This 4-Step Secret is Key to Exceptional Customer Service — And it Requires A Lot More Than Just Smiles

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A successful CEO recently asked my customer service consulting and training practice to help him with a customer service puzzle that his company was trying to solve:

On the one hand, his team was already stellar at the “smiles” part of customer service. He had successfully assembled a phenomenal team adept at charming customers and creating pleasant experiences when all was going well. Customer feedback was generally positive, and internal operations ran smoothly.

However, the CEO felt his company was lacking a solid strategy for dealing with more complex situations. He asked me, “Is this just the nature of customer service? Are we all just winging it, hoping our personalities will carry the day?

I told him that having exceptional employees is undeniably a vital ingredient in customer service success. You need to hire individuals who are prone to behaving in a customer-friendly manner, day in and day out and are inclined to exhibit (and feel!) empathy.

However, having a great team is just half the battle won. Implementing systems and standards is also key to consistently delivering superior customer service. Consider a standard as the “how to” for the situation it addresses:

This could be as simple as defining the preferred way to cut a lime garnish to make it easy for a guest to squeeze. (Even though cutting it into a pizza-like slice is easiest and quickest, the better practice is to cut the lime into customer-friendly, squeezable wedges.)

Similarly, a standard can dictate how long a phone should ring before it’s picked up.

Or a law office might have a standard for the range of magazines and other reading materials in the client waiting room and how the lighting should be set.

Or, getting more technical, an auto service department could have a standard for the preferred way to securely fix a lug nut on a wheel without over-tightening.

Standards can be incredibly detailed. Take the custom drinks that Starbucks is famous for, say, a macchiato. The finishing touch is an intricate pattern of the flavoring sauce: seven vertical and seven horizontal lines intersected by two full circles, no matter which Starbucks you visit. Even the wooden stirrers at Starbucks are standardized, sourced from a specific birch tree type that doesn’t alter the coffee’s flavor.

Systems are essentially collections of standards. For example, the 10-5-3 sequence is used across various industries to outline how to engage with an approaching customer. When you’re 10 feet away and approaching the customer, meet their eyes and give them a nod; when you get within five feet, add a smile; at three feet, give them a verbal greeting, unless they didn’t respond to your five-foot smile, in which case, it’s best to respect their space and keep quiet!

Or, (and this is the system that I’ll spend some time delineating for you), a preset service recovery framework, a set pattern for interacting with customers who are disgruntled, disappointed, unhappy or angry, is incredibly vital for most every type of business.

If you don’t already have your own customer service system, here’s my MAMA service recovery method. It’s inspired by the work of The Ritz-Carlton hotel company but is intended to be somewhat broader in the contexts it fits into.

Related: 7 Things I Discovered While Working With Top Hotel Brands

The MAMA™ Method for Customer Service Recovery is a comprehensive four-step approach to handling service failures.

1. Make time to listen:

  • Focus your attention entirely on the customer and avoid interruptions.
  • Use not just your ears but also your eyes and body language to listen actively.
  • Only after allowing the customer to express their concerns, seek to understand the specific issues bothering them.

2. Acknowledge and apologize:

  • Show empathy and acknowledge the situation, offering a sincere apology if appropriate.
  • Even if you don’t feel at fault, express regret for the customer’s experience.
  • Ensure that your apology uses genuine language, avoiding insincere or conditional apologies.

3. (Have a) meeting of minds:

  • Strive to understand your expectations fully.
  • Collaboratively determine a practical and acceptable resolution.
  • Share the agreed-upon solution explicitly, making commitments on what you will do and by when.

4. Act! and follow up:

  • Honor your commitments and resolve the issue as promised.
  • Provide necessary follow-up to colleagues involved in the resolution.
  • Contact the customer to ensure their satisfaction.
  • Conduct a post-mortem analysis to identify patterns, systemic challenges and areas for improvement, using this insight to refine future operations and training.

By following this method, businesses can effectively address service failures and improve customer satisfaction.

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