Is Customer Satisfaction Useless? (Let’s Ask Apple And Nordstrom.)

One Step News

Written by Micah Solomon, published on on December 5, 2016.

There’s a riff that goes like this: “Customer satisfaction is useless. Only customer delight matters.” This may sound fishy to you–and unworkable in the real world–yet in the world of customer service thought leaders and consultants and speakers, it’s a popular claim to make. The idea is that if you focus on customer satisfaction, on getting your workaday items and processes right, you’re somehow reducing your ability to focus on “wow” moments, on doing things that are extraordinary and memorable and loyalty-building for your customers.

The snag here is that there are two concepts bound up in one. One of these propositions is correct. The other is flat-out wrong.

Let me start with the part of the equation that’s true: Satisfactory customer service doesn’t excite customers or resonate very much with them emotionally. Simply satisfying your customers is unlikely to give you an unstoppable competitive advantage in itself, to make your brand so strong in customers’ eyes that they stop checking out your competitors and thinking about switching.  That’s why, if you want to use customer service as a competitive advantage, it is important to rise beyond “satisfactory” customer service, at least from time to time. There is great competitive value in moving beyond satisfaction, in creating memorable moments for customers, for example when an unusual situation, positive or negative, occurs that allows your organization and its employees to rise to the occasion.

For an example of extraordinary customer service that rises far beyond “satisfactory,” look at how the extraordinary actions of a front desk agent at Hyatt House, an economical, extended-stay hotel, created a customer and brand ambassador for life. Every morning, the front desk agent would roll up a newspaper for a guest’s dog to fetch and bring back to its master’s guestroom every morning. This dog’s master had recently had to leave her long-term residence, where her dog had been accustomed to running down the driveway every day and fetching the newspaper. By helping her dog get back on some semblance of its old routine, the empathetic front desk agent was helping to restore a sense of routine to the dog’s master as well.

Now let’s look at the part of the equation that is complete malarkey: that concentrating on providing satisfactory customer service–perfectly fine, on time, reliable, streamlined customer service–isn’t as important as, or works at contrary purposes to, extraordinary, or “wow,” service.

The reality is that you need to be able to deliver satisfactory customer service as a foundation on which to rise to be exceptional.

Take Apple. I am firmly in the Apple camp, but, having had Apple computers since 1984’s 128K Macintosh, I can tell you that in those early days, reliability was so poor that the idea of providing extraordinary customer service was just beside the point.  When you’re still a company whose customers are rebooting eight times a day and having to call into an utterly overwhelmed support line, you’re a company whose unfortunate customer service employees are rarely going to be able to get beyond putting out fires, often the same fires over and over again.

Only once Steve Jobs and his colleagues engineered a rock-solid rework of the Macintosh platform did the company have the breathing room that made it possible to provide the kind of extraordinary, anticipatory customer service that now often defines the retail experience at Apple: app-based scheduling, overnight repairs, enthusiastic and compassionate reps who actually have time to take care of customers in extraordinary ways.

Or take one of the companies best known for wow experiences: Nordstrom. Yes, Nordstrom provides extraordinary service, sometimes in response to extraordinary situations (when my expensive dress shoes were left out in the rain by the overnight courier, instead of blaming the courier, Nordstrom drove over a new pair immediately) but Nordstrom also has a huge commitment to nuts-and-bolts satisfactory service, including making huge technology investments in real-time online inventory and other unsexy areas. Because without getting these details right, there’s no breathing room for their extraordinary employees to be extraordinary in the customer service they provide.

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