’re agonising over, the website design you can’t quite make up your mind on, the copy you’ve been trying to hammer into shape for the last week isn’t.

I remember a few years back spending two whole days trying to decide on the size and colour of the dots for my website logo. I went through every conceivable hue and saturation, brightness and tint. They got bigger and smaller, and moved from left to right, from top to bottom.

It was a small but telling example of the famous analysis paralysis (probably an INTJ thing, but let’s not go there). And in the end, I simply made a snap decision and moved on.

So if the big decisions barely matter, why sweat the small stuff?

Most decisions are not show-stoppers, so imagine how much time you could save by just deciding and moving on. How much more work you could get done. How much earlier you could call it a day. 

Get in front of the story

You miss a deadline, or your service falls short. The delivery doesn’t make it to your customer, or you say something you shouldn’t have in a meeting.

In business as in life, stuff happens – some of which you can control, and some of which you can’t. What really matters is how you react when things go wrong.

So if something goes wrong, whether it’s your fault or somebody else’s, it’s alway best to take control and manage the message – before somebody else does. If you act quickly and decisively, frame the message and propose a plan to minimise the damage, you’re well on the way to a solution.

Samsung realised this and took positive action to own the problem and control the direction of travel of the story. Of course part of that is cultural, and getting it right was a question of national pride (in a country where you can be born in a Samsung hospital and make your last journey thanks to a Samsung funeral centre). Perhaps we should all be a bit more Korean. 

Getting in front of the story works for problems big and small. From minor service glitches to an army of incendiary handsets and everything in between.

And however bad it gets, remember you can always take comfort in the thought that memories really are short. Mine certainly is: I’m already toying with the idea of a Galaxy 8.

Because it can’t happen again. Can it?

Why customer service is the ultimate weapon in the marketing battle

What you think, what they say and how to close the gap

[Image courtesy of Alan Clark at Flickr Creative Commons]

I’ve been doing a lot of reading recently about customer service for a big project. And what I’ve found out has surprised me, and sometimes amazed me. But before I dive into the detail, let me ask you a simple question: 

Do you provide good customer service? 

Of course you do. The default response to that question is yes. If it were no, you’d either be very honest (you owned up) or very naive (you thought it didn’t make a difference). It’s like asking somebody if they’re a good wife, or husband, or boyfriend, or girlfriend. A knee-jerk yes. 

And yet and yet. One of the surveys I saw said that 88% of companies think they provide good customer service. And customers? Go on – think of a number. Got it? OK, we’ll come back to that later.

That figure wasn’t the only one that caught my eye.

Research company Gartner say that only 5-10% of companies truly have customer care at their core. The rest – and that’s a whopping 90-95% – simply focus on customer care because they have no choice, and because all other differentiators have disappeared. So they’re doing it simply because they have to, not because they want to.

Let me throw some more figures at you, and just think how they relate to your business: 

  • Reducing your customer defection rate by just 5% can boost your sales by between 25% and 125%
  • 70% of buying experiences are based on how customers feel they’re being treated. 
  • A 2% increase in customer retention has the same effect as cutting your costs by 10%. (Read that again, and write it down on a Post-it. Now stick it to your monitor.)
  • 86% of people will pay more (read, write, stick) for customer service, but only 1% of them feel their expectations are met.
  • In 2013, 62% of global customers switched service providers because of poor service.

OK, OK – I’ll stop. You get the picture.

It’s the service, stupid

The takeaway here is: customer service is important, nobody’s getting really right, and everybody better start getting it right soon. 

In fact, that’s the other really big thing I got from my research. By 2020, customer service will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator. So that’s five years at best – and that’s a very short time indeed when you’re running fast just to stand still.

So what’s the answer? Run faster? Do more with less, in that time-worn cliché? Under-promise and over-deliver (ditto)? 


The answer is really simple. Just promise and deliver. You don’t need to aim for excellence, or go the extra mile every time. In any case, when your resources and your time are maxed out, overshooting for all customers is both exhausting and expensive.

So just do a good job. Do what you said you’d do. Because one other finding I saw really caught my attention: research shows that ‘customer delight’ is wasted effort. Exceeding expectations doesn’t have an appreciable effect on customer satisfaction.

As the man said, good enough is good enough. Now stop reading and start doing.

(A paltry 8% of customers say they get good service, by the way. Chilling, isn’t it?)

Thinking big? Plan bigger.

Big promises equal big disappointments, so think before you commit

If you’re of a certain age, and you live in the UK, chances are you’ll recognise the line ‘the bank that likes to say…yes’In fact, you can probably still sing along with the jingle, which is right up there with ‘A Finger of Fudge’ and ‘A Mars a day (helps you work, rest and play)’.

Yes, it’s TSB of course.

Trustee Savings Bank, with its distinctive logo showing each initial in a circle. The TV ad dates from the early 1980s (yes, I gasped too) and it demonstrates just how powerful and memorable a tagline and a tune can be.

TSB was taken over by Lloyds, which became Lloyds TSB. And then, when the global banking crisis hit, the part-nationalised Lloyds Banking Group, with the government (aka you and me) as stakeholders.

Now, to try and recoup some of the money spent on that stake, they’re hiving off parts of the bank. And out of the ashes rises the TSB phoenix. Over 600 branches are to open across the country.

Millions of customers, I read, would have their accounts moved across automatically. New customers could easily switch from their existing bank to TSB. And opening an account would take less than ten minutes. Yes, ten minutes – I gasped a second time.

