Chip Bell has been writing about customer service for as long as I can remember. An internationally renowned consultant, speaker and author, he has written several customer service classics, including his latest book, Take Their Breath Away: How Imaginative Service Creates Devoted Customers, co-authored with John Patterson. [Note: see my review of his new book.]
I asked Chip to share his expertise and insight on the topic of internal customer service.
QSM: What do you see as the relationship between internal customer service and external customer service?
Chip: The requirement for remarkable external service is exactly the same for internal service. The quality of the service the external customer gets is a match set with the service that is delivered to colleagues internally. Go to the “back of the house” of any Ritz-Carlton hotel and you will observe the exact same service between associates that you will see the front desk clerk deliver to a hotel guest. Internal service reflects the organization’s true commitment to remarkable service.
Service between internal units is sometimes like getting service from a monopoly service provider. If you don’t like the service from your Department of Motor Vehicles, you can’t take your business elsewhere. Likewise, if you get poor service from the HR department as an employee, you often cannot go to another HR department like you might abandon a Sears for a Nordstrom. However, it is important to remember that almost all internal units could be outsourced. Job security does not always come with being the sole source, especially in challenging economic times.
When customers (internal or external) do not have a choice, and get poor service, they often take out their frustration on the front line person. It suggests perhaps an even higher standard from units or organizations that are the only game in town.
QSM: Based on your extensive experience in the field, what would you site as an example of great internal customer service?
Chip: Several exemplars come to mind. Sewell Automotive (Dallas) has been the #1 car seller in the nation across most of their brands—Lexus, Infiniti, Cadillac, GMC, etc. One of their secrets is the terrific partnership between sales and service. Other examples include USAA (San Antonio), the insurance company that caters to the military, retired military and military dependents. Zappos.com and Amazon.com are both best in class as e-tailers for their great handouts and superior internal service.
QSM: Who should be responsible for internal customer service?
Chip: The same people who are responsible for external customer service—everyone! Customer-centric and customer-focused organizations, like the ones already named, make every employee responsible for remarkable service. A service ethic is hardwired into their organizational DNA. I asked a waitress in a Ritz-Carlton hotel restaurant what she liked most about her job. “Working here at the Ritz has made me a better wife and parent,” she said. “The values that we practice at the hotel with each other and with the guests are the values that make all relationships special.”
QSM: What advice do you have for companies struggling with maintaining customer service (both internal and external) in an environment with reduced resources?
Chip: As cash-strapped customers seek service, they expect more and more value for their hard-earned funds. Customers may not always be able to judge the quality of the products they buy or the fairness of the price they have to pay, but they are always gifted at judging the quality of their service experience. It is the front-line that creates that experience.
When companies started making cuts, they should remember to spare the most important variable in their customer’s definition of value. Front-line employees should be respected, heard, trained, empowered, and affirmed for their crucial contribution to the company’s reputation. It is important to remember that employees learn how to serve customers by the way they are served by their leaders.
QSM: Thank you, Chip!