The E's and R's of Customer Service

I found myself contemplating the notion of customer service recently. There are known ‘truths’: ‘the customer is always right’, gratuity isn’t included on bills for fewer than 6 people, if you return something, bring the receipt to receive a full credit. There are dozens more.

Customers remain loyal to a group or company only when they perceive at least one of two “E’s”: effort or excellence. If there is an enthusiastic effort to please, we will overlook a less than great product. If the meal or service is excellent, we are able to disregard an indifferent atmosphere or overfull parking lot. All other factors - price, corporate political stance, the uniqueness of a product, marketing, or hours a place is open can either be lumped into one of the two “E’s” or are not key decision makers for most people.

This is where it’s interesting: both “E’s” come down to – usually – the impression formed between a customer and the foremost face of any business or company … the hourly employee. Whatever your thoughts on the minimum wage are, it is that person who is embodying your assessment of any organization. Researchers Willis and Todorov (2006) identify that first impressions are formed in a tenth of a second; that employee has the blink of an eye to demonstrate effort or excellence with drastically diminishing likelihood at winning your patronage every following moment.

Corporate training though often feels designed at cross purposes with this notion: a new hire is so diligently trained to follow ‘the rules’ that any innate effort or enthusiasm they may have is squelched. Can effort even be taught? Maybe; can excellence? Probably, but I’d argue the drive to be excellent must be already present. Instead, it feels like the multitude of corporate training programs are designed with “R’s” instead of “E’s”. Employees are taught that the rules are rigid and cannot be violated, and that customer service is reactionary, meaning they are given steps to take when certain stimuli occur, nothing proactive. A business that charges for small substitutions to a menu item or refuses to honor out of date promotions is not necessarily wrong to do so, it is all in the presentation of these policies.

All this comes back to another E – education. A service provider who knows not only about the product they sell/provide, but the business as a whole, the corporate vision, their potential for promotion, and the reasons policies are in place can make split second determinations that benefit the customer and builds that first impression. Instead of spending 2 hours teaching an employee to make a sandwich or fold a tee-shirt, spend a day fostering effort and enthusiasm through education. Rote skill can be learned by doing, alongside peers. And again, customers are only expecting either excellence or effort. I’d argue that managers and trainers are focusing on narrow R’s not expansive E’s.

The next time I find myself frustrated with the level of service I receive, it makes sense to ask myself first if my expectation of effort or enthusiasm is unreasonable. If it’s not, I’ll need to consider how likely I will be to frequent the business again given the level of company education the foremost face of the establishment has been given.

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