What do Starbucks, Zappos, Ritz-Carlton and Mercedes-Benz have in common?
Each has excellent customer service and each has been studied by consultant Joseph Michelli in a series of books designed to help you follow in their wake.
"In the companies I write about, senior leadership goes beyond simply defining customer experience as a strategic priority. They frame their legacy on it," he said in an interview.
Those leaders articulate a vision supporting the "why" and "how" of customer experience excellence – it varies among them – and inspire enterprise-wide alignment with that vision. They sustain their focus – it's not a flavour of the month but a way of being. They dedicate resources to it and are in constant conversation with staff regarding their customer experience strategy.
The biggest mistake other companies make, he feels, is not knitting together everything that can be done for customers in a comprehensive approach. To be successful, you need an executive, preferably in the top echelon, overseeing all aspects of the customer experience and ensuring a systematic approach.
If that points to what is required in the C-suite, he feels the biggest mistake is lack of accountability on the front lines. For all the talk in organizations about accountability, he says we have trouble holding the crucial conversations with those employees who deal directly with customers.
We're all familiar with some aspects of the major companies he has chronicled, either as customers or through various articles written about them. What has he learned that might be new and surprise us?
For Zappos, it's the importance of values and how they carefully search for people who fit the online retailer's corporate culture. They require a video cover letter before looking at résumés. If your video cover letter is too strait-laced, you're out – folks have to be a bit weird to fit into the Zappos universe. They also make it difficult to find the job listing and required skills, putting barriers in place that force you to read first about the company's values. "They tell you more about their values than the qualifications for the job," he notes.
And you should do the same, not rushing to grab people who simply have the skills you need but opting for the right values. "Perhaps with a brain surgeon you need the skills. But for these jobs, culture is critical. Are you humble? Can you serve others?" he says.
For Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co., the surprise flows from its well-known motto, "We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen." That's an Old World notion – young people today don't see themselves in that light but it resonates with them, elevates them in their own minds and the brand they represent. Also important is that it's bi-directional: Ritz-Carlton staff are deemed important and expected to be treated like "ladies and gentlemen" by customers. If not, the hotel will send those customers to another establishment. He notes some changes have had to be made with the times. These days, beer will be served in a bottle, not just a glass – but with grace, on a tray, with old-school charm.
For Starbucks, Mr. Michelli has been impressed with the company's commitment to technology. A recent corporate gathering was cancelled so the money could go instead to improving technical issues like mobile pay, as the company tries to make it easier for customers to order and pay through apps. Customers can even tweet a friend a latte, paid through the benefactor's mobile device.
He also commends the company's activism. Often companies stay away from politics but chief executive officer Howard Schultz has been willing to take stands, including buying ads asking people not to send money to politicians who are concerned with self-preservation, and instead give funds to grassroots activist organizations. Yes, taking stands can get you in hot water, as it did with Mr. Schultz when he called for a national conversation on race. "But if you don't take a stand on things, you don't have a soul. People want soulful brand," he says, and will even tolerate companies with views opposite to their own.
At Mercedes-Benz, the subject of his most recent book, Driven to Delight, the surprise was that a company with such a strong engineering culture could transfer that dedication to excellence to customer service too. "Most people in engineering don't want to deal with people. In manufacturing, there is consistency and you can measure the outcomes. But with people, their need states are all over the map and it's hard to provide consistent processes," he said.
But Mercedes-Benz does it. And so should you.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter.