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'Good Enough' Customer Service Is NOT Good Enough

Some time ago, the president of a company with which we had some business dealings said, "exceeding customer expectations is useless and wasteful." That is, to this day, one of the the most idiotic customer service comments I've ever heard.

The person who said it was someone who left a trail of destruction in his business wake, so I put it in perspective. But there are actually credible organizations and people -- albeit a blessed few -- who subscribe to and preach this theory. Six Sigma adherents have made some noise about it, and no less an institution than the Harvard Business Review actually claims to have research to support the notion.

Well then, I may possibly be the first person to ever say this: Harvard is dumb.

This is flawed logic, posited by people who clearly have no clue about what real, exceptional customer service is. I scoured the web to find an actual business owner, manager or other real-world customer service provider who believes this, and I have yet to find one. This kind of drivel only comes from a fringe of analysts, theorists, consultants and self-professed gurus (no offense, fringe people).

The problem with the people who assert this concept is that they are approaching it ass-backwards. They typically make one of three arguments:

They say: Companies make bold claims and promises, setting customer expectations, and then fail to live up to them (much less exceed them), thus doing more harm than good.

I say: First of all, don't make promises you can't keep. Or to paraphrase "Top Gun," don't let your ego write checks your body can't cash. More importantly, exceeding expectations is not about this. It's about doing things that people don't expect (it's right there in the name). There's a big difference.
They say: "Studies have shown" that customer perceptions and retention rates are minimally affected by anything that goes beyond getting what they expected.

I say: You can put all the studies, statistics and metrics you want in my face, but I'm not buying. I live this every day, I believe in it with all my heart, and I know it works. How do I know? Because our customers tell us. All the time. They write to us or post testimonials that say things like "Wow, I never expected..." and "I'm telling everyone about your above-and-beyond service..." And they remain loyal, repeat customers for years.
The $64,000 question that the naysayers ask is, would anything change if we just gave these customers what they expect, provide good customer service, and no more? In my experience -- both as a business owner and a consumer -- I have seen and heard enough to be confident that it would. Customers who get what they expect are happy and might pass along a good word. But customers who get truly bowled over become stark-raving fans. I'll take my chances against what "studies have shown."
They say: If a company has to go to extra lengths to make a customer happy and/or resolve a problem, the company is probably doing things wrong to begin with.

I say: They're absolutely right. If you do it to compensate for problems or shortcomings, you're doing something wrong. Exceeding expectations assumes that you already have the basics down pat.
If I ship you the wrong order and pay for the return shipping and give you a discount on the replacement, that's called a make-good, and it's not the same thing. In fact it's the opposite; it's the least I can do, not the most. But if you call me after our last UPS pickup and tell me you're desperate to get something overnight, and I send someone to the UPS depot after hours to drop off the package, that's exceeding expectations.
I would not be providing "bad" service if I told you we missed the shipping cutoff; I would be running our business exactly as promised, no more, no less. Doing what you expect. But by doing something most companies can't or won't do, I distinguish my business from my competitors, and odds are you'll place the order, come back again, and you'll urge your friends and colleagues to do the same.
As a customer, when I have that kind of experience with a business, they've probably won me for life.
Exceeding expectations (or delighting customers, or thrilling, wowing, knocking-socks-off, or whatever you choose to call it), is among the highest accomplishments any true believer in service can achieve, and anyone who says it's wasteful or useless has never really done it.

Don't take my word for it. Ask Zappos (Can you name the number two online shoe retailer? There's a reason you can't). Or ask Nordstrom. Or ask my car dealer, who serves me a coffee, washes my car and gives me a free loaner every time I come in for service... even though just the oil change would satisfy my needs (that's why I drive 10 miles to my dealer -- and pay a little more -- when there are plenty of closer places that can change oil just fine). These companies all have many competitors, some of them good ones. But those competitors don't have me as a fanatical customer.

Chime in. I'd especially like to hear from any brave souls who support the contrary position.

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(Photo by Skooba Design)