Taking the customer’s viewpoint

I think every Managing Director, CEO and business owner should pose as a customer at least once every quarter.  They should see their business from the cold light of the outside world, and they will start to see their organisations strengths and weaknesses from where it really matters – the customer’s vantage point.

I had two very different experiences recently, both whilst on holiday in Greece.  The first was at the hotel, where I experienced a level of hospitality that I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world.  The hotel was run by a family, who made sure that our every need was catered for.  When we checked in, we were asked which room we would like.  Would we prefer a larger room, with a smaller balcony, or would we prefer a room with a view?  And in fact, we were shown to our room, so that the hotelier could be certain that we were satisfied.

We met at 7pm by the pool every day – so the hoteliers made sure the bar was open, and even provided us with some snacks. However, the most shining example of exemplary customer service was on our last night, when we were out in town and it started to rain torrentially.  We returned to find that the hotel owner had checked every single balcony and retrieved any towels left outside, so that they didn’t get wet.  It was a small gesture which cost absolutely nothing, but it meant so much.

So what does this mean?  Well, myself and a group of six friends have been back to the same hotel every year for the last four years.  Exceptional service brings customer loyalty, and turns customers into advocates.  I take every opportunity I can to recommend this hotel to friends and colleagues.

This experience was in direct contrast to the service on the plane journey home.  I was flying with a low-cost ‘no frills’ airline, and sitting at the back.  As a result, I could hear the conversations of some of the cabin crew – and I was rather disturbed to hear one of them recount a story from a previous flight.  The steward had been dealing with a customer who had complained since no food was available on the flight (as it had all been sold).  The steward, rather proudly described his reaction, which was along the lines of  “I told the passenger that it wasn’t my fault – the food is provided by a catering company, and they run on last month’s sales figures.  At the end of the day, we’re a budget airline, so I told him if he wants a guarantee of food, he should fly with one of our competitors.” (!)

The moral of the story?  Remember that your front-line staff are your interface with the outside world.  Ensure they have the resources to provide the best possible service to the customer, and ensure there is a clear communication channel back. Ensure they are empowered to make suggestions for improvement, and make sure that the management team follow up on these suggestions (even if in some cases it has to be a polite ‘no’).  And most of all, ensure that the internal business processes which underpin your organisation are efficient, fit for purpose, and where appropriate invisible to the customer. Trust me, customers really won’t want to know the intricacies of your accounts payable processes – and they shouldn’t need to.

Even if you are a ‘no frills’ operation, customers won’t forget the experience they have had.

Aim high – and remember that generally speaking, it’s much cheaper to keep an existing customer than to attract a new one!