The 3-step recipe for great customer service we learned from a deli

Marybeth Alexander | March 14, 2014

Telling your employees to give great customer service is easy. Teaching them to give great customer service…not so much.

Like many companies, SurveyGizmo prided itself on great customer service. As the leader of the customer support team, giving great service was our north star – the guiding light in everything we did.

However, being a pretty abstract principle, it was hard to communicate with both the team and the company what "great customer service" actually meant and how to accomplish it (besides just saying "do it").

Over the years, we’ve struggled with implementing consistent, great customer service. And I’ve made a few mistakes along the way.

Mistake #1: Just hire people who "get it"

Now I’m not saying that you shouldn’t hire people for customer service skills. In fact, it’s probably the most important talent to look for in prospective employees if you want to be an organization known for great customer service.

During our customer hero application process, we test our candidates ability to provide amazing service in a variety of ways:

  • Asking them to reply to customer emails during the initial application
  • Having them complete an assignment
  • Conversing over both phone and email
  • Multiple in-person interviews with different people
  • Specific questions about customer service
  • Even though a potential customer hero might excel across all stages of the application process he or she might still make decisions in day-to-day customer service situations that aren’t up to our standards. But have we defined our standards and communicated them? Yeah, no. We just told people to give great service and let them fill in the blanks.

Clearly this didn’t solve all our customer service problems. However, hiring people who demonstrated great customer service skills during the application process helped us give great service most of the time. If I had to guess, I’d say they would make the decision we would want 60% of the time.  What about the rest of the time? Generally, these were situations with irregular circumstances and upset/difficult customers.

So does this mean we hired the wrong candidates? It would be convenient to say so. Maybe they just really don’t understand great customer service. But that’s a pretty unfair statement. We set an expectation for great service without ever clearly defining it or communicating it. This was on us.

The 90-5-5 Rule

Enter the 90-5-5 rule.  It makes total sense and works with most topics. Let’s say we are talking about customer service. Out of 100 people…

  • 5 people will be able to give great customer service no matter the situation (it’s just who they are)
  • 5 people will never be able to give great customer service (it’s just not who they are)
  • 90 people have the ability to give great customer service – they just need to be taught!

Now you can try to only hire the 5% but if we are being honest that is really f$%#ing difficult. And you’ll make mistakes.  If you don’t have a plan to teach people great service, then you probably need to get rid of people that can’t live up to your nebulous standards.

But that sucks for them and you. All you had to do was teach the 90% and they can totally do it. All they needed to know is what you actually expected from them, but you can’t really explain it. But how the hell do you teach great customer service? What if we could come up with a phrase or mantra that would help everyone give that elusive, consistent service we were dreaming of?

Mistake #2: "Do the right thing"

In my early days as a customer service manager, I naively thought that “Do the right thing” would be the mantra that resulted in consistent, outstanding service. That was until I realized that everyone has a different idea of what the “right thing” is.

For example, say a customer wanted to access information from their trial account. Now many customers merely upgrade to get access, which is awesome and exactly what we want to happen. But occasionally someone will contact us and ask us to extend the trial or allow them access to the trial data without paying.

To me the answer is obvious: extend their trial and give them access. But that really rubs some customer service agents the wrong way because it’s not fair to the people who upgraded. To them, doing the right thing is doing what is fair and following the rules. To me, doing the right thing is making the customers happy. Well maybe that should be our mantra…

Mistake #3: "Make the customer happy"

So maybe "do the right thing" could vary among people, but surely "make the customer happy" would lead us all to the same decisions? Wrong again.

Customers aren’t always that great at saying what they actually need or want. They sure ask specific questions, but they can be misleading unless you actually understand the context.

"Make the customer happy" has caused many issues not only for our customers but also for our support heroes, sales team, and development teams. Great customer service is not just saying yes and giving into every single customer request – it is more about truly understanding the customers’ needs and desires.

Solution: Zingerman’s 3 Steps to Giving Great Service

So you adopted a deli’s model for great customer service? Yes! One of the partner’s of SurveyGizmo, Bill Flag of the Felix Fun, introduced us to Zingerman’s back in early 2011. He let me borrow this video called Zingerman’s 3 Steps to Giving Great Service Training DVD. After watching it along with our support team, we identified with much of what they were saying but found it difficult to compare running a deli to running a software company.

However, over a few months, we realized that their recipe for great service really does work for us. In fact, it’s almost perfect.

  1. Find out what the customer wants
  2. Get it for them accurately, politely, and enthusiastically.
  3. Go the extra mile.

And really, that is exactly what we wanted our support team to do. When we hired people who were service oriented, when we told people to “do the right thing” and when we asked them to “make customers happy”, this is specifically what we wanted. And this makes it easy for the 90% to give great service almost every single time – making the same decision that myself or the CEO would make.

Bonus: How to effectively manage complaints

Not only did Zingerman’s help us define a process for giving great service, they also helped us teach our employees how to effectively manage customer complaints. When we went to purchase the DVD for ourselves, we got the Service Bundle, which included Zingerman’s 5 Steps to Effectively Handling a Complaint Training DVD.

The 5-step recipe for handling complaints revolutionized the way we deal with upset or difficult customers:

  1. Acknowledge
  2. Apologize
  3. Make it Right
  4. Thank them
  5. Document it

Now, anyone that is any good at customer service (or at least going through the motions) will do the first two steps. And people who are great at it will do those steps over and over again until the customer is ready to move on. “Making it right” is reserved for companies that empower their employees to resolve situations for customers in a meaningful way.

But the “aha” moment for me was thanking the customer.  Having it as one of the steps taught me that each and every customer complaint and piece of feedback is a gift and an opportunity for awesomeness. Customers don’t have to complain or give feedback – it’s usually very difficult to do! This step is a constant reminder that we should be grateful for complaints and the opportunity to make things better. You can’t fix what you don’t know about!

Thanking the customer for complaining adds humility and appreciation to some of the most difficult customer conversations. It makes dealing with difficult customers and situations that much easier . It’s amazing to see the customers reaction when you thank them for complaining when you sincerely mean it.

Stealing Customer Service Tricks from Zingerman’s

Back when I was a middle school teacher, the best piece of advice I received was that "the best teachers are the best thieves".  Basically, great teachers learn from the successes and mistakes of others, stealing really good ideas and incorporating them into their classroom.

Over the years, we’ve stolen a lot of ideas from Zingerman’s (and they even encourage people to do so!). Recently I have spent a lot of time reading about great customer service and great experience online. Surprisingly, I don’t hear much about Zingerman’s – Zappos, Nordstrom, and Disney seem to be the darlings of the customer service industry (with a lot of Buzz about Buffer recently, which they 100% deserve for being awesome and giving a great customer experience).

More people should know about the awesomeness that is Zingerman’s. They have truly helped us reach a new level of customer service and allowed us to grow our business in an ethical and sustainable manner. They have a lot of great ideas to steal and I highly recommend checking out ZingTrain’s Books and DVDs. And if you are ever in Ann Arbor, Michigan, you should definitely stop by Zingerman’s Deli for one of the best sandwiches in America.

Personally, I want to be a more prolific thief so I turn to you. What companies have influenced your customer service? Who has customer service ideas worth stealing?


About the author
Marybeth Alexander
Marybeth Alexander

is the Knowledge Goddess and Chief Executive Owl at KnowledgeOwl. Connect with her on LinkedIn

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