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August 2014

Customer Service - Is it an Oxymoron?

OK, so now I'm on the war path. When I first conjured up the idea for this article, I had endured a series of awful customer service experiences. But today took the cake. Phone calls not returned. Lack of understanding. Promises broken. What ever happen to the old adage of "under promise, over deliver?" (Since I am likely to be using this phrase multiple times in this article, I will hereby create the acronym 'UPOD.')

Coined by Tom Peters, business management guru and co-author of the seminal book In Search of Excellence, it surely seems that today's business world has largely forgotten the significance of UPOD. Viewed in a somewhat different fashion, is customer service today an oxymoron, i.e. a blatant contradiction of terms? Let us explore.

When I was growing up, the epitome of customer service was Sears. Their no-questions-asked policy made it satisfyingly easy to make a return. It didn't matter when the product was purchased. It did not matter how abused the product was when returned. If it had the Craftsman name, it was gold. But that was then, this is now. In late 2013, a survey conducted by found that Sears was no longer at the top of the heap for returns. In fact, they had fallen to the basement. The worst.

How would you evaluate your company's customer service? It does not matter whether you are a traditional brick and mortar company, a retailer, a service provider like an attorney or a CPA, the future of your company hinges on how well you service your customers, on how often you succeed with UPOD. But answer that question carefully. Because it is all in the eye of the beholder.

Remember, what is most important is what your customer thinks, not what you/your company believes. Bain & Company conducted a survey about customer satisfaction. The results were eye-opening. 80% of the companies surveyed were convinced that they provided a superior customer experience. Any guess as to what percentage of their customers agreed with this assessment? Would you believe 8%?

Years ago I was consulting to a computer and audio visual rental company. One of the metrics they used to assess customer satisfaction was the percentage of times they made their delivery on time. On the surface, that sounded like an appropriate measurement. But take a step back. Imagine yourself as the customer. You asked for a 10:00 a.m. delivery. It is 9:58, you are at your desk and the equipment has not arrived. How are you feeling? Anxious? Are you wondering if the order will arrive on time?

A minute later the courier arrives with order in hand. It is all there... but how would you rate the experience? From the company side, they succeeded. The order arrived by 10:00. But from the customer perspective, I suggested the opposite. I claimed that the customer experience of anxiety was negative and recommended that the metric should be altered so that the delivery needed to arrive 10 minutes prior to the requested delivery time. That turned out to be magical. Customer satisfaction, as measured by customers, improved.

The statistics are plentiful. Survey after survey, report after report, lead us all in the same direction. Customer service, defined as "a series of activities designed to enhance the level of customer satisfaction - that is, the feeling that a product or service has met the customer expectation," is now the most critical component in making buying decisions.
  • Avanade, a business technology provider, reports that not only does the customer experience top price as the driver in making a buying decision, but that business owners are willing to pay up to 30% more for a product or service that offers improved customer experience.
  • Accenture conducted a survey asking the most important factor when buying a product. Sitting on top of the list was... Service Experience.
  • American Express discovered that 70% of Americans will spend an average of 13% more with companies they believe provide excellent customer service.

So customer service is king. Failing to heed that reality can bring your empire down. Ever heard of the "Multiplier Effect?" Customers love to share their buying experiences - the good experiences, but especially the bad ones. While the research numbers vary, they all point in the same direction. "Happy customers will tell 4-6 people, unhappy share with 9-15," per the House Office of Consumer Affairs.

Is there a choice? Is it OK by any measure to not strive for nor perform at optimal levels? Does your company exhibit a culture focusing on customer service? How would you rate the level of commitment to a customer service culture in your organization? If it is not topping the charts, then possibly you could help move the needle to the top. Here are some ideas to make that happen.
  • Be very clear about the goals and objectives. Create expectation and accountability.
  • Communicate clearly and often why providing top notch customer service is vital.
  • Establish and implement policies that are customer centric and friendly.
  • Hire and train for the culture of excellent service. Create an environment of learning and empowerment.
  • Measure your efforts through key performance indicators (KPIs) as seen through the eyes of your customers.

In today's world, Amazon is the best at customer service. This is confirmed by multiple sources. My experiences will bear that out. Can we all attain the success of Amazon? Perhaps not in revenue generation, but certainly in terms of customer service. The benefits to your company are numerous.
  • Customer retention. Satisfied customers will continue to buy your products and services from you.
  • Increased referrals of customers, from your satisfied customers, from word of mouth, and through response to positive social media commentaries and scores.
  • Good publicity and increased brand recognition attract new customers.
  • Improved employee morale. Happy staff.
  • Satisfied owners, stakeholders and shareholders.

Customer service does not need to be an oxymoron. UPOD can once again be the norm rather than the exception.

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About the author

Lee Schwartz, Principal and founder of the Schwartz Profitability Group (, is a consultant, author and speaker who has been uncorking operational bottlenecks for manufacturing and distribution companies for almost 13 years, saving them time and money, and boosting their bottom line. His consulting and operational turnaround work helps clients find solutions related to process improvement, supply chain management, inventory control, workflow design and operational performance improvement. Prior to launching his consulting practice, Lee spent over 20 years with manufacturers and distributors, many in senior management positions of CEO and President. Lee can be reached by phone at (310) 450-2628 or by e-mail at

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