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Take a listen to this customer as she vents in a focus group about what it was like to do business at the retail bank branch near her house.

This might make me sound petty, but I was uncomfortable with the way the employees in the bank treated me. They didn’t recognize me — in the sense that they didn’t give me recognition. They didn’t treat me like me, like someone distinct from other customers. I felt like one of their generic, interchangeable, customers.

What this bank hasn’t realized, but I hope you will, is this: If your customer service approach is to treat each customer like a commodity, you'll quickly turn your business into a commodity: easily forgotten, easily replaced.

The attitude your business should strive to take here is that there are no such things as “customers” in the plural; there’s only one customer, the one in front of you, the one you are serving. This should guide your customer service approach, whether you’re in retail, B2B, hospitality, the service industry, healthcare (the greatest mission statement in healthcare — from Mayo Clinic — focuses on the singular customer: “The needs of the patient come first,” not “the needs of our patients come first”), and on and on.

This can be a hard concept to get a handle on because the face value of a customer interaction so often includes an exchange of money, and one customer’s money isn’t any greener than anybody else’s. So, on the face of it, it makes sense for one customer to be treated just like everyone else, the same way you don’t distinguish between a single dollar bill and the next dollar bill in the pile. And, yes, that’s an efficient way to do business. But it’s not an effective one; in fact, it’s an approach guaranteed to backfire.

It’s unlikely that your company started out treating customers impersonally at the get-go. If your company is still tiny, you’re probably already treating customers individually. You wouldn’t know any other way to do this at this stage of business. You wouldn’t, for instance, screen customer calls; when you only get five calls a day, screening would be ridiculous.

The commoditization danger comes when your business grows a bit, you get busy and possibly a bit full of yourself, and suddenly the customer who has patronized your business since the beginning has to run a gauntlet to speak to you: “Yes, and what’s your name? And what is the nature of your call?” and so forth. This is the stage at which you need to fight back at the depersonalization forces that are now grabbing at you.

How? Here are some opportunities to keep your personal, individualized edge in customer service and the customer experience as your business grows:

·         Find ways to remember and use customer names. Of course this wasn’t a problem when you had just a handful of customers. But when you have hundreds, you need to train employees in the importance of this, and give them techniques to make it possible to remember and use customer names. One of the simplest techniques to remember names is to use them a lot. I know this sounds circular, but let me explain, using the example of The Broadmoor, Forbes Travel Guide’s longest-standing Five Star hotel. With nearly 800 rooms on property in its massive landmark buildings, there are a lot of guests arriving every day. So how do they remember their guests’ names? By using them: The doorman obtains your name from you, perhaps by asking, or by knowing your arrival time in advance, or from your luggage tag or another hint. From there, he uses it a couple times in conversation with you, and makes sure to use it when handing you off to the next person who will assist you, who then can start using it, seamlessly. Or if you’re dining at one of the restaurants on campus, you give your name to the hostess, who then uses your name aloud in earshot of your waiter, and the rest is history–personal history: You have the comforting, individualized feeling that comes from hearing your own name spoken.

·         Be alert to pacing. Each customer exhibits and favors a different conversational and interactional pace, and may vary their pacing from visit to visit: they may be rushed, they may be leisurely, they may be chatty, they may be taciturn. Train yourself and your staff to pay attention and adjust.

·         Remember and honor customer preferences. Part of serving customers as individuals is to honor customer preferences. How do you gather up their preferences? Listen. Take notes. Look at those notes. But be aware that preferences do change over time, and sometimes from one visit to the next. So, there’s no substitute for awareness. (And remember: Don’t cross the creepiness line. Today’s technology offers a lot of “breadcrumbs” about customer preferences. Don’t overdo it here and turn your customers into paranoiacs at what they may ultimately perceive as your Big Brother tendencies.)

·         Make advance, procedural “guesses” for different types of customers. I write the phrase “types of customer” with trepidation, because talking about/stereotyping customer types brings us dangerously close to the idea of customers in the plural, Yet, it can be helpful to prepare for situational differences from customer to customer. A simple example of this is when a considerate restaurant sets up a procedure of automatically offering reading material to solo diners when they arrive, as well as making sure they keep fresh, un-dog-eared reading material on hand for this.

·         Don’t make one-size-fits all assumptions. For example, don’t assume every customer is looking for a bargain or values money and savings above all other considerations. A better approach is to offer not only no-frills options, but also opportunities for customers to spend more, and get more. 

·         Offer intelligent self-service. Paradoxically, well-designed self-service can be the one of the most personal types of service delivery. If your business is still stubbornly averse to self-service, then you’re standing in the way of today’s customers, who are very accustomed to it and very appreciative of the personalization opportunities that self-service can provide. A self-service example to consider here is retail coffee service. There are infinite ways to whiten a cup of coffee: a little cream, a dash of cream, a metric ton of cream, and so forth. That’s why almost no customer prefers when someone else apportions and pours the whitener for them. Yet before self-service became the norm in the commercial coffee whitening business, that was what customers were stuck with. Of course, this is a low-tech, even non-tech, example. Technology-driven self-service today can allow a customer to make these kind of tiny preference adjustments regardless of the field:  financial services, homeowner’s insurance, online or in-person retail, etc. And to record these preferences so that future visits (online or in person) can start off immediately on the right footing. An individual footing.

For more on this topic, read NewVoiceMedia's whitepaper, Making customer engagement a winning strategy.

Micah Solomon is a customer service consultant, speaker, author, and thought leader.

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About Micah Solomon

Business speaker, consultant and #1 bestselling business author Micah Solomon is known for his ability to transform business results and build true customer engagement and loyalty. Micah has been named by The Financial Post, “New Guru of Customer Service Excellence.” www.micahsolomon.com

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