The Need to Provide a Zero-Defect Customer Experience

Getting employees to provide a "zero-defect" customer experience is much different than getting them to provide routine service. Offering such an experience matters even more now that consumers increasingly buy almost everything online, and the opportunities to create a face-to-face experience become less frequent and therefore more critical and consequential.

With that in mind, here are three urgent guidelines to put in place for any retail-training program:

Push transactional decision-making as far down the customer-facing chain of command as possible. Starbucks employees are empowered to dispense a free beverage to dissatisfied patrons. Ritz Carlton front-desk employees are trained to pay taxi fares for guests kept waiting too long or otherwise inconvenienced, address guests by name, and respond to any guest requests with the words "My pleasure." The cost of the free beverages and taxi rides is minuscule compared to that of acquiring new customers to replace disgruntled ones. Negative brand experiences are also much more likely to be passed on via word of mouth than positive ones.

Incentivize brand representatives to deliver an experience, not just a service. At online retailer Zappos, new employees are offered a cash bonus not to work for the company. Upon completing the four-week training period, they are offered one month's salary as a bonus to quit. It's Zappos' way of saying that it only wants to hire people who really want to work there. According to Zappos, the 2 or 3 percent of trainees who take the bonus and leave wouldn't have lasted long anyway, but those who stay are more committed. What's more, during Zappos' intensive customer service training, reps are trained to go "off script" when responding to customer calls. If a dog barks in the background, for example, the rep may ask what kind of dog the caller owns. People love to talk about their dogs, and that experience goes a long way toward transforming first-time callers into loyal customers. Reps are also trained to stay on the phone for as long as a caller needs—even if no sale is imminent. A stellar experience such as this encourages callers to call again and eventually make a purchase. All these practices ensure excitement among Zappos employees. They are enthusiastic about the company—and you can hear it in their voices.

Turn positive customer experiences into stories that customers and employees will repeat. How many times have you heard the story about a Nordstrom customer service representative giving a customer a refund for a tire, even though Nordstrom doesn't sell tires? Even if that story is just an urban legend, it resonates with what consumers know about Nordstrom's return policy and, more important, its attitude toward customers. Routine customer service stories seldom bear repeating, but positive customer experience stories need to be told again and again—reinforcing the brand and encouraging positive word of mouth.

Brand Transformation Is in the Training

Businesses know that goods are differentiated from commodities, and that service is differentiated from goods. Today's smart brands understand that it's key to differentiate customer experience from customer service because today's consumers expect more than a clever slogan or a discount. Employees must be trained to deliver an experience that's a memorable takeaway for the consumer. Try creating role-playing exercises where trainees must "engage" customers, not simply complete a sale.

Empowering your staff to deliver an exemplary customer experience may be the real differentiator and key to brand success and mindshare in a customer-centric world.


Ron Wince is president and general manager of Peppers & Rogers Group.


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