In an increasingly competitive market, how can companies build loyalty? Ron Kaufman, author of the New York Times’ bestseller Uplifting Service and one of the top customer service gurus globally, has guidelines for businesses to authentically care about customers. In an exclusive chat with Outlook Business, he talks about the evolving service industry and shares his ideas on creating a great customer experience.
You have trained top companies across continents for nearly three decades now, how has the service culture evolved over the years?
When I started in 1990, the key phrase was ‘customer satisfaction’. When I asked why, they would say ‘a satisfied customer will be a loyal customer’. Soon, that was not enough. So, everyone started focusing on customer experience. Turns out, even that was also not enough. As the world continued to mature, customer loyalty started needing customer advocacy. Now, gradually, this is moving towards customer partnership and authentic customer care. ‘Care’ like you are concerned about their future, worries and aspirations. That’s the extent to which customer service has evolved today.
For instance, consider the airline industry. People are usually using the same airport, travel agencies, websites and the services. How do you differentiate? It’s through service experience at the point of sales, welcoming, answering a query, following up on the query, or at the point of checking-in and saying goodbye. So, you see, it’s not about the aircraft or the prices, but the experience you create for someone, that the person should say, “That’s better than I expected.” Now, they will not just come back and be willing to pay more but also recommend you in their networks.
Do your principles on the ‘services’ culture stand universal across geographies?
Since I targeted the definition of ‘service’ from the foundational level, my principles were successful across companies, cultures and geographies. I defined ‘service’ as taking actions to create value for someone else. On those lines, I was able to build practical tools that people could use — such as how to incrementally improve service, different categories of value service, and so on.
Do the principles stay the same across industries, such as technology and finance?
When we look at industries such as technology or financial services, the principle stays the same but the application becomes specific. For instance, in the world of technology, AI can code better than humans. But, your client is eventually a human being. And, the client has aspirations, concerns and priorities. So, engaging in dialogue with the client and your curiosity to listen and appreciate them, become a part of the customer experience. Further, the steps you take to propose and deliver to that client, is not something that will be done by AI.
So, how does one create a common service culture across unrelated departments of the same company?
One of the biggest projects I did when I first moved to APAC almost 30 years ago, was for a company called Singapore Press Holdings. This included all their newspapers, magazines, channels and radio. They had editorial, advertising and then distribution teams. I created a programme for them called SMOP, which stood for SPH’s management orientation programme. We worked together for an entire week, where each department was trying to understand how their actions were connected to the other departments. Some of the interesting lessons the editorial learned was that for every 15 minutes of delay in releasing content, 100,000 people would get their newspapers late the following morning. This made the editorial department realise how asking for a few more minutes to work on a breaking news piece could effect the other departments.
In today’s organisations, we mostly find a divide between departments. This is called the ‘silo mentality’. Essentially it means, ‘you do your work, I’ll do mine’. So, we have to make these departments realise that their one main purpose is to take action as a company and create value or services for the customer. Once you achieve that, you create a ‘common service language’, and this a proven path to unleash the unbelievable.