If I were to ask you to name a company that consistently excels at customer service, what company would come to mind? In you are part of a military family, you might say USAA. If you live in the Southeast, you might tell me about Publix Supermarkets. If you are a golf aficionado, you might share your Masters experience with me. And, if you are passionate about shoes, you might mention either Nordstrom or Zappos. No doubt, others among you would name companies such as Enterprise Rent-a-Car, Chik-fil-A, Apple Stores, Disney, and Mayo Clinic.

I’ve asked this question to groups at various times. And, while there’s always a company or two that I hadn’t heard of before, it’s amazing how often I hear the companies listed above as exemplars. Perhaps this is simply a reputation effect, but I’d venture to say this is not the case. In fact, my own personal experiences would lead me to call out Enterprise, Chik-fil-A, and Disney in this list. Even to the extent that reputation accounts for why these companies are mentioned time and again, I am confident that it is an earned reputation.

I find this interesting because excellent customer service is supposed to be easily copied. There’s no intellectual property around pleasant and helpful interactions. There’s no single process that leads to exceptional customer service that cannot be easily copied. And, the folks delivering delightful interactions on the frontline of these businesses are not the highly-paid knowledge workers that are in short supply.

The fact is, however, that excellent customer service is not easily copied. The consistency of companies “at the top” validates this truth. While any given process can be copied by other companies, great service companies are never built on a single process – or even a dozen for that matter. Rather, it is a system of processes that leads to great service as exceptional service becomes part of the very DNA of truly exceptional companies.

This service DNA consists of values and capabilities that enable and motivate frontline workers to rise above the level of service provided by their peers in other organizations. Unlike individual processes, service DNA is VERY difficult to copy. Further, a 2009 study by the Peppers & Rogers Group concludes that 4 out of 5 companies with strong capabilities for service excellence outperform the competition.

In the remainder of this blog, I’d like to help you to understand the genetic code of exceptional service companies. To illustrate some of the key points along the way, I’ll use an up-and-coming exceptional service company, MOO.com. For more on MOO, I also encourage you to listen to this podcast with Dan Moross, MOO Head of Customer Services.

First, exceptional service companies place high priority on customer service excellence. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Sounds pretty obvious! I know, I know. However, I’ve been around my share of companies who really place a high priority on customer service excellence and those who merely give lip service to it. The latter might have it in their mission statement, they might list customer-centricity among their values, and they might have a slogan or two painted on their corporate HQ walls. But it doesn’t go much beyond that.

Companies with a service DNA, in contrast, make certain that customer needs are front and center when decisions are made, they do lots of little things on a daily basis that continually reinforce the importance of the customer to all employees, they have plans for improving customer service, and they demonstrate their customer commitment by making tough choices that favor customer needs over corporate profits. Though well-orchestrated service processes are important to success, a service DNA consisting of customer-focused values is even more important. Nearly 7 in 10 customers leave a business due to feelings of poor treatment.

At MOO, employee’s shared belief in the importance of customer satisfaction is reinforced by having every employee shadow a customer service rep for an hour in the first week.  And it is continually reinforced in product and user experience employees who spend at least an hour each week with a customer service rep, taking notes they share, in turn, with others on their team.

MOO also makes concrete decisions with customer satisfaction in mind, even if they may not lead to profit with individual customers. The best example of this is based on a policy that offers as much symbolic value as it does service guidance. At MOO, which prints products such as business cards, postcards, and greeting cards, customer satisfaction is such a priority that the company covers all the costs for re-printing and re-shipping problematic orders – even when the problem has been created by a customer mistake.

Second, companies with a service DNA ensure excellence by aligning their structure and processes with customers’ service needs. This includes establishing clear accountability for customer satisfaction, designing roles and functions for a seamless customer experience, and creating processes that serve customers’ best interests rather than the company’s interests. Internally, it means purposely providing the resources that are required to deliver service excellence and removing internal barriers that may stand in the way. Externally, such alignment is sure to pay off in customer loyalty. A recent study we did in a B2B space, for example, revealed that the leading drivers of customer loyalty related to how easy it was to do business with the company – even before good value and product superiority.

Too often, I find that organizations tout customer-centricity, but they fail to intentionally align roles, policies, metrics, and incentives with customers’ service needs. Rather, they allow these organizational dimensions to emerge over time without consideration of the impact on the customer. In the absence of active consideration of customers’ service needs in making these decisions, the default consideration becomes the short-term productivity and profitability of the company.

