I first learned about potential downside risks of openly promising to do great things for customers – and that, in certain circumstances, silence might the better strategy – when I was 12.
My Dad led me to that understanding at the table in one of countless dinnertime Q-and-A seminars. Along with great home cooking, my six older siblings and I partook of practical wisdom for success in business and living. In the first month of my 12th year, I both got a paper route and began intensive independent study in customer service. Dad helped me leverage lessons about serving others in business and life from things that happened to deliver papers on an old, hand-me-down purple, Schwinn String-Ray bicycle.
“You know,” he mused in a memorable session, “Sometimes no marketing, no advertising, no promotion is better than the most creative high-impact campaign. Sometimes doing nothing is better.”
That was surprising to hear from the head of the top advertising agency in our multi-state region – doubly so because he did the creative high-impact ad copy and campaign he spoke of.
Backstory: Dad once coined the phrase “Where People Mean Everything,” for a certain big-deal bank headquartered in our city, and the bank made the words a highly visible slogan for decades. A couple of weeks before the aforementioned dinner, Dad explained to me that his slogan expressed what he termed and what I now teach as a “Service Promise.” The bank made a pledge to be all about people.
Right then I was a newly minted everything person because I just opened a bank account for the paper route. That Dad Talk focused more on the immediate need for me to make my own Service Promise in words of my own choosing to do right by each and every person to whom I delivered newspapers. We worked out a promise and agreed I should keep it private while doing my dead-level best to live up to it with my Everything People.
This came up again at dinner after a bank teller and manager were complete jerks to me when I came in alone to deposit money from my paper route. Granted, I did look younger than my age and had ink smudges on my puffy jacket from handling papers, but I was also a legit client with a stack of checks and cash. After all kinds of “Go away kid” bad attitude, they grudgingly accepted the deposit, and I went home mad. At dinner, I told Dad he needed to take back the bank’s slogan.
Ever the calm, smiling pedagogue, Dad steered around my anger to key points with practical applications for me back then and for anybody who serves others now. His words about doing nothing being better were not an actual endorsement of silence. Those were words of warning, which he expanded on. Fail to deliver on a promise and, he said, “Damage can be more serious than any amount of advertising can repair.”
So far, so obvious: Keep promises or people feel let down and angry. But there’s more to it. The promise has to be carefully expressed. Executives and business team leaders must make it part of day-to-day messaging and bake it into their organization’s culture. Planning takes in each point of engagement with members of service teams in person, in calls, and electronically. Each encounter has a purpose and can improve the customer experience if done right – or detract if, say, bank tellers decide to get snippy with a kid who will grow up and still get torqued off about what happened while writing about it and recounting it in presentations and coaching.
Feeling it, years after the fact, illustrates another key point: Let-down lasts a long, long time. Blame Human Nature. People just naturally go to the dark side of the experience. Bad news travels farther, faster, including bad customer experience. People obsess about it and tell about it over and over. “You’re not going to believe what happened…” they say. And others do believe it.
This mission-critical issue goes way beyond the customer service team. The whole team, C-Suite to production, shipping, and people who work midnights deep underground, must be on-board with the Service Promise, trained on what to say and do in situations both routine and unexpected. At any moment, like in an elevator or saying hello in a hallway, anybody can be the public face and persona of the organization.
Customer contact teams especially need refreshers to revisit and discuss key concepts. My regrettable incident at the “Where People Mean Everything” bank can, I believe, be chalked up to failed training. It’s 100 percent certain that the two people at the teller window knew the words “Where People Mean Everything” but did not believe this had anything to do with me. In their eyes, I looked like a Non-Person who therefore could be treated like Nothing. I was, of course, a customer bringing in a small but valuable bit of business. But even if I were a random kid who came inside for no particular reason, they would have done credit to their organization and themselves by being nice. Everybody deserves to be recognized as somebody. Smiling at me could have improved their nasty day, too.
Once you nail down your own Service Promise, you have a decision to make: Do you keep it in-house or go public and use it for promo purposes, maybe a campaign? Your call is to be thoughtful and strategic. Business training and marketing lore are all over big ad campaign wins and such all-time hit slogans as Avis’ “We Try Harder.” The rental car company used this in its slogan for more than a half-century, beginning when it was an unpromising, distant second to Hertz. Genius ad copy, for sure, but I say that it worked just as much magic in-house. If Avis people were not inspired to try harder, the company would not have soared.
Great Service Promises, summed up in great wordage, have the greatest power for people who make them and live up to them. If you can’t commit to living up to yours, follow Dad’s advice. Keep quiet and forget it.
Steven J. Anderson is the author of the recently released, The Bicycle Book: The Story of a Boy, His Father, a Paper Route and 12 Secrets of Serving Others in Business and Life. This illustrated autobiographical business novel is written for organization teams to take their service to the highest level and is available in every format at www.StevenJAnderson.com.
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