About this series: This series of articles from Nextiva will help you grasp of the essentials of customer service: the principles and guidelines that will serve you well in any era, regardless of trends, changing technology, and a constantly evolving customer base. Our guide is Micah Solomon, customer service and customer experience consultant, author, and speaker.
Customers place a certain value on consistency and familiarity when it comes to painlessly ordering or experiencing goods and services. For example (as a customer myself):
- When I order something online from a company I’ve visited before, I expect the menu screen to be essentially the same as I’ve become accustomed to—I don’t want to bother with relearning the ordering protocol.
- When I phone my heating oil company to place an order, I expect the usual protocol: to be told the current price per gallon, to be given a reasonable time frame for the delivery, and to have the delivery driver already know exactly where my fill spout is and how to get to it, without requiring me to be home at the time.
However, while customers value a feeling of consistency, a masterful company knows it always needs to improve, even to maintain that semblance of consistency, because customer expectations are continually getting more intense.
In the early twentieth century, just about thirty years after the telephone was invented and greeted with awe, the great writer and observer Marcel Proust made note of how unappreciated the phone had already become. Within a single generation, the telephone had gone from a miracle to an ordinary nuisance, spending more time complaining when hum or static broke up the line than on recognizing the essential wonder of this still quite new technology.
What was true of the telephone then is true today of all aspects of the customer experience. And today, of course, the timetable in which perceptions change is much shorter than thirty years. What was a groundbreaking improvement in customer convenience last year is ho-hum today; what was timely last week feels as slow now as a dial-up modem.
A masterful company understands this and adapts and retools continually. For instance, a retail chain could have a simply stated goal as follows for each new location: “Make this store better than the last one we opened.” This simple approach is an optimal way to improve with every store opening and also avoid endless second-guessing and regrets about past shortfalls.
“Better,” sadly, is always going to be subjective. And “better” very likely does not mean “change up everything.” To do so will unnerve your existing customers who have gotten used to things the way they are. And it may also deter not-yet customers, who are surprised by something so outside the norms of your industry. A subtle, deft hand is necessary.
And, sometimes, the success or failure of your intended improvement won’t be clear for some time. This stuff isn’t easy. But standing still doesn’t work either. Because it will feel to your customers, and your prospective customers, as if you’re moving backward.
Sooner or later as you continue to improve the customer experience you provide, you’re going to run into another issue: “Is this [our customer experience, our customer service] better than it needs to be?”
Think this through carefully. Features (even very subtle features and nearly invisible touches) that your customers value need to be shielded from willy-nilly cost cutting. At the same time, there are undoubtedly excesses built into some customer encounters and services. A specific sort of excess you should tune your antennae for is called lily-gilding. (The term comes from an approximation of Shakespeare:’‘To gild refined gold, to paint the lily’’—to overdo the already perfect, in other words.)
Lily-gilding is the brilliantly hand polished finish on an end table—when the end table is always hidden by a tablecloth. It’s an air conditioning compressor too powerful for the space it cools.
In customer interactions, lily-gilding takes the form of fancying up your offering beyond what your customers are interested in (or interested in paying for). This has both obvious and hidden costs. The hidden costs include excess features that can make your offering less attractive by complicating it for customers or implying to customers that they’re paying for something they don’t need.
This is rarely a central problem in customer service. But it is absolutely one to keep half an eye on as you strive, always, to improve.