Customer Service: A Chance to Build Loyalty

I've often thought that customer service should be renamed to reflect its most important benefit—customer loyalty. We don't often think of service as a tool for improving customer loyalty, but perhaps we should. Too often we only see service as the place customers go when something goes wrong. A product doesn't work, a procedure fails or doesn't make sense, or a customer has a billing problem. The list seems endless.

These situations are what I call "moments of truth," times when customers expect their vendors to come through for them in one way or another with assistance, information, or some other aid, and that's perfect for building a stronger relationship. Studies show that engaging customers in moments of truth is one of the surest ways to build loyalty, in part because a successful engagement reinforces customers' decisions to make purchases.

Of course, there are different forms of engagement too. One way is getting customers to support your brand. Customers who take the time to offer their thoughts on how you can improve or volunteer other information are engaging on their own, partly because they believe in your brand. These forms of engagement are also loyal behaviors, and the ultimate loyal behavior, other than making an additional purchase, might be advocating for a brand without having to be solicited to do so.

It all starts with a successful experience, and one of the best places to have that success is in customer service because success should be its mission. So what's the secret? I don't think there is one, there are many. But the surest route to customer service success is knowing what your moments of truth are and building service out from there. Moments of truth are unique to your company, its products, and your brand.

A few years ago I was blown away by the service I received from Zappos. I wanted a new pair of boots, and they had a model I liked. The whole process was automated, but it covered the shoe purchasing moment of truth perfectly. Anything I would have expected in a shoe store had an analog on the Web site, including sizing. I downloaded a picture I could stand on to confirm my size. Unfortunately, when the boots arrived, something was off, and I returned them for another pair. The return process was drop-dead simple. I printed a label they'd sent, and the box was back on its way.

Now, that's a simplified story, but it encompasses two moments of truth, getting the size right during the purchase, and making a return. In both cases, Zappos had figured out where the process could go sideways and did something amazing. It put up guardrails to prevent any lateral movement.

Now, that's not quite the idea of customer service we're used to talking about. Frequently there are employees involved in dealing with customers. But it's the direction we're headed, and the key point is to be prepared for moments of truth. Your business might not have to deal with foot sizes, but being prepared for your business' unique moments of truth is definitely in your wheelhouse. Each moment will have its own characteristics.

Soon rather than preparing your own automation, you will have to prepare for your customers' automation. As the Internet of Things gains altitude, machines will increasingly be consumers. Customer will still pay the bill, but learning the needs of automated consumers will be the challenge.

In this brave new world we'll see that service involves attending to the needs of the consumer as well as those of the customer, and those needs will overlap but still be different. That's where moments of truth will be in full bloom. The lessons we learn today about moments of truth and preparing for them will put us in a good position to consider the needs of devices that purely consume, and their owners.

Denis Pombriant is founder and managing principal of Beagle Research.