The standard level of customer service at most modern companies is reactive. Reactive service isn’t the worst thing in the world (it’s a lot better than negative service), but it’s not an effective way to create loyal customers. Reactive customer service leaves your business in that dangerous commodity zone, where you’re interchangeable with the competition in the minds of customers. To use your service level as a competitive weapon, as something that can get on the fast track to customer loyalty, your company needs something better: what I call anticipatory customer service.
The magic happens when you, your systems, and the employees throughout the ranks of your business anticipate the needs of your customers, learning to recognize and respond to the needs of your customers before they are expressed—sometimes before your customers even realize they have a need. That is the difference between providing ho-hum service by merely reacting to customer requests and building loyalty through true anticipatory service.
Image that you’re a manager at a hotel. In the lobby, a maintenance engineer is replacing a light bulb. Out of the corner of his eye he notices a woman and her two sons coming from the pool, wrapped in towels but still dripping wet. The woman has her hands full with bags, and she fumbles with the door that leads into the lobby, looking exasperated. Your employee on the ladder becomes alert to her predicament, puts down his tools, climbs down, crosses the lobby, smiles, and opens the door for her.
‘‘Welcome back to the hotel, ma’am,’’ he says. ‘‘Let me help you with your bags. How was the pool? Did your two little guys have a good time? What floor are you going to?’’ He presses the button, exits the elevator, and heads back toward his ladder to get back to his previously assigned tasks.
The engineer on the ladder
When we spin this story, the most common first reaction is envy: ‘‘I’d be delighted to have my rank and file achieve this level of customer service,’’ runs a typical response. ‘‘The customer expressed a need, and ‘my’ employee responded energetically,’’ says a manager. ‘‘He got off the ladder rather than saying ‘That’s not my job.’ So what’s not to like?’’
It’s true: We’ve all seen worse. But there’s still plenty to dislike. As upbeat as this encounter was, it was reactive: The customer had to fumble with the door, thereby making her frustration known so the engineer would react.
Function Versus Purpose
Picture this instead: What if the moment the employee on the ladder sees the overburdened mom returning from the pool, he thinks to himself, “My routine daily function is to change light bulbs, paint ceilings, and fix pipes, but the reason I’m here, my purpose, is to help create a memorable experience for guests’’? Understanding this, he immediately climbs down and opens the door for her—before she has to fumble with the door handle or knock to get attention.
The maintenance engineer—inspired by your leadership—has now provided genuine service that anticipates the customer’s needs. The timing of the engineer’s intervention is the only measurable change, but what a difference that tiny change makes! Suddenly this employee has anticipated a customer’s need, a need she has not yet expressed. In doing so, he has honored her idiosyncratic life circumstances—her individual humanity.
This extraordinary level of service is a highly reliable path to winning customer loyalty–and if that’s your goal, it’s essential that it become the rule, rather than the exception, at all levels of your company. And the way to get there is through purpose-driven, customer focused leadership.