How do I create great customer service?

This essay explores the relationship between thorough recruitment and superior customer service.

When I ask the average business owner how important customer service is to their business, I usually get a strong positive response. This is as it should be, of course — but when I follow up with the $64 question — ‘Do you objectively measure customer your service in any way?’, I usually get a negative response — as I do when I ask if they have put into place any special recruitment or training systems to ensure customer service delivery. I have always found this very puzzling and frustrating.

Let’s make sure we’re talking about the same thing before we move on in this discussion. I define customer service as: ‘A positive perception of human interaction.’ Research across the world tells us it is worth at least 40% of your customers’ perception of your business (the rest is made up of product and environment).

Happy customers don't happen by accident
Happy customers don’t happen by accident

For over 30 years I have been involved in the quest to create management systems that lead to the delivery of superior customer service. I’ve come to understand that customers vote for a hospitality business with their wallets and purses, and form the decision to return according to their own, unique perception of what they experience while they’re there.

I’ve also come to understand that the creation of really good customer service requires the management of a quite complex set of variables, and is very unlikely to happen by accident. If you go into any restaurant or hotel and receive consistent good service right across their staff, you are dealing with a very special business and the leaders of that business are highly skilled and deserve a bronze statue in a prominent public place.

What, exactly, are you trying to create?

I believe it all starts with a clear vision of what you are trying to create, together with the evolution of what we call service performance targets. How long should a customer stand in a restaurant entrance before they are greeted? How long should you stand at a hotel front desk before you are acknowledged? How long should you have to wait for a drink in a dining area or a bar? How long should your phone ring for before it is answered?

Next, you need to define what I call service style targets. We all probably want our staff to establish eye contact and project warmth to our customers; we probably all want cheerful, helpful service, but how many business owners specify these as targets within their business?

What do you want your staff to do?

At this point you might think I’m going too far in trying to systemise procedures down to the last detail, but the issue I’m leading to is: How can you recruit the right people for the job until you have a clear understanding of what the job involves?

Good recruitment
Good service begins with very careful recruitment

How often have you gone somewhere and had really good service from one or two staff and pretty average service from the rest? This usually happens where the recruitment process applied within the business is not thorough enough to identify and reject the applicants who are not naturally service oriented. The end result is a mixture of staff who’s service delivery is OK when a manager or supervisor is watching and inconsistent when there is no supervision. Most non service oriented staff drop the pretence that got them the job when there is nobody in authority watching.

There is a trap here in that it is easy for the manager or supervisor to get an inaccurate picture of the service standard they are delivering because the service is good whenever they are watching. Another downside is that while you need constant supervision to ensure customer service standards you can hardly take time off without damaging your business.

I’ve come to understand that the foundation of good service is really good recruitment. If you get the right people they will run your business for you, and they will preserve a consistent standard of service whether you are there or not — because they want to, not because you want them to.

You can teach skills but you can’t teach attitude

Without giving an inappropriate discourse on the subject, good recruiting should concentrate on finding people with the right attitudes rather than the right skills. Skills can be taught quite easily, while it is very difficult to change peoples’ attitudes. I find that a lot of managers try to find experienced staff, only to find that they have inherited the recruiting mistakes of other businesses.

I believe it’s a lot easier, faster and cheaper to recruit a person with a natural love of people and train them to do the job than it is to try to convert a technically skilled person who is perhaps introvert in nature or who deep down really isn’t comfortable in a front of house role.

Good recruitment needs to be followed by good training

Of course, good recruitment must to be followed-up with good training or it can’t capitalise on those good attitudes. The right people are quite easy to train — they want to learn; they want to get it right. I’ve found that a structured training program over a week or two, applied to the right people, can produce wonders. The important thing is to train all your staff into the same system — don’t let your supervisors or senior staff train them the way they want, or you will get wildly inconsistent performance across your team.

Try very hard to avoid the situation where you have an ‘A’ days and ‘B’ days. On an A day you have your good staff on shift and any customer who comes in will probably get a value for money experience. On a B day you have a weaker team and anything can happen.

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