“Taken for granted” is not the new customer service norm – Lou Shipley

MIT Sloan Lecturer Lou Shipley

MIT Sloan Lecturer Lou Shipley

It’s been an extremely rough 30 days for three of the US airline industry’s largest carriers – United, American and Delta – whose rude and brutish treatment of customers was captured in smart phone videos that not surprisingly went viral.

In United’s case, the damage control was anything but as CEO Oscar Munoz immediately delivered a tone deaf, blame-the-victim response. His belated apology for United’s execrable behavior was of little help.

Friendly skies? Not so much.

The three high-profile airline debacles are stark examples of ham-fisted customer disregard and have given rise to the question: In an increasingly automated and technology-driven world, is being taken for granted the new customer-service norm?

Emphatically, no.  In fact, there’s ample evidence that it’s quite the opposite.

Savvy companies – global industry brands around the world – are investing in, listening to, and learning from customers because they realize that a relentless focus on their customers drives success and growth.

There are many excellent examples of companies that are putting a premium on delivering a consistently great customer experience to increase both revenue and customer loyalty.

Good examples of businesses that are both highly successful and customer-experience focused include Amazon, Netflix, UPS, Trader Joe’s, and the giant insurance provider USAA.

These thriving enterprises are in highly competitive markets and all of them are using customer service as a differentiator.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos put it just right in his annual letter to Amazon shareholders last month as he was describing Amazon’s determination to maintain what he calls a “Day 1” mentality.

“There are many ways to center a business. You can be competitor focused, you can be product focused, you can be technology focused, you can be business model focused, and there are more. But in my view, obsessive customer focus is by far the most protective of Day 1 vitality.

“Why? There are many advantages to a customer-centric approach, but here’s the big one: customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great. Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better, and your desire to delight customers will drive you to invent on their behalf. No customer ever asked Amazon to create the Prime membership program, but it sure turns out they wanted it, and I could give you many such examples.

“Staying in Day 1 requires you to experiment patiently, accept failures, plant seeds, protect saplings, and double down when you see customer delight. A customer-obsessed culture best creates the conditions where all of that can happen.”

My own experience as the CEO of a software company attempting to improve unacceptable customer retention numbers has shown me the power of listening to the customer and using what we heard to act.

We turned each customer service/customer support interaction into an opportunity to gauge their satisfaction by implementing a formal process for eliciting feedback about their experience. We learned a great deal and used it to inform product, training and service improvements.

Today, our customer retention number are enviable.

And we continue to use a Net Promoter Score (NPS) to measure the willingness of customers to recommend our products to others. We use it to measure the overall satisfaction us and the loyalty to or brand.  We simply ask: “would you recommend us to a friend?” By asking customers this question, we identify detractors who might switch to competitors, and promoters help sustain our growth. We ask the same question of our employees.

Building great technology – getting it right – is hard. It requires listening to and learning from customers every day. That’s the only way you can understand solve their problems.

Competition is so fierce today for both employees and customers that if you can’t deliver a great experience you can’t win.

Be agile and listen. Incremental – measurable –  improvement every day is the goal.

Lou Shipley is a Lecturer at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship at the  MIT Sloan School of Management. 

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