Big promises. But could they really deliver? I decided to put the ten-minute challenge to the test.

Quick march

And you know what? It really was ten minutes, give or take a few seconds. The website was basic, but functional. It asked simple questions, didn’t pry too much, and gave me a clear indication of progress. I was waiting for the inevitable problem (I’ve taken similar challenges before) but it never came.

Ten minutes later, and I was done. All I had to do was wait, and they’d confirm everything by post.

So I waited. And waited. And no, I’m not going to say that I’m still waiting, because I’m not. They did eventually (almost two weeks later) write to me. And I didn’t really mind the delay – I imagined them frantically processing thousands of new applications, and transitioning those millions of existing customers across.

When the letter did come, with its 80s retro logo, I was pretty excited (yes, I know, it doesn’t take that much). But just think: I’d opened an account in ten minutes. It had gone with out a hitch. They really were the bank that likes to say ‘yes’.

And here was the welcome letter with my account details, to be followed by my debit card and internet banking details.

Or so I thought. But it was not to be. For when I opened the letter, my hopes were dashed.

Dear Mr Walsh,

Thank you for your recent application for a Current account.

Unfortunately due to a technical error on our system we cannot activate the account, and you will therefore need to go into your local TBS branch to open the account.

Please take your identification document with you.

We apologise for the inconvenience caused.

Yours sincerely,
Michael Walsh
Operations Manager

You couldn’t make it up, could you? Right down to the surname, it had a touch of the surreal. (And yes, they did capitalise ‘Current’.) A sort of banking version of the dead parrot sketch. Could it get any worse?

Of course it could.

I went on to the TSB site to check where my local branch was. I tried my postcode and ‘Cambridge’ but it gave me an error message. OK, so maybe there aren’t any branches here yet. But when I tried ‘London’ I got the same result. In other words, no result.

So I gave up.

Numbers game

It appears I’m not alone, though the damage in my case is minimal. At least I have a fully functioning account with another bank, and don’t really need this one.

Some Lloyds customers have been locked out of their accounts for over a week. Many others are seriously unhappy about being moved over to the new, resurrected TSB. The website crashed when it was launched, which probably accounts for the back-end problems they’ve had opening my account.

All in all, a pretty poor showing.

The message is simple: if you’re thinking big, plan bigger. If you’re going to promise, you should make sure you can deliver. Ten minutes should mean just that. And websites should work first time, every time. If you’re launching a bank and moving 4.5m customers, you need to have a robust back-end (and a robust rear end when you come in for a kicking if you don’t deliver).

30 years on, and I can still sing along with the jingle. In fact, it’s the subliminal power of the tagline that made me apply for the account. But decades of naive belief have now been swept away by the cold waters of reality.

And by the bank that likes to say no.

Find out more:

Does your service go the extra mile?

The little things that make a big difference

excellent service

This week, I had the brake cables on my bicycle tightened. They now work better than they’ve ever done.The thing is, that’s not why I went to the bike shop.

Let me explain.

Two days earlier, my front mudguard fell off. Again. It’s one of those indestructible plastic ones, that can withstand heat, light, water and just about anything you can throw at it. It’s been stress-tested in wind tunnels and bent to destruction in the mudguard labs.

Unfortunately, it’s attached to the bike by the flimsiest of brackets, which breaks if you look at it. And I did – twice.

So I went to the bike shop. Now Cambridge has no shortage of bike shops – it’s the Beijing of England, with 50% of the workforce cycling to work.

It was closed. A small, grubby, handwritten sign said it would open again in two days.

So I waited.

I could have gone to any number of other shops, but I didn’t. Why? Because the guy who runs it is good – friendly, attentive, helpful and always trying to add value.

Two days later, I left the bike with him so he could fit new mudguards. They come in pairs, so the back one had to be replaced too.

“They finally woke up,” he said about the mudguard people. “People got sick of them breaking, so they’ve strengthened the bracket. Just look.”

And I did – at an industrial-strength, don’t-mess-with-me silver bracket that looked like it was the business.

I didn’t even ask the price of the mudguards. I didn’t need to – that’s how much I trust this chap. And when I picked up my bike, that trust was once again reinforced, with a little something extra.

This time, it was the brake cables. Last time, the chain.

And that’s why I keep going back.

How can I help you?

Good service is common sense. So why is it so rare? Keeping clients happy is a sure way of keeping them as clients.

I can think of two coffee shops I avoid if particular people are on duty there. What should be a relaxing experience turns into a stressful one. By the time my latte is handed to me, I’m just about ready to leave.

By contrast, I can think of another – more expensive – coffee shop where I break into a broad smile if I see my favourite barista grinding, pouring and skimming. I can’t help myself. She exudes enthusiasm and charm.

She knows my regular, and accidentally-on-purpose stamps my loyalty card twice when I buy a coffee.

As you can imagine, I’m the most loyal of customers.

The wheels of industry

Meanwhile, back on the open road, with my DEFCON 1 mudguards, I was struck by one business name that worked. And one that…well, sort of did.

The first I saw on a narrowboat on the River Cam. What a great idea. A doctor that does house calls. You’ve got to love it.

excellent service

The second was along the same lines. But when I saw it, I just scratched my head. So where do the patients go, I wondered?

And then I got it. But it was too late.

Names either work immediately, or they don’t work at all.

excellent service