Saturday, July 3, 2010

Customer Service Redux

To continue on this customer service vein, I now want to rant about what I think is a great model for it. I want to praise that other evil corporate giant, Starbucks. I love Starbucks as much as I love the evil Borders. I go there almost every day. And I notice how genuinely happy all the baristas seem to be. They all seem to like each other. And they seem to like everybody who comes in. I patronize a half dozen Starbucks around the city regularly, always order the same thing and they always remember what my order is and usually remember my name. I realize this speaks much more about the pathetic dullness of my life, but now I almost feel bad about ordering something different than my quotidian "vente iced coffee, unsweetened with room," particularly when I see them start to make it as they see me walk through the door.

Here's another reason: I recently went into one of my favorites and they had been talking among themselves and asked if I was, indeed, Tim Robbins. They had been taking bets. Not wanting to diminish the quality of my service, I lied and said, yes, I was Tim Robbins. Then, before I left, and worried they'd start taking me to task for breaking up with Susan Sarandon, I admitted that I wasn't Tim Robbins. But they still treat me like I was.

There are, of course, brand partisans who insist that Starbucks makes crappy coffee. I've heard them called "bean burners" by connoisseurs who really know good coffee from bad. That's not me. I can sort-of tell fresh from old coffee, but that's about it. And since I drink it iced, it doesn't seem to matter anyway. What matters is how I feel when I go into a Starbucks.

Now, of course this is all contrived. It's part of the Starbucks brand. And as such, the behavior of the staff is an ad for Starbucks. In their literal ads I've never seen them talk about their great customer service, they just do it; it's part of their corporate culture. And they know it's not something you can define. If they did try to define it and quantify it, you wouldn't believe it anyway because nobody likes listening to somebody talk about what a great person they are.

Years ago, when I was working on the McDonald's account, they tried to define customer service by launching a 60 second promo. Here's how it went: If you didn't get your order within 60 seconds, it was free. Great idea. Very vivid proof of what service means. But it backfired. Suddenly people were conscious of the clock (they had put up big stop clocks at each register, no small expense in itself), and the staff were under even more stress than before. It was so disruptive of McDonald's finely-tuned operations, and cost so much money in refunds, that they didn't want to talk about it again. Later they tried the same thing with promising a smile and a "thank you" or your meal is free. But now customers knew the smiles and "thank yous" were forced by an oppressive regime, and didn't believe them.

I've had many clients who have insisted that their primary difference, their Unique Selling Proposition in adspeak, is their customer service. They usually do have good service, too. But I've always discouraged them from talking about it in their ads. Because no one likes a braggart. Also there's the reactive thing at work, too: As soon as someone says they are committed to great customer service, you become suspicious, and you start looking for chinks in that promise. Same thing with promising quality. Of course, you're committed to quality. Who isn't? But when you brag about it, it sounds like you're trying to convince yourself.

So, getting around to the theme of this rant...I forgot what it was...

Oh, I know: Actions speak louder than words. That's it.

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