Customer service expert Ron Kaufman believes he has a blueprint to transform service culture around the world. As the founder of UP! Your Service, a Singapore-based company focused on service solutions for business, and author of the New York Times bestseller Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Your Customers, Colleagues and Everyone Else You Meet, Mr. Kaufman's approach is to help organizations build a service culture that is "uplifting," his own gold standard.
What's the difference between good service and uplifting service?
Service is taking action to create value for someone else. Uplifting service gives people a little or a lot more than they expect. So it's an upgrade, or an overall experience that leaves the customer feeling uplifted.
How would, say, a restaurant do that?
What a restaurant does is bring menus, seat people, serve tasty food, deliver the bill and make sure the bathrooms are clean. If you do that well, it's called good service.
But, for example, if you have three types of customers come in – business people, tourists and a family with kids – each wants something different. One group wants privacy; one wants to be engaged and hear about the locality; and the other needs lots of attention because it's a family. To create an uplifting experience, you modify your actions to provide value. You need to educate the waiter that the purpose of their job is – to take action to create value for whoever comes in.
That leaves a lot up to the waiter.
Which is why education is critical as well as recruitment and hiring. You don't want to hire somebody who just says, 'Show me the job and I'll do it.' You want somebody who's interested in learning and personal improvement, and who likes to take care of other people.
You've studied customer service across the world. Is there any one culture that has really nailed uplifting service?
Within an organization, yes. Within a country, not yet.
So who gets it?
Look at Apple. If you go to the Genius Bar (to get support for Apple products), they make you feel good and never like they're trying to make you buy something. They're just incredibly proud of their products and pleased you're their customer. They're totally there in your favour – to help you solve a problem or take some action – and it shows in what they are and what they do.
That culture is so strong it gets into the customer culture. Apple people love to help each other. And inside the organization itself, people who work at Apple feel they can get good service from each other.
Who else has an uplifting culture of service?
Singapore Airlines has done this so well. They've aligned the building blocks of their service culture so that what they do in each area isn't fragmented or detached from the other. So it's not like HR is doing this while operations or corporate communications are doing that. All these different activities are designed to reinforce each other. That's what very few companies do well.
When there's a service problem or complaint, what do a lot of companies do wrong?
The first thing is to realize that the person doing the complaining has already made the decision to tell you rather than to go viral and tell somebody else. They're giving you an opportunity to fix it. Which means, when someone complains to you, it's an act of loyalty.
Most companies don't realize how precious the complaining customer is. Most people won't complain – they'll just put up with it and then go somewhere else. That person represents nine other people who didn't tell you. You better go way out of your way to show appreciation and take action as fast as possible. They need to know you hear them and are on their side.
Another reason you want to take great care of that person is that same person will now be vocal on your behalf.
What company does that really well?
Xerox in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates has built an entire culture around recovery as a competitive advantage. If you look at what they sell and compare it with Canon, Minolta and Hewlett-Packard, there's not that much difference. You can't do it based on the blackness of your print on the page.
What I mean by recovery is that they created a whole culture around when someone complains. So their objective is to do whatever is needed for that person.. Then they go back to that person afterward and say, 'Look, we know something went wrong and these are the things we did in response to that situation. Are you, our customer, now more or less loyal to Xerox?' And their metric is based on how many people actually respond that they're now more loyal.
How do you get metrics without annoying people with tedious surveys, especially online with those pop-ups?
Surveys can destroy value if they're done the wrong way. Nobody wants to be hammered after a meal, flight or hotel stay. What they should be saying is, 'Thank you so much for coming. What could we do next time that would make your next experience with us even more enjoyable?' That's the only question.
Part of what's so problematic about these survey companies and the people inside their client organizations who become the repository of the data is that they're disconnected from the brand experience. They're just trying to grab the data, so it's very impersonal. The ones who do it right are personal.
If they would like to survey you online, they need to ask. And then do it in a way that's on brand. Amazon, Zappos and L.L. Bean are excellent examples.
I hate when someone ahead of me in line at The Gap gets a better deal by flashing a coupon on their phone for a discount. Is preferential treatment good service?
In an ideal situation, what you want to do is help the person who didn't get the deal understand how to get the deal. The service provider could help, or the company could provide, right there in line, easy to follow, nicely printed, encouraging instructions. Ultimately, the company is glad to give you the 20 per cent off if it's going to get you into their social media game or their community.
Another issue I have about service is that if you have a complaint, the people on the front line are often least trained.
And the least empowered. You cannot take these two things apart from each other. You don't want to empower somebody who isn't enabled. A lot of companies don't want to empower their staff because they're afraid their staff are going to make a bad decision. But if they took responsibility for enabling their staff with good coaching, mentoring, service education and processes for support, they'd happily empower them.
Companies need to take seriously that building an uplifting service culture is the way to build a sustainable competitive advantage for the future. It's not a nice to have, it's essential. That applies to any company, any size, anywhere.
This interview has been edited and condensed.