What is great service?

By Joe Anzalone

Asset Marketing Systems

Many organizations -- Disney, Lexus, and Nordstrom, to name just a few -- are known for their attention to exceptional service. Indeed, everyone has at least one story about an outstanding customer service experience. Here's my own:

Five years ago, I worked as a regional sales director for a Boston-based consulting firm. For one two-year stretch, I traveled approximately 80 percent of the time. To give you an idea of what that's like, consider this: I was on a first-name basis with bartenders at the Boston airport. Security personnel in Atlanta grew to recognize me. I can still recite, verbatim, the menu at the Canton/Akron airport bar and grille. It was a strange existence.

Because I flew so much, I received the "Bose Noise Canceling Headphones" as a gift for Christmas in 2001. Their advertising pointed out the many health benefits of eliminating airplane noise during flight, but for a frequent traveler the appeal was clear: After so many flights, there's only so many interesting people with which to talk. The headphones, with their suggestive bright red light facing the passenger to your right, provided a ready defense for the weary flyer against another long conversation. Umm...sorry. Can't hear you.

I would never have spent the $399 for them, but as a gift? Essential. I had used them on every flight since, until I broke them last year by accidentally rolling my office chair over the right earpiece. I seethed with dismay and low-grade panic: I had to fly that week! What was I going to do? More from curiosity than actual hope, I called the Bose 800 number. Here's how the conversation went. Let's pick it up in the middle:

Joe Anzalone (JA): "... So, umm... anyway, my headphones broke, and I can't use them. Is there anything you can do?"

Bose Guy (BG): "Well, sir, do you still have your receipt?"

JA: "Nope, they were a gift."

BG: "OK, how long have you had them?"

JA: "I'm not sure... a few years?"

BG: "Well, according to the serial number you read to me, you've had them almost six years. Does that sound accurate?"

JA: "Yeah, I guess."

BG: "OK, sir, is this San Diego address current?"

JA: "Yeah."

BG: "No problem... we'll overnight you a brand new set. You'll have them tomorrow."

JA: "Really? For free?"

BG: "Yes sir. Thank you for calling Bose. Is there anything else I can help you with?"

To this day, I still can't believe they did that for me. That is great service.

Somewhere along the way, the Bose Corporation decided to place service considerations first and immediate financial gain a distant second. There are probably better headphones out there, or less expensive ones; in fact, I'm sure there are. But I will never recommend any others but Bose's, because of that one phone call I had last year. When I thought about it more, I realized that's why they can charge $399 for virtually the same product you can get from Sony for $125. Service. It's great service that makes any company -- small or large -- a highly profitable enterprise.

Why is this story relevant to our businesses? Because your customers may have had a similar experience, and your service will be compared to that; because your clients may drive a Lexus, shop at Nordstrom, or go to Disneyworld. Every time your customers work with your practice, they are evaluating you.

No one understands this better than Harry Beckwith, author of the bestselling marketing tome Selling the Invisible. As a business owner, when you strive to provide exceptional service, it's wise to follow the following lessons from this invaluable book.

Service lesson No. 1: Study each point of contact, then improve each one significantly.1

When you sit down with your prospect and go through their plan, chances are that your meetings usually go well. But that only covers one point of contact. What about your receptionist, office administrator, appointment setter, or the person that confirms their visit? What does your business card convey? How about your thank you notes -- are they handwritten or formal?

Remember, everything matters. If your receptionist sounds indifferent when she picks up the phone, your customer will believe that indifference is rampant in your practice. If your business card is polished and sophisticated but your office is laid-back and casual, the customer gets an inconsistent message. The great service companies study every contact point and make them consistent and memorable.

Service lesson No. 2: If you're selling a service, you're selling a relationship.2

Many advisors I speak with are convinced their prospects are buying their expertise first. But in spite of all the "armchair investors" we often come across, the simple truth is that we understand the business of financial planning better than they do. They cannot intelligently compare our plan to another one, but they can evaluate our service, remember how they feel every time we deal with them, and the importance we place on the relationship we have with them.

Service lesson No. 3: Make sure the client knows.3

Similarly, when you deliver a truly exceptional solution, you may know that, but your client may not. Don't assume they're aware of the thought, toil and experience that went into creating their plan. As Beckwith points out, "If you beat the deadline by two days, make sure the client knows. If you came under the estimate by 7 percent, make sure the client knows. If you are especially proud of something you did, make sure the client knows. Don't expect the client to know how hard you have worked, how much you have cared, and how well you have performed. So often, the client is the last to know."

We're not talking about bragging here. There's a subtle but important difference between claims and facts, and when you're making sure the client knows, stick to the facts. Instead of claiming, "I've done a terrific thing for you here, you're not going to believe it," calmly point out how your plan has delivered better-than-expected benefits to the client's situation. They will never forget it.

It's important to realize that your level of service isn't just compared to that of another financial advisor in your market, it's up against every other service experience they've had that day, that week, or that month. As you reflect on that, ask yourself: Did I deliver something truly exceptional to my clients today? It's that level of dedication that will turn your customers into fervent advocates for your business.

As for me, my flight is boarding. Time to put my headphones on!

1Beckwith, Harry, Selling the Invisible,© Warner Books, 1997, pp. 50-51.

2Ibid, p. 42

3Ibid, pp. 226-227.

*For further information, or to contact this author, please leave a comment and your e-mail address in the forum below.