As I cruise comfortably at 35,000ft up the Eastern seaboard from Miami International to New York JFK, I feel it is as good a time as any to articulate my views on customer service, an aspect of business I once reviled but now revere.
Throughout my short, 20-year lifespan I have witnessed a shift in the behavior of consumers in developed economies, which has led to customer service playing an increasingly important value-added role to almost all goods and services in the modern marketplace.
That shift is two fold: consumers are “humanizing” products and services like never before, forming a deep and emotional connection to everything from their phones to their pets; simultaneously, consumers are expecting simplicity to enhance everyday experiences such as grocery shopping or getting on a plane. In an information driven era when finding the cheapest price on anything and everything is a mere click away, businesses face their margins shrinking to zero unless they can differentiate themselves from competition by offering experiences unobtainable elsewhere.
I mention my current location because the air travel industry typifies this decade long customer service revolution. The actual product an airline sells – a seat on a flight from one destination to another – has changed very little since the 1960’s, with airplanes only improving incrementally in terms of speed or size. The experience, however, has radically changed over the past decade. Even with today’s stringent security procedures, the experience of travelling by airplane is remarkably pleasurable. Mobile boarding passes, pleasant shops and cafés through security, in-flight Wi-Fi and Video On Demand services are all modern conveniences that differentiate airlines and imbue brand value into an airline’s customers. Personally, I know that I will be hesitant to fly with Air France again after a couple of bad experiences, while I am happy to pay a small premium to fly with Delta, who have excellent in-flight entertainment.
This example is being replicated in all consumer-facing industries, and will surely continue into the enterprise market in the coming years. Apple has the highest margins of any consumer technology company in the world because they have incomparable customer service to go with their fantastically simple and elegant products. I recently visited the Grand Central store with an issue with my iPhone 4S, and walked out with a brand new phone barely 8 minutes later, my love of the company restored and reinvigorated. In a similar example, my girlfriend felt compelled to tell me about Starbuck’s customer service a month ago when the employees at the Times Square branch in New York were reeling off customers’ orders from memory. Of course they were all regulars, but the Times Square branch of Starbucks must serve thousands of customers every day, and it is that level of customer service which instills brand loyalty and drives repeat business. Serial entrepreneur Norm Brodsky, this year’s keynote speaker at Fordham’s annual entrepreneurship conference, TrepCon, informed Fordham’s aspiring entrepreneurs that he generates many of his most important business relationships by using simple customer service techniques that help him stand out from his competition: hand written letters of thanks and walking potential customers to their cars.
Entrepreneurs looking to start consumer-facing businesses need to bear these lessons in mind. Businesses formed with without placing customer service as an integral component to the business model will lose customers to competitors who do. Similarly, businesses without simple and friendly user interfaces that make conducting business a pleasant experience will lose revenue purely because modern consumers don’t want to be faced with a complicated process.
My own business, FURI Rental, was born with a goal to provide exceptional customer service at the price point we were charging, but has lost business as a result of an overcomplicated ordering process. The complications arose because I believed a template website could suffice, but anecdotal evidence and customer feedback has proven otherwise. I am now investing in a website with a much simpler interface, and am excited at the gains to be reaped from this investment.
I will leave you with a quote from Gandhi, who was as wise as a business guru as he was a spiritual and political leader:
“A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption to our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider in our business. He is part of it. We are not doing him a favor by serving him. He is doing us a favor by giving us an opportunity to do so.”
Until next time,