Want Buyer Loyalty? Try Standing In Your Customer’s Shoes

Published in UT San Diego, September 15, 2014

Customer service. It’s like pornography. I can’t describe it, but I know it when I see it.

A customer for life. That is the goal of every business. It takes a lot of money to get one, and you never ever want to give one back. And obviously, those two themes are inextricably intertwined. What does it take to get a customer for life? Not a lot. But it’s the little things that really count. It is called “standing in your customer’s shoes.”

Here’s a story. I like to fly fish, and my son and I were planning our annual three-day trip to chase the wily trout in Montana. We picked a lodge (high end and a bit pricey), and at the last minute, right before I gave them the credit card, they mentioned that on top of everything else we charged, there was one more additional charge of $800 to reserve a specific guide. This was outrageous. I canceled on the spot and went looking for another lodge.

We were on a tight travel schedule, but I found one about an hour’s drive from the airport. The lodge manager knew we were arriving at noon, he knew we were on a tight schedule, and he knew that we wanted to fish that afternoon. Without being asked, the lodge manager offered to have our guide meet us at the airport and take us fishing for a half day, so that we did not have to drive to the lodge first with all the usual getting checked in junk. Without being asked. They just anticipated and “put themselves in our shoes – or in this case wading boots.” Customer for life.

There are a thousand stories about airplanes, and here’s mine. I am not platinum on any airline and have no frequent-flyer status. Three years ago, I take a trip on Delta. When I get to the hotel, I unpack and find that an expensive camera is missing from my checked luggage. (OK, Barbara warned me not to check it through.) We were staying at a fancy resort, and I was truly bummed.

At 5 p.m., I went down to the spa (there were three to choose from), and I picked one where two other guys were relaxing. I struck up a conversation with one of the men lamenting the story about Delta and the stolen camera. So the guy across from me says, “I think Delta should make good on the camera.” And I say, “Easy for you to say, pal – you’re not the CEO of Delta.” And he says, “As a matter of fact I am.” It was Richard Anderson, and four weeks later I got a check for $500 from Delta. Customer for life.

Ms. Bry was employee No. 2 at ProFlowers. She tells the story of one Valentine’s Day early in the company’s history when a number of people received lousy flowers. Naturally, the customers screamed. The organization’s culture was focused on delivering high-quality flowers and customer service so the entire company, more than 100 people, including the CEO, personally responded to each angry customer and replaced every single defective bouquet or gave a refund. They made it right.

Hundreds of books have been written about customer service at Zappo’s and Nordstrom’s. In all cases, the operative event is “standing in the other person’s shoes.”

What fascinates me is this. It is never expensive to make it right when measured against the cost of obtaining the customer in the first place. Companies argue about nickels when the customer is worth hundreds or thousands of dollars to them. Why? Because the company has rules. And they have hierarchies to go with the rules.

May I politely suggest that rules are made to be bent from time to time. Empower the agent behind the desk or on the phone. Sure, occasionally, they will screw up and cost the company money — but vastly more often not, they will use good judgment and employ rational behavior, and end up putting a smile on the customer’s face. A smile that stays there a long time.

Rule No. 368

Stand in the other person’s shoes – even if they pinch your toes a bit.

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