Though it may take awhile for customers to be impacted by such decisions, an exception here or there to a customer-first ideal communicates to employees what really matters to the company. And this leads to unintended consequences as rational employees engage in behaviors that are actually detrimental to customers because these are the behaviors that lead to division, department, or individual rewards. A service DNA requires doing what is right, even when customers aren’t looking. The good news? Research shows that the majority of customers are willing to pay more for a better customer experience.

At MOO, the customer stays front and center because customer service is handled by the company rather than outsourced. Further, customer service representatives are physically located in the same building and room as other company functions. In addition, customer service reps are encouraged to be advocates for customer issues at weekly cross-functional business meetings. Rather than rules and scripts to guide customer service interactions, MOO also prefers to rely on core service principles and the discretion of reps to do the right thing. MOO’s philosophy is that most people know what they should do to provide exceptional service, so it is MOO’s job to enable and encourage them, but otherwise to get out of their way.

Third, companies with a service DNA prepare their employees to deliver service excellence. Importantly, this begins before an employee is ever hired in truly great service companies. They know that technical skills can be taught, but a friendly attitude cannot. Certainly, this does not mean that a company can ignore technical skills when looking at pilots, IT consultants, and mortgage brokers. However, it does mean that the so-called soft skills are given at least as much emphasis in the selection process. At MOO, for example, a subjective evaluation of whether a person will fit with the team is the key consideration when selecting customer service reps. Beyond this, MOO is looking, quite simply, for individuals who are nice…and, perhaps a bit more deeply, for individuals who are empathetic.

Beyond hiring the right persons, a service DNA requires communicating clear service expectations to all employees, developing required skills and knowledge in new employees, and recognizing and rewarding exceptional service. Too many organizations view the employee onboarding process as a cost rather than an investment in future success. Viewed as a cost, the goal is to take as little time as possible, especially because there is the understanding that some new employees will leave.

Viewed as an investment, in contrast, the goal is to ensure that new employees understand not only their role, but also the role of other functional areas and the unique culture of the company. This is how companies with a service DNA approach the onboarding process. These companies know that a vast majority of customers will stop doing business with a company due to a bad service experience, and they see it as an opportunity to distance themselves from the competition.

At MOO, there is no rush to get new customer service reps in front of customers. That would be disastrous. Rather, new reps spend considerable time in a one-on-one training environment. In addition, each new service rep spends time in the warehouse and other areas of the business. They also hear from executives who share insights about different areas of the business ranging from online digital printing to artwork training to the MOO culture and brand. Reps are given general service guidelines such as “we’re not happy until our customers are happy” rather than specific service rules and call-length requirements.

Finally, a service DNA requires a commitment to generating and sharing insights to improve customer service excellence over time. On a customer-by-customer basis, this includes the intelligent and creative use of technology to satisfy individual customer needs. Across employees and locations, a service DNA requires mechanisms and a culture to encourage the sharing of best practices. Across customers, a service DNA relies on the implementation and tracking of customer metrics and inputs to provide feedback and guide individual and system improvements in customer service. Consistent with this, an Aberdeen study showed that 70% of best-in-class customer experience companies use customer feedback to make decisions whereas only 29% of laggards do.

Although MOO engages customers across four to five channels, their software gives them 360 degree visibility into their customer relationships, letting anyone know for a given customer why they contacted MOO, what their order history is, and how they contacted MOO so customers don’t have to repeat themselves. MOO information technology also supports real-time reporting on service issues, resolution time, call metrics, and so on. Importantly, these metrics are not only tracked, but to reinforce the importance of customer service excellence throughout the organization, these metrics are also displayed where every MOO employee can see them.

Although MOO already has some creative use of technology in place to ensure the quality of every customer order, they are also exploring ways further remove customer inconvenience from the process by proactively searching for errors – even those that the customer makes.

On the surface, customer service excellence seems like a touchy-feely subject that defies systematic inquiry and development. However, exceptional service leaders look at it very differently. They recognize that service excellence doesn’t happen by chance. Rather, it requires careful consideration of the many capabilities that make up a service DNA. It is these capabilities, not any given policy or procedure, that ultimately ensures that a company has the knowledge, capacity, and drive to deliver superior service across people, places, and time.

Our review of three decades of scholarship on service management, market orientation, and customer-focused organizations reveals that companies must manage nearly 60 capabilities in the four areas identified in this blog to sustain excellence in customer interactions. With this inventory of capabilities in hand, we can help your company to map its service DNA, identify any gaps in its service DNA code, and prescribe a tailored plan for improvement. Let the DNA sequencing begin.

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