Customer service attributes

5 Customer Service Attributes of Winning Companies

Does your company have the customer service attributes it takes to win in the marketplace? We’ve discussed the 7 customer experience behaviors outlined by John Sills in The Human Experience. Now let’s talk about the 5 enablers of high-performing customer-centric companies.

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Customer Service Attribute 1: Ambition

Does your organization have the desire and drive to consistently thrill customers? Is your team willing to do what it takes to go above and beyond for them? Ambition is one of the core customer service attributes.

Having ambition in customer service means setting the bar high, striving to meet those high standards, and doing what it takes not just to improve your organization’s customer service but to lead the entire industry.

If your company can’t compete on price or even product, you can compete on delivering consistently for your customers.

“We were very ambitious. We wanted to challenge the industry heavyweights, but there was a lot of competition. We weren’t the fastest and we weren’t the cheapest (and we wanted to avoid a race to the bottom on price). So our differentiator was how we treated customers. We set ambitious targets for reliability and service, and had to make sure that culturally, it was never ok to fall below those, to never give our best,” says Alan Riley, Chiltern Railways director of customer services in the book.

The key to ambition is to have the end goal in mind. To paraphrase Sills, you don’t save money for a vacation because you want to save money for a vacation. You save money for a vacation because you like vacations.

Customer Service Attribute 2: Connection

A common imperative on social media is “touch grass,” which translates to: “You’ve spent too much time on the computer, please go outside and become reacquainted with reality.”

Does your organization touch grass? Do you regularly use your own product? Are you actively immersed in your customers’ lives? Are you keeping up with changes in your industry and the world?

In the tech industry, there’s a term for using your own products: dogfooding. In other words, do you figuratively eat your own dog food? Because if you do, you become intimately familiar with the product’s strengths, quirks, and weaknesses and ideally can file off those rough edges before your customers have to deal with them.

If you use your own products and services, do you also talk to your customers? We’ve discussed the myth of customer feedback, and how you’re often better off talking to 10 customers than surveying 200,000.

But it’s not enough to merely talk to them because what’s in your customers’ heads and the reality often differ. As Henry Ford said, if he’d asked people what they wanted they would have said faster horses.

In the book, Sills describes spending time with a woman who was passionate about health and cooking and said that she cooked everything from scratch. Then he went shopping with her to find she was stocking up on pre-chopped onions and mashed potato mix.

When asked, she said she didn’t have time to chop the onions or mash potatoes. Then she piled chocolate and wine on top of her cart, and again, when asked, she said, “I know, I know, I said I’m healthy, but this is for girls’ night on a Friday night. It doesn’t count.”

We often say one thing and do another, and humans are very good at deceiving ourselves. We might like to think that we behave better than we actually do. How many of us convince ourselves we’ll exercise if we buy the right equipment, only for it to be collecting dust months later?

To get the truth about how your customers behave, It’s not enough to ask. You must also observe.

Customer Service Attribute 3: Empowerment

As we’ve talked with customer support experts, the one thing we hear time and time again is the importance of empowering your team to go the extra mile for customers. Sills expands on that, writing that empowering your team means:

  • Seeking their opinions and ideas.
  • Involving them in the design process.
  • Giving autonomy to do the right thing.

“Organizations are full of brilliant humans who often aren’t allowed to act in a human way. They’re recruited because of their personality, interests, and skills, and then immediately boxed-in and shut down, shaped to become identical versions of each other,” Sills writes in The Human Experience.

When you restrict your employees, you keep them from doing their best work. And you also decrease employee satisfaction, which can in turn lead to customer service burnout.

And it can cost you your best employees. Sills worked with Myke Hurley at a bank. Myke was increasingly dissatisfied with his job due to a strict hierarchy that limited how he could contribute.

One morning, Myke’s shoelace broke. He decided that he didn’t want to buy another pair of shoes for the job, so he quit.

When your team members are frustrated and unfilled, you never know their breaking point—it might be something as simple as a pair of shoelaces. Myke now runs Relay.FM, one of the most successful podcast networks.

“Humans are incredible, creative things. Don’t put them in straitjackets and have endless policies to try and get them to behave well. If they’re aligned on what is right and what is best for the customers, they can do incredible things,” Pete Miller, co-founder of Octopus Energy, says in The Human Experience.

Customer Service Attribute 4: Focus

We can all agree that focus is good, but the question is what should you be focused on? In this context, Sills means being there for the customer during the most crucial moments, like when their bank card fails or when a loved one dies.

In The Human Experience Sills tells what may be the most extreme possible example of this type of customer focus:

However, perhaps the most famous story to demonstrate the importance of being there at a big moment comes from the folklore of first direct, the original banking challenger brand. A long-time first direct [a UK bank] customer found herself trapped in the second tower of the World Trade Center during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. She knew that if she called first direct a human would pick up straight away, in line with their promise of no complicated phone menus. They answered immediately and she asked them to track down her husband and children and get them on the line (this was before the proliferation of mobile phones). Between them, they jointly kept her talking, and conscious, for 45 minutes until the emergency services arrived.

And those key moments don’t have to be that big. Small moments can be just as impactful. Sills mentions a “welcome back” note tucked in his take-out bag after ordering food for the first time since COVID.

Being focused on the customer, stepping in during those impactful moments, and taking responsibility to handle problems promptly will take your customer experience to the next level.

Customer Service Attribute 5: Perspective

The most ephemeral of Sills’s customer service attributes is perspective, which specifically means:

  • Understanding what will always matter.
  • Taking inspiration from outside your industry.
  • Having faith that happy customers will make you successful.

Sills writes:

Despite having more data on how people live and behave than at any other time in history, it’s never been easier for companies to lose sight of the things that really matter to their customers. Partly, this is because as soon as companies find the insight that supports the view they want supported, they stop looking. And it’s partly down to the obsessive attention given to social media, leading to the overweighting of opinions of the outraged and the techno dazzled. This causes companies to miss or forget about the consistent, necessary and often unexciting things that form the backbone of their offering. The things that matter to customers have always mattered to them and probably always will.

It’s important to not let your company get stuck navel-gazing. You have to “touch grass” and look out at the broader world, taking inspiration where you find it, whether or not it’s directly related to your industry.

In The Human Experience, John Sills showcases several different types of organizations across different industries like energy, finance, healthcare, and transportation. Even if they’re not directly tied to what your organization does, you may still draw inspiration from it.

At the end of the day, the continued success of your business depends on continuing to be useful to customers and keeping them happy. Make those your north star and you’ll always be able to deliver a human experience.

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