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How Do You Exceed Customer Expectations? Ask Nicole.

December 5, 2012

Dateline: Flemington, NJ; October 30, 2012; second day without power, heat or running water following the onset of Super Storm Sandy

We continue to receive a barrage of email solicitations (readable on BlackBerry and Droid) from retailers of every stripe for books, music, clothing . . . whatever. All of these folks have my mailing address and/or phone number. Surely at least one of them could have had the forethought to match that information against the storm’s path and asked me if I was OK or expressed concern rather than trying to sell me stuff? Even if they don’t give a hoot, do they really think we are interested in on-line shopping at this time? (I wonder if they will ship gasoline to my home?)

Wife’s cell phone rings (landlines are out).

“Hi, Susan, it’s Nicole. In case you are without heat or water, I want you to know that you guys can shower here.”

No biggie, assuming that Nicole is a relative, a close friend, perhaps a neighbor.

Yes, biggie, because Nicole owns the hair salon my wife (and I, for what hair I have) use. She wasn’t calling to offer us a hair-cut-and-shower special, or even to say that when we come in for our next appointment we should bring a towel and grab a shower. She was inviting us in a known time of need, offering a little help and comfort. No strings attached. And come as often as you like. Oh, and the shower is handicapped accessible.

In many a visit to Nicole’s chair (not too much off the top, as there isn’t much there), we yak about kids, weather, life. And business. Month-over-month, year-over-year revenues. Customer traffic. Competition, from both the boutiques and the chains. Location. Share of repeat customers. Share of customers who are men (a surprising 40%, I might add).

And inevitably she talks about her efforts to provide great customer service and the type of experience that brings customers back and generates positive word of mouth. Training. Seminars. Décor touch-ups. Staff motivation. Coffee, tea, flat screen TV. Community support. Always looking for affordable niceties.

No MBAs, no key driver analyses, no consultants. Constant attention to and command of the details and always on the watch for something different, a little bit extra. Showers were not part of the plan, but they are part of the style, the attitude with which she manages her business.

Nicole is an owner and has a staff of perhaps 10. My corporate clients have 1,000, 10,000, 100,000 or more employees. What can they learn from her? Are there any scalable insights?

It may not be easy, but why not at least try to infuse an army of Nicoles throughout the organization? Even in companies with 250,000 employees, the functional work group often is closer to 10. What if every one of those work groups had their own Nicole to raise the flag and rally employees to better serve customers, to be the team’s customer champion for great customer experience?

Sure, as the owner Nicole is best positioned to reap the rewards of loyal customers and positive references. But all that means is that if corporate America wants to infuse their firms with Nicole-hood, they need to rise to the challenge of putting in place the right culture and incentives.

Small businesses cannot match the resources of major corporations (and Nicole can’t afford the rent of the primo locations commanded by the chain hair cutters). Conversely, large firms typically lack the proximity – both literally and emotionally – to their customers that small businesses enjoy. More accurately, it’s senior management and the corporate infrastructure that often lacks this proximity. The arms and legs of the corporation, by contrast, often have greater proximity than the C-suite. While perhaps not quite as close to customers as the typical small business, non-HQ corporate employees can be an army of Nicoles closer to customers.

Nicole’s tax return no doubt says she owns and operates a hair salon. I would describe her business as knowing her customers, meeting their needs and exceeding their expectations with salon-related services.

If you want to know her secrets, ask Nicole. I can’t promise you a shower, but I recommend the haircut and wash. (You can find Nicole at Dolce Vita Salon and Spa in Flemington, NJ.)

Howard L. Lax, PhD is the Vice President of Consulting at GfK Customer Loyalty and an expert on customer experience and loyalty programs. He can be reached at howard.lax@gfk.com

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