“Your most loyal customers will drive the most revenue to any business. You can’t survive on just the loyal customers, but you need to take care of them.”
– BJ Bueno, Founder, The Cult Branding Company
If you had invested $100 in Amazon’s stock since its Initial Public Offering more than 20 years ago, that investment would now be worth about $50,000. While the mega-company is a mainstay in American consumerism today, Amazon’s success can only be partially attributed to its innovation.
The real deciding factor is its superior customer service.
In addition to a good price and a quality product, consumers want speed. While some brands flounder on efficiency, Amazon has solved the latter tenfold. Why wait seven days for an online order when you can get it the same day? Amazon started by giving Prime members free two-day shipping, free video and music streaming, and other perks for just $99 a year. The move prompted some 70 to 90 million people to sign up (though the company won’t reveal the exact number).
But then Amazon continued to raise the bar – rolling out same-day delivery for select items in 2015. Its combined speed, immense product listings and competitive prices have earned Amazon hardcore loyalists. The company’s ability to solve issues of time and budget for many consumers is why Amazon is now moving into the fashion market as well, says retail consultant BJ Bueno, founder of The Cult Branding Company.
Such a result is one any company would be thrilled to accomplish – your loyal customers are the lifeblood of your business. “Your most loyal customers will drive the most revenue to any business,” Bueno says. “You can’t survive on just the loyal customers, but you need to take care of them.”
So, why don’t all brands follow Amazon’s lead? And how can they take care of their most loyal customers?
John Tschohl believes that most don’t realize that stellar customer service propels the success of every kind of business. And Tschohl should know. The president of the Service Quality Institute is what many call the “customer service guru.” In fact, TIME magazine bestowed that label on him multiple times since 1987.
“They [companies] have to understand they’re in customer service no matter their business,” Tschohl says. “There are very few that understand the customer experience. Most companies don’t get it.”
When you ask Tschohl what it is that companies don’t understand about customer service, you can tell he is pessimistic. Of course, more than 45 years in any industry can make one jaded. “There are many different elements of what I would call superior customer service,” he begins, noting that “having courteous, friendly people” is just one step.
Tschohl confirms the notion about needing speed and convenience, but also offers a new point of view most businesses might not see. “You’ve got to eliminate some stupid policies and procedures that alienate customers… You can have really nice people, but you can have really dumb rules and procedures.”
He recalls a maintenance company that was supposed to come fix an issue at his home. Instead of the process being simple, the company only allowed customers to reference their work order by account number. Who remembers that?
Because of this difficult process, Tschohl says it took triple the amount of time to solve the problem as it would have if he had done it himself. A simple fix could have enabled the customers to use their phone number or address in addition to the account number.
If companies truly want to be customer-driven, Tschohl says that they must have hours that are convenient to the customer. “That means you should really have a call center open 24/7 with real people, no IVR.”
IVR stands for Interactive Voice Response, meaning customers with questions or issues are talking to machines. Tschohl says that’s a big no-no. The solution? Again take a page out of the Amazon playbook. “They will answer the phone in two to three rings with a live person,” Tschohl says. “Amazon understands customer service. They are far more interested in a long-term relationship than a one-time sale.”
Putting just any person on the end of the line is reason for caution. Tschohl says Tesla learned that the hard way when they decided to send their customer service calls to the Philippines. It all went to hell.
“These people [non-native English speakers at call centers] just know one word: ‘No,’” Tschohl says. “Outsourcing to India and the Philippines is telling people you want to lose customers. CEOs think they’re eliminating costs, but they’re just eliminating customers.”
The process starts at the top
If you want superior customer service, it must start at the top. In his extensive experience working with brands, Tschohl says he believes that 99 percent of companies think they are great at customer service.
He also believes they’re wrong. To truly be a leader in customer service, top executives must implement employee training and empowerment. “Take your whole leadership team and have them understand what they need to do to improve customer experience,” Tschohl says. “Train and develop your employees every four months, year after year. You have to get better every year. People break down faster than equipment.”
One brand that does it right is Ritz-Carlton. Among its many strong qualities, it implements consistent training and customer-forward policies. ”Their mission is that they are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen,” Bueno says. “In training, they play these scenarios out. Any employee from a grounds worker to someone behind the desk at the Ritz can solve your problem. It’s a combination of customer incentive and experience.”
But that’s all the “soft side,” as Bueno calls it.
There is also a “hard side” to customer experience, and that deals with data. Nothing is worth doing in business if there are no numbers to support it, so Bueno’s been doing consumer insight research for cult brands for about 17 years. Working with brands big and small, his team started with a basic formula: customers + culture = authentic brand = cult brand.
In his company’s latest book, “Customer First,” they explore the hypothesis that, though putting the customer first became a cliché, “putting the customer first, or at the center, is a stronger predictor of success.”
Their findings supported the notion. Bueno says companies that obsess over their customers can succeed times 10. He says the key to using data to better understand your customers, and thus be able to “obsess” over them, is having a strong CRM. He combines this “hard” knowledge with many of the same “soft” principles.
“The more personalized you get to know your customers, the better you can offer those experiences,” he says. “You need the computing power and the training to teach people how to use the data to serve the customers better. Without that data, you’re not even able to understand the levels of service.”
In today’s consumerism landscape of customers getting more and therefore demanding more, there’s a lot of pressure to become one of the cult brands Bueno helps build. The key to creating hardcore loyalists is to attribute a lifestyle or culture to your brand.
“With no company culture, it falls apart,” Bueno says.
Take musician Jimmy Buffet. Bueno says the singer’s committed Parrotheads are a prime example of how the brand became a culture for consumers. It gave them a lifestyle, a sense of belonging, and it connected them back to a group of like-minded individuals who love the same product.
The Jimmy Buffett team has a strong comprehension of their customer and what that customer expects from them, along with a database. By providing a “portal into Margaritaville,” a line in a hit song eventually turned into a resort and lifestyle brand in which fans can immerse themselves.
“You have to find your customers where they’re going to meet you,” Bueno says. “You must be Omni-channel. Be a retailer that says, ‘no matter where you shop, we’re going to try to deliver the full brand experience.’”
While the basis of customer service pivots on soft skills like speed, convenience and personal touches, it cannot be effectively utilized to build a business if you’re not constantly collecting insights to better understand your customer.
Understanding your customer is at the core of providing exemplary service – if you don’t know what they value, you can’t deliver what they want.