I hit a dry patch while preparing a presentation over the holidays, I needed examples of national brands the audience would immediately consider outstanding customer service organizations. Many did a good job. Some did pretty good jobs, but finding the company doing a great job was difficult. Nordstrom is one obvious fallback, but has almost reached the level of cliche.
Customer service advocates once tried using the Malcolm Baldridge Award as a proxy for a national customer service award. That worked early when customer-centric organizations like the now defunct AT&T Universal Card and FedEx won awards for service. Now? Zappos’ service culture is revered, but the company is slowly absorbing into Amazon, a pretty good service company too, but better at logistics and making markets. There’s not much there to make customers swoon. Multiple elements create a world class service envrionment, but first among them is having a world class service or product offering. Then the organization has to dazzle customers with every transaction, including full empowerment down to the line staff level. Ritz Carlton properties still have some of that cachet, but keeping a service quality culture at that level is darn near impossible when you grow from 4 to 40 sites and sell out to Marriott. Some companies–Amazon, FedEx, Disney depending on who is talking–have great national reputations, but they are the exception. The inability of most national brands to deliver great customer service is an opportunity for small businesses. Your takeaway as a small business leader is to make customer service a differentiator. If you run a pizza parlor, you can compete with the chains by offering good quality food and great service. Not every independent bookshop was squeezed out of business by Amazon. Instead the national chains took a beating, just as Netflix was administering the same style of beating to Blockbuster. But Joe’s Pizza, at the corner for two generations? Doing just fine thanks. A bookstore and a video store still thrive in my neighborhood. They’re run by local folks, still patronized by local folks and highly regarded. If customer service has been sacrificed for price (think of the airlines when you say that), then you must compete by offering quality goods and services and amazing service. This is the same strategy I used when launching Silver Beacon three years ago. One of the most respected local marketing folks in the country told me that there was no way for local marketers to succeed in the long run because businesses will chase price and there was too much churn. Not local businesses. Not the smart ones who know theirsurvival is based on great service. And that’s where your small business wins. Let national brands tromp around the marketplace and sell on price. Hold fast to price and over-service your customers. You don’t have to match organizations selling discounts. Now if anyone will tell me who they think the best service organizations are, I can finish my presentation. Source: “Baldridge Homepage”, US Commerce Department, March 25, 2010 Image: Ray Smithers