Opinion Columns & Blogs

DR. CUMMINGS: Five rules to master customer service

My wife and I have started eating out a lot. We’ve found some excellent restaurants in Middle Georgia: Italian, Mexican, Chinese, home cooking -- you name it, we’ve got it here. But do you know what drives us back again to that same restaurant? Oh sure, the quality of the food and the prices factor in, but the deciding factor is always how they treat us. How high do we rate them on our customer service scales?

It’s the same with cars. We’ve purchased so many Chevy’s from Youman’s Chevrolet -- because of their fantastic customer service -- that George Youman asked me to do a commercial. I talked for 30 minutes about my favorite salesmen and my service technicians until the cameraman asked, “How about the price?” “Yes,” I said, “the price is right, too.” To my utter dismay, that’s the only part they kept.

Who’s your customer? It’s easy to tell if you sell cars or meals, but what if you’re a teacher or a lawyer or a nurse? How about a parent or a pastor? What if you’re stuck in an office surrounded by your computer and paper work all day? What if your “customer contact” is minimal and sporadic? Do research physicists even have a customer? The answer is, yes: everyone has a customer. We used to call them neighbors, “people who sometimes need us for something.”

Remember: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Besides Christianity, this form of customer service shows up in Baha’i, Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and also in the writings of Plato and Aristotle. It just makes sense, doesn’t it? If I want to sell my ideas or my product or my service to other people, all these experts say that I have to treat them the way I want to be treated. It’s the Golden Rule.

However, I don’t really buy that. In fact, I believe that if I “do unto others the way I want to be done unto,” then I’ll lose a lot of sales.

You see, the Golden Rule is fine if everybody wants to be treated the same way I want to be treated. And in general that works because everybody wants understanding and patience and kindness. But not everybody wants loud laughter and back-slapping; some people want gentleness and quiet, intense listening.

So I change it a bit. I “do unto others the way they want to be done unto.” It’s the Platinum Rule, a little bit harder than the Golden Rule. If I’m really going to retain my customers, I’ve got to get inside their heads and hearts and find out what turns them on. It might not be what turns me on. I think rap music is just loud noise, but I better have it playing in my Harlem restaurant if I want any customers at all.

I’ve been teaching customer service for the past 50 years. I’ve found these five rules have really helped:

1. Ask them what they want. Surveys help, but it’s best if you can ask them face to face.

2. Improve your systems. Once you hear from them, begin immediately to improve whatever part of your system doesn’t meet their approval. Don’t wait.

3. Under-promise and over-deliver. If you can have it ready in three days, promise them four days and then try for two.

4. Always say “Yes.” Even when the answer is “No.” Remember, the customer is always right even when he’s wrong -- so figure out a way to satisfy him.

5. Do it better the second time. Making up for a mistake can sometimes be better than doing it right the first time.

There’s a sixth rule that encapsulates the other five and it goes like this: Satisfying customers won’t cut it; you’ve got to make them close their eyes and shout, “Wow!” Today as you read this, I’m vacationing with my family in the “Wow-Land” of Disney World where we’ve returned for the 23rd time. Disney follows all five of my rules and always does it better the next time we come.

Dr. Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corporation and Cummings Management Consultants. His website is www.billcummings.org.