Today’s post is the featured article from the February 2008 issue of  The Front Porch Newsletter.  If you would like to automatically receive The Front Porch e-newsletter on the last Thursday of each month just click here to sign-up for your complimentary subscription.

blumbergface1It is the most powerful resource in business. And it is the fabric of meaningful relationships. It is often taught as a skill. But many, with great skills, fail miserably in delivering it. We talk about it a lot and are frustrated when we don’t receive it. Worst of all, we are generally unfulfilled when we don’t deliver it. I have increasingly become a student of it. I watch for it at every opportunity — but rarely find it. A very small number of organizations have truly mastered it. We hold these organizations up on a pedestal as if they have arrived at a place reserved only for a few and unreachable by everyone else.It is a habit of the heart. It — is the concept of genuine service.For most of us, receiving genuine service is a rare experience. So much so, that when it happens to us, we walk away in awe — stunned by what we have just experienced. It is like a breath of fresh air in a smog-filled valley. We breathe in deep as we replay the experience over again in our mind — to be sure to take the most from it.Monthly, daily and even hourly metrics are being established to measure efficiency. While measurements and targeted metrics are not the enemy of genuine service, many often use them as the excuse for poor service — or, at least, as an excuse for just going through the motions. Genuine service is not about taking more time. Genuine service is simply about focus — on the customer! More than anything else, it has a direct impact on your organizational culture, efficiency, effectiveness, internal and external retention — and your bottom-line. Just two weeks ago, I was painfully reminded how poor service leads to really bad business — and how customer service, done really well, leads to great business.

It is a sad scenario when we look in awe to organizations that make service a priority. They are put on pedestals like service icons. Nordstroms, Southwest Airlines, and the Ritz-Carlton come to mind. I have experienced this caliber of genuine service at Enterprise Rent-a-Car. Likewise, I have seen it in the technical support group at Microsoft. In each of these cases, they don’t just give lip-service to service; they make it an integral part of their culture. But this wasn’t the case with a recent interaction I had with the “front-line” technicians of another software company.

It all started when I tried to convert my contact database from their 2007 version to their 2008 version. Simple enough. As with many contact and calendar databases, you can set reminder alarms. Unfortunately, the conversion triggered every alarm I had ever set since 2002! Almost 3,000 alarms. Each alarm demands processing power from my computer — which is not a problem when 10 or 15 reminder alarms are triggered. But 3,000 reminder alarms, simultaneously triggered, bring your computer to a grinding halt. After four different calls to four different “front-line” technicians and over 10-hours of phone time from Chicago to India, I begged that my situation be escalated to a higher level. They finally conceded that they would elevate me to a “level-two” status the next morning. The next morning, they did escalate my case — and 10-minutes later my problem was solved. As soon as I connected with the “level-two” technician he said, “No problem! This alarm thing is a well known problem. We have a patch that should solve your problem and get you running again.” And it did — in just 10 minutes! That was one minute for each hour that was wasted by me AND by them on the prior day. Amazingly enough, a similar thing happened with the same company again this week. This time I started begging for a “level-two” technician after two hours. It took more begging this second time — but the “level-two” tech fixed my problem in just two minutes. Again, one minute for each hour that was wasted by me AND by them on the prior day. I was beginning to see an inefficient pattern develop in the midst of defective customer service.

While I was extremely frustrated with my experience, I was more frustrated with how little they really cared about their customer. They cared much more about protocol and processes. Most importantly, it made me ponder 10 quick thoughts around genuine service:
1. Great internal communication will likely lead to great external service.
2. Outstanding service usually takes less time than poor service.
3. When you respect the customer’s time, you are equally efficient with your company’s time.
4. Active listening is the backbone of great service.
5. The customer may not always be right — but they know what they are trying to tell you.
6. Great external service generally leads to a richer internal sense of accomplishment.
7. Great service on the front-lines comes from great modeling from an organizational chart’s top lines.
8. Genuine service is caring more about your external customers than your internal rules.
9. Empowerment is a key ingredient to employees owning their capacity to serve.
10. Service is beyond a set of skills — it is a habit of the heart!

This last point is more important than all the others combined! If you don’t develop a heart for genuine service, you will likely fall short on delivering it.

Last month’s “Front Porch One-Minute Survey” (click for details) revealed some interesting perceptions when it comes to experience with service:
A. Only 19% found their most common service experiences to be “exceptional” (6.3%) or “friendly and focused” (12.5%). A strong majority (56.3%) felt the service was courteous, but “typically just going through the motions.”
B. When asked about the arenas that had provided the most memorable service in the last 6-months — dining topped the list, followed by retail and professional service providers. Near the bottom of the list were hotels, co-workers — and churches! At the very bottom of the list were sporting events and theatres.
C. So what drives poor service? Boldly topping the list was “lack of interest and ownership.” A strong 2nd and 3rd were “company culture” and “poor training.”

So where does your organization stand on the continuum from “just going through the motions” to “consistently providing genuine service” to your customers?

ACTION IDEA: Take a hard look at the culture of service in your organization. Are you just going through the motions of service or has genuine service become a part of the DNA of your culture? Measure your team against the 10 service thoughts above (5 being outstanding and 1 being poor). Then go back and measure your own performance against the same 10 service thoughts!