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The State of Customer Service: The Haves and Have Nots

I had the pleasure of spending my vacation in Florida’s Gulf of Mexico region this past week in the company of my large extended family. We spent the week cooking meals and catching up – every family cooking something special for the whole house on their day to feed the masses. It is in those moments that I am most cognizant of the idea of treating our Customers as Guests in our homes or as the most cherished of friends. As we took turns cooking for the family, every person really put their heart into their meal – and food rarely tastes as good as when it is prepared for others with warmth and hospitality.

That is what Guest Service means to me.

That said, like so many things today, it has become a story of the haves and have nots when it comes to Customer service. As we watch so many thrive and continue to dominate the landscape, there are so many others who just can’t seem to light the fire. For every Disney®, Zappos®, and Virgin Atlantic® there are countless national chains and local businesses that just can’t seem to get it right.

There is a disparity in service out there and those who want to succeed have to embrace the truth that providing great service may not guarantee loyalty, but providing bad service will guarantee folks leave in droves.

So let’s talk about the state of Customer service:

  1. SELF SERVICE IS HERE TO STAY: There is no doubt that our Customers have embraced self-service. They can log into a website, order products, and even trouble shoot their issues in some cases all without interacting with a human being. It is a blessing and a curse. For sure it can be used as a way to rescue the overall employee footprint of your organization (after the IT heavy lifting is finished) but you will have created other potential issues. Some folks aren’t cut out for self-service but they don’t know it. Self-serving on Amazon or ordering a sub online is a lot different from setting up your own web site. I learned that lesson the hard way, but I was lucky to be working with a company that had a phenomenal support structure for underachievers like myself. So be sure of two things here: that your team is ready to assist if your online self-service Guests get stuck and that they don’t need to do too much explaining once they opt for help. That could mean that if the first line of assistance is a chat box that if they must progress to phone that they can do so seamlessly without having to repeat themselves. Never forget that having to repeat themselves is near the top of the list of most loathed Customer Annoyances.

  2. DON’T NEGLECT THE BASICS: Every time I give a talk, I remind organizations of all shapes and sizes that because of the apathy of the market today, they have a clear playing field to win. There are some great folks at the top that are well situated to own their markets and there are the bottom feeders that have the market cornered on price and have no desire to change. But that leaves a huge portion of the bell curve open to be won. So there is a simple set of instructions here. Make sure your team is grounded in the basics of great service, train it until they can’t get it wrong, then work beside to them to be sure they don’t. When I say the basics of Customer service I mean it. I am taking about Guest service 101 – I am talking about THE SIX CANONS OF CUSTOMER SERVICE.Resist the urge to consider anything too simple or below your notice when it comes to serving your Guests.If you haven’t taught your team how to smile, what a warm welcome feels like, or helped them craft a sincere thank you then you aren’t ready yet. The reason I keep reminding you to own the basics is because most folks haven’t done it yet.

  3. PEOPLE JUST DON’T CARE: It’s the disease that kills businesses every day: APATHY. There is no doubt that we are engaging a work force that grew up less socially and without the interpersonal interactions that the previous generation had. Now this is both true and nonsense. Every generation has looked down on the one coming next and assumed that it was the end of the world. They don’t understand hard work; they feel entitled; they aren’t the caliber we were at that age. Sound familiar? It’s the battle cry of the lazy Leader. Even if it were true; even if this new class of graduates was more interested in their cell phones than the Guest in front of them; even if they felt too entitled to actually serve another human being. . . SO WHAT?!? Does that mean we get to give up? Well you could. It’s too hard. Time to pack it in and shutter up the business for good. Time to shut off the lights and call it a day. Or, you can fight. You can refuse to give up and you can find new ways to engage your team. You can make sure they fully understand their place in the organization and why they are so critically important to success. You can hold them accountable for the behaviors your Guests demand and you can reward and recognize them when they deliver.

The challenge you face each day is the same one that every Leader has always faced: how to get the very best from the upcoming generation when their values shift and differ from how things are currently being done. Remember that isn’t to say that you have to give up your vision and compromise your values, but you have to engage your team in a way that inspires them to deliver greatness.
  1. CUSTOMERS WANT A CUSTOMIZED EXPERIENCE: From Generation X on, consumers have become more and more inclined to want a customizable experience. Whether folks are “Having it Their Way” at Burger King® or customizing their iPhone cover, individuality is key. Think about the overall Customer service experience and how it can be made to feel “just for them.” Cookie cutter services are not enough anymore and Guests are looking for ways to have some control over their experience. When you sit down for a nice meal, take a flight across the country, or head in to buy a new cell phone you can hear your fellow patrons asking for something specialized. It is the way of the world now and embracing that will make the overall experience much more enjoyable for your Guests. The days of a one-size-fits-all model of service are long past, but you can still see some businesses trying to fit all Guests into a single mold. Sure rules are going to be necessary, but if you find even the smallest of spins to allow a minute amount of choice, you will find that the perception is that you are the flexible kind of business that folks want to frequent.

  2. THE COMPETITION IS EVERYWHERE: Guests are much more experienced than they ever have been in the past. When they go to the grocery store, they aren’t just looking for tomatoes, they are looking for the heirloom varieties they saw on the cooking show they watched last night or the Ugandan vanilla bean they fancy in their home churned ice cream. When they head to ship a package they are comparing the service to what they experienced at the quick lube location they frequent next to their house. And for sure when they are on your web site, they are sizing you up against or The Apple Store. The message here is that just because you are a dental office doesn’t mean that you aren’t being compared to the local car dealership. It also means that when you answer the phone you are being compared to when they last called their cell phone provider or doctor’s office. Customers have hundreds of interactions every week and they don’t silo them off into industry when they make judgements. You can be labeled as terrible because your clothing store wasn’t as friendly as the local coffee shop. The good news here is that if you are aware of this not only can you meet these standards, but you can begin to borrow best practices from any number of businesses.

Learn to love the fact that anyone that your Guests do business with is now your competition and you are constantly being judged against them all. It is daunting, but it is the nature of Guests in our current service world!
  1. HIRING TALENT THAT CARES HAS NEVER BEEN MORE IMPORTANT: With today’s migration toward the aforementioned self-services and internalized technology culture, having talent that really cares and connects has to be a priority. As we discussed earlier you have to maximize your talent from each generation but that becomes a much more manageable task when you begin with great team members. Interview thoroughly, pick candidates who match your culture, and take your time. One of the biggest causes of new hires who don’t work out is often the fact that the first candidate was chosen as opposed to waiting for the right candidate.

That’s the capstone when it comes to defining the state of Customer service. The entire landscape is constantly changing from those we are serving to those we are hiring to those we are competing against.

Get extremely comfortable with change and agile with solutions. Embrace those basics and allow your Guests to guide you while you innovate in measured and controlled bursts.

So stop what you are doing now – seriously right now – and head out to teach your team the basics of treating Guests like cherished friends.


Tony Johnson Customer Service Expert | Author | Trainer | Speaker

Check out my FREE Resources and Training Tools: Web: YouTube: Twitter:

Check out my new book: RECIPE FOR SERVICE Now Available on

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