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Customer Service in Three Dimensions
Helping service providers deliver service in three dimensions can take any organization to a new level of customer loyalty.
Posted Nov 10, 2003
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In the 1950s, 3-D movies delighted viewers with their startling depth. Today, customer service has its own three dimensions -- the human, business, and hidden dimensions -- that give depth to every interaction.

The most vivid dimension of a 3-D film is "depth," which in customer service corresponds to the human dimension, or the emotional tone of an interaction set by the service provider. Beginning and ending each interaction in the human dimension helps a service provider capture hearts and build customer loyalty. The second film dimension, "height," corresponds to service's business dimension, or the explicit practical need that prompts a customer to seek service. The third dimension, "width," corresponds to service's hidden dimension, or what happens behind the scenes in the lives of both service provider and customer.

When service providers gain skills in all three dimensions, they deliver attentive, seamless service, which in turn reaps the rewards of customer loyalty: reputation, retention, referrals, and revenue.

Our research confirms that customers judge service providers and organizations during defining moments in each interaction. Whenever service providers greet a customer, ask a question, or recover from a breakdown, they create defining moments. Service providers that manage and link all three dimensions create positive defining moments that help the organization earn long-term loyalty. An example of a major U.S. financial institution from our research, Allfirst Financial in Baltimore, MD, helps illustrate these points.

The Human Dimension
Every customer has human needs--for respect, individual attention, and other care beyond the practical focus of the interaction. To create positive defining moments, service stars must recognize and respond to the customer's human needs. Particularly with an upset customer, skills in the human dimension can spell the difference between keeping and losing that customer.

Service providers also have human needs in a service interaction, among them courtesy and gratitude. When service stars attend to customers' human need with care and concern, they often reduce disrespectful customer behaviors. "Maybe a customer gets into financial trouble and the teller is the bearer of bad news," says Allfirst Branch Manager Maria Salazar-Hart. "I had an angry customer literally throw paperwork at a teller who was trying her best to resolve the situation." By acknowledging the customer's concern and using basic defusing skills, this manager calmed the customer and brought the transaction to a productive close.

The Business Dimension
The business dimension refers to the practical needs that cause customers to seek service. A service star builds long-term customer loyalty by identifying, understanding, and meeting a broad range of business needs.

A central business-dimension task is balancing two sets of needs: the customer's need for a product or service, and the organization's need for efficient, profitable operations. Protecting the business while serving customers is a key challenge requiring specialized training and experience. In addition to demonstrating concern for the customer, service stars build loyalty as expert guides who meet business needs--of the customer and the organization--quickly, fully and safely.

The Hidden Dimension
Organizational needs, often hidden from the customer, heavily influence a service star's ability to build loyalty. For example, a hidden need to contain costs or make efficient use of time may limit the level of service. Other hidden variables include policies and procedures, available resources, levels of empowerment and the quality of working relationships.

The research found that service providers in progressive companies often coordinate behind the scenes to address hidden dimension issues. Allfirst Branch Manager Debi Barth described a case in point: aligning departmental business hours to meet customer demands. "We sell so many different services that traditional 'banker's hours' just don't cut it anymore," she says. "If our branch is open, we rely on internal support departments to be open, too, so we can cross-check records before settling accounts. It makes things easier for the tellers, reduces the risk of fraud and gives our customers the flexibility they want."

Customers, too, bring a hidden dimension to every service interaction. Noting and responding to factors like these, initially hidden from the service provider, can help a service star create the best possible customer experience.

The Next Dimension
Customers want to be loyal to deserving organizations, and organizations earn loyalty with the right choices and actions in three dimensions of service. Skills and behaviors in the human, business, and hidden dimensions help create positive defining moments, while failure in any dimension creates a negative defining moment for the customer and serious repercussions for the organization.

Like filmmaking at its highest level, delivering stellar service takes vision, teamwork, and individual skills. Our research and the practical experience of stellar organizations worldwide make one point perfectly clear: Helping service providers deliver service in three dimensions can take any organization to a new level of customer loyalty.


DL Karl is vice president of product development, Craig Perrin is director of curriculum and media design, and Todd Beck is senior product manager for the service portfolio at AchieveGlobal, an international provider of training and consulting services in customer service, sales skills and leadership.

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