Who You Are Is How You Serve

Two recent customer service experiences stood out for opposite reasons. One was good while the other was poor. They both reminded me that we put a bit of ourselves into every service interaction.

Let's start with the bad one. 


The Bad One

Take a look at the picture below. The car on the left is parked well over the line. The car on the right is mine. I can't get in because the car on the left is too close to my door.

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

I was parked outside a coffee shop. I went back in and started asking customers if they owned the car that was blocking me in. It felt awkward interrupting people's conversations, but they were all gracious and kind. 

Several customers expressed empathy. They'd been there too and knew how it felt. Unfortunately, none of them owned the vehicle.

I went back out to the car. There were other stores around, so perhaps someone was running a quick errand and would be right back out. No luck. 

But, I did spot a few clues. There was a lot of paraphernalia in the other car that indicated this person worked in the coffee shop.

I went back in and asked a barista if one of the employees owned the vehicle. She asked around. Yes, one of the employees did. 

We walked out to the parking lot so she could move her car. When we got to the car she said, "Sorry, I was in a hurry." It was an insincere apology and an excuse wrapped into one.

Could this person really go back to work and deliver outstanding customer service? It's hard to imagine someone so inconsiderate would suddenly become gracious, attentive, and helpful when she punched the clock.


The Good One

Here's a confession. Every Fall, I spend a lot of Saturdays in a bar.

My wife, Sally, graduated from Texas A&M. She helps organize a weekly college football watch party for Texas A&M alumni (called former students) in San Diego. It's a great way to meet new people, reconnect with old friends, and have some fun while watching the game.

Our watch parties are held at McCarter's Bar & Grill. We've had the same server for every game this year, Savannah. She gets a lot of help from her co-workers, but she's the primary person who looks after our group. 

It's hard work. Savannah is a whirlwind of activity taking drink orders, food orders, refilling water glasses, clearing dishes, etc. She's always smiling and never loses her cool. 

I still can't figure out how she keeps track of everyone's tab when we're all grouped together and constantly mingling. 

Someone in the club bought Savannah a Texas A&M t-shirt. She wears it on game days to show her support. It makes her look like she's part of the team since many of us are wearing the same shirt.

The games typically last four hours, so we've gotten to know Savannah a little. The genuine, friendly person who takes care of our group is who Savannah really is. She's authentic.

And, I must add, McCarter's is lucky. Savannah happily does the work of three people. 


Who Are You?

A lot of customer service is fake. 

Interactions are scripted. The are rules that govern the types of emotions we express, even when we aren't really feeling them. We're expected to fight our natural instincts and graciously serve that offensive, unreasonable customer because they are a customer.

Behind that facade is something real. We put a bit of ourselves into every encounter. Hopefully, we're like Savannah. Or, we can earnestly aspire to be that type of person.

There's probably a reason I don't know or don't remember the name of the barista who blocked my car door. Definitely don't be like her.

You Can't Fake Authentic Customer Service

Beware of customer service phonies.

Beware of customer service phonies.

Nobody likes a phony.

Many customer service professionals are incredibly authentic. Their service is genuine because it comes from the heart.

Other customer service professionals are as fake as a $1,000,000 bill.

Some of these phonies are in leadership positions. They demand service greatness from their employees while treating these employees with contempt.

Other phonies are frontline employees. To them, customer service is just a job and not a calling. Quitting time can never come soon enough.

Still other phonies are talking heads. They blog, tweet, and train, filling their audience’s brains with disingenuous platitudes. These people talk a good game but rarely follow their own advice. 

Authenticity matters in customer service. 

Customers can hear it in your voice. The see it in your actions. They feel it in the way you treat them. 

Genuine service professionals treat everyone as though they were an important customer. They listen. They’re warm and friendly. They follow through and do what they say they’re going to do.

Phonies operate as though there’s some sort of customer service switch. They flip it to service mode when a customer is near and plaster on their Cheshire Cat smile. But the truth comes out in their actions. They don’t listen. They’re not genuinely friendly. They definitely do not follow through and do what they say they’re going to do.

The odd part is the phonies can’t wait to tell you how great they are. Thanks to an odd phenomenon called the Dunning Kruger effect, they really believe it. Phonies like to perpetrate the myth that customer service is easy.

The authentic customer service pros would rather show you. And, secretly, they worry about being a phony. It’s one of those things that keeps them hungry to always do better.

Authenticity matters in customer service

My new head shot - it looks like the real meI recently had to get a new head shot for the jacket of my upcoming customer service book, Service Failure. These sorts of things are tough for me because I never know exactly what look to go for. I'll admit to spending a good deal of time looking at other author's head shots to find examples that resonated with me.

Finally, I decided to just be me. I wanted my headshot to pretty much look like the person who would show up at a client's office or be at a speaking engagement. In other words, the look I was going for was authentic.

Fortunately, I think Ted Donovon at Donovon Photography nailed it. (Shout out for great service - Ted is personable, does great work, and turns things around fast!)

Why Authenticity Matters

The short answer is your customers can tell the difference. We like authentic - it can feel trustworthy, welcoming, and enthusiastic so long as your company and your employees really are those things. 

Customers can also tell when an employee is faking it. I love this vintage commercial from Pacific Southwest Airlines that promoted the difference:


(Here's a link in case you can't view the video.)

Terrific stuff, right? Unfortunately, Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) was acquired a number of years ago by US Airways, but I still have fond memories of flying on PSA when I was a kid. 

3 Ways to Keep it Real

There are many ways to promote authentic customer service, but I'll give you three of my favorites.

#1 Hire people who want to do what you want them to do
It's never fun to encounter a customer service employee who clearly doesn't want to be there. This challenge can be partially remedied by hiring people who not only have the skills to do the job, but the passion to match.

My wife, Sally, and I were on vacation in Napa a few weeks ago when we met Bob at one of the wineries we visited. Over the course of our conversation, we learned that Bob worked in the tasting room at Rombauer Vineyards, but enjoyed wine so much that he went wine tasting on his day off. He gave us his card and invited us to stop by Rombauer later in the week. We decided to pay Bob a visit that Saturday, and despite a large crowd in the tasting room, he remembered us and treated us to an outstanding tasting experience. 

#2 Ditch the script
Scripts are for actors, not customer service employees. Give your employees guidelines if there's an essential message you need to convey, but don't trip them up with a clunky script that makes them sound like robots. (My disdain for scripts is frequently documented in this blog -- see my "ditch the scripts post.")

I once visited my local True Value hardware store and was greeted with, "What are you doing in here?!" That greeting would never pass muster in a corporate brand standards meeting, but it felt wonderfully authentic to me. The employee who greeted me had been helping me with a home project that required several unexpected trips back to the store. After each trip, we both hoped it would be my last visit for this particular project. Alas, when he saw me once again, he knew something else had gone wrong. 

#3 Give employees something to smile about
There's a flip side to authenticity, where customer service employees harbor negative feelings about their co-workers, their boss, or their company. Venting frustrations to customers is certainly authentic, but it's very unappealing. I want the people who serve me to keep it real, but I still want a great experience.

The antidote to this problem is to help employees maintain a positive outlook. Show appreciation for their contributions, acknowledge their successes, and help them recover from their mistakes. Be quick to share good news, but don't hide the bad news either. Involve them in solving problems. Make them feel like partners.

I'm sure there are many other ways to promote authentic customer service. Please be sure to share your ideas and comments.