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The Simplicity of Exceptional Customer Service

In my previous life, I ran some derivative client service teams for a major investment bank. Now, this might sound complex – and many parts were – but when it came down to the customer service elements of the role, the fundamentals were the same as any other business. For me, the same basic principles of customer service can be used if you work in a shop, bank, call center, or even as part of a volunteer organization.

There are myriad examples of bad customer service, but I want to focus on the success stories. We live in a world where we are surprised when we receive exceptional client service. Sometimes, even surprised with just good customer service. However, shouldn’t this be the norm? So, why do so many companies get it wrong?

I’m based in Singapore, but I’ve been travelling a fair bit recently for work and encountered situations where I was surprised by some exceptional customer service, often in places you’d least expect.

Singapore rates very highly in many categories in world surveys, but customer service will never be one of them…unless you’re flying on Singapore Airlines. Is it a country specific thing, or is there more to it? Let’s look at two of my recent experiences:

London - The stereotypical image of an overly polite Englishman serving you tea whilst dressed in a 3-piece suit only occurs in movies and 5-star hotels. Whilst there, I went into one large shop on Regent Street that was packed full of people but I couldn’t tell who were staff and who were customers.

After walking around for a bit, I was approached by someone dressed in jeans and a plain T-shirt, was covered in tattoos and some piercings, and turned out to be a member of staff. What then followed was exceptional customer service, both individually and at a corporate level. If you hadn’t guessed yet, it was the Apple store. So, where did they excel:

  • No-one jumped on me the moment I walked in. They waited until I was obviously stalling and in need of advice, and then introduced themselves by first name.

  • Good staff to customer ratio

  • Excellent product knowledge, and able to offer alternatives

  • Didn’t oversell; in fact, they told me I should buy a different model which was both better for my situation and cheaper

  • Processed the order in minutes using a handheld device, which instructed someone to bring out a particular phone and then could process the payment without me having to join a long queue

  • Whilst waiting for the phone, engaged in conversation recalling snippets of information I’d revealed at the start of the conversation

Hong Kong - I had a number of meetings at the famous International Commerce Centre (ICC) in the heart of the financial district. It has a 108 stories, and receptions on several levels which can lead to some confusion.

When I first arrived at the 3rd floor reception, I was trying to work out where to go next, when a lady appeared from nowhere and asked which company I was seeing. She then walked me to their reception, and introduced me to them by name. The reception staff already had my pass ready, floor level programmed into the lift, and escorted me to the meeting room personally.

The second example was the favourite from my travels. Some of you might know the efficiency of the airport express train in HK. It leaves from the Central station in the city, where you can check in for your flight and check-in your bags so you don’t see them again until your final destination. That alone is brilliant.

So, after enjoying a suitcase-free train ride to the airport I was greeted by the picture below.

An elderly gentleman has the job of setting up rows of trollies outside each door, so that no-one had to struggle with any baggage they might have. Once the crowd had dispersed, he quickly set them up again in perfect straight rows of five…always with a smile on his face. What can we learn from my HK trip?

  • Often small gestures can have a large impact

  • Use of first names play an important role in customer engagement

  • Try to anticipate what help someone might need before they know it themselves. Think 3 steps ahead.

  • Age and experience shouldn’t be a hindrance, reason or excuse for service levels

  • Work quickly so your customers aren’t kept waiting as you never know when you might be needed again.

Some of you might be thinking why some of these obvious points surprised me. And I would agree, but still so many places get it wrong. However, everything I’ve mentioned can be applied to any industry. To summarise, here are 6 quick takeaways:

  1. Don’t judge people’s abilities based on age or appearance

  2. Small gestures can equal big results

  3. Anticipate your customer’s needs

  4. Know your product, and its alternatives

  5. Listen to your customers. Really listen.

  6. Connect with your customers. Use their first names, keep them updated of progress, and ask good questions.

This post is not meant to define good customer service, that’s a whole other post. It’s more to highlight how easy it is to surprise someone or exceed their expectations, regardless of your job or industry. It’s time for companies to either refocus on their customer service, or stop trying to overcomplicate it. After all, it’s not rocket science, it’s often just the small things.

In what ways have been surprised by exceptional client service recently?

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