I recently had the pleasure of watching the 1947 holiday classic Miracle on 34th St., with my family. At the beginning of the film a white-whiskered old man is hired by Macy’s department store to fill in for a Santa who is fired for being drunk on the job. The replacement Santa is an instant hit with the customers, and believes in his work so sincerely that he even claims to be the one and only Kris Kringle. His self-professed mission is to reconnect the true spirit of Christmas to the modern notions of Christmas. During his first day on the job, Santa is overheard suggesting to Macy’s shoppers that they may be able to find the items they are looking for at other department stores. Initially appalled and prepared to fire Santa on the spot for his transgressions against the Macy’s brand, the marketing team is instead called to an emergency meeting in Mr. Macy’s office and congratulated for their brilliant stroke of customer-service-savy. By putting the customer’s needs first, Macy’s establishes themselves as a company with a heart, not just one with a bottom line. Phone calls and letters supporting the policy and commending Macy’s continue to pour in and Macy’s chief competitors are forced to adopt similar policies and instruct their stores across the country to follow-suite. In short order the head of Macy’s and Gimble’s department stores are competing to be the most consumer-conscious retailer in the market. Santa’s plan works, and as Mr. Macy observes, by building customer loyalty first, by becoming a trust-agent, Macy’s will also build their profits. If Macy’s doesn’t carry exactly what the customer wants, he says, then help the customer find it somewhere else rather than sell them something they don’t need or want. Mr. Macy directs his staff to expand the customer-first policy initiated by Kris Kringle and promises to reward those who invented and implemented it.
The concept of re-inforcing a customer-first corporate culture from both the top and the bottom of an organization seems so obvious and yet is still so rare. Why is this? Can you think of a recent example where a service provider or retailer directed you to someone who could serve you better? Can you think of an example where you yourself have done this with or even without a corresponding corporate policy? And if you can’t answer “yes” to one or both of those questions, could you explain why. What is preventing us as individuals and companies large and small from truly serving our customers?
There are individuals and organizations that implement customer-first practices religiously. Rackspace is a prime example of a company that has made customer service their mission and they back it up with their “Fanatical Support” Promise. When Graham Weston directed the company to disconnect their customer service phone-tree, his reasoning was this – customers call us when they need our help, and we need to help them when they call. This is a clear top-down policy that every Racker was tasked with executing and Fanatical Support became the cornerstone of Racker culture. Theirs is a promise that they keep, a fact that their customers (and the market) have accepted and rewarded them handsomely for.
And while Rackspace is not the only company who puts their customers first and means it, their story and the attention it garners illustrate the scarcity of “Fanatical Support” in other organizations. And far too often we hear or experience first-hand the horror stories associated with Zombie Support. For example, how many times have you seen the footage of the FedEx driver throwing a computer monitor over a fence in the last 48 hours? Have you heard or read the recipient of the broken monitor say that he only posted the video online after attempts to resolve his complaint directly with FedEx failed?
You don’t have to be Rackspace or Santa Claus to consistently put your customers first. You do have to make being a trust-agent a priority and then reinforce that policy with strategies and objectives that make it actionable for you and all of your employees. How you choose to quantify your investment in and the value of customer loyalty is up to you. It is also critically important that you know who your customers are.
Is it worth passing on a sale or a contract if you know someone or something else would really be a better fit for your customer? Is it worth buying a replacement computer monitor? After all, it could have been broken before or after delivery and practically speaking, not many people will want to watch a PR Youtube video about the courteous and apologetic FedEx customer service representative who is empowered to replace a broken computer monitor.
One might decide then that since no-one will notice your good deeds, it makes good business sense not to put the customer first all the time. Perhaps FedEx reached the strategic conclusion that logistics and shipping and the timely delivery of goods trumps customer service. Whatever their reasons for not putting their customers first were, 5,000,000+ Youtube viewers and countless more Primetime news watchers have now seen a FedEx delivery driver throw a computer monitor over a fence like a big expensive frisbee. And while I don’t know how much it is going to cost them to clean-up the PR mess they are in, I do know this; it’s a whole lot more than the replacement
frisbee computer monitor that they ended up buying after all.