The art of customer service

As companies compete for attention to win business, Jim McClelland discovers how the arts help win customers’ hearts

13 min read

“To create an evangelist, deliver unexpected triumphs of customer service,” advises American TV correspondent and syndicated columnist, Julia Allison, in the documentary film Naked Brand.

This process of winning hearts, minds and custom begins at the very beginning, rather than arriving as an afterthought or reactive response wheeled out only belatedly when things go wrong. It starts with a story.

WOW Suite in W Hotel, Leicester Square

WOW Suite in W Hotel, Leicester Square

Storytelling is considered by many in the branding community to be vital to the art of communicating the unique personality of an organisation, its goods or service, in a way that is both engaging and memorable. Stories stick with people. However, so too does authenticity, an equally popular corporate buzzword at present. So do clients want facts, fiction or a combination of the two?

46% of unhappy customers use social media to spread their discontent

Sören Hullberg, general manager and partner of Stockholm’s Story Hotel, explains the dual nature of customer needs from a hospitality-sector perspective. “Guests want facts, when it comes to what they themselves are involved in – prices, room types, conditions and suchlike. But they want fantasy, glamour, even fiction when it comes to the hotel’s reputation and image. You are where you live.”

This willingness on the part of guests to dream a little, even seek a hint of adventure and escape, opens the door to opportunities for artistic collaboration. Taking a basic script and developing characters around it, an exciting and creative approach to experiential marketing, can embed the narrative hook even deeper by casting the consumer or customer directly into the plot, so bringing the brand story to life. This is product promotion as live theatre.

The Spice Market restaurant

The Spice Market restaurant

A pioneer of game-changing forms of immersive theatre, London-based Punchdrunk was approached by luxury brand W Hotels, part of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, to create an innovative way to showcase their opening in Leicester Square.

Effectively using W London as the set, Punchdrunk created five bespoke stories for exclusive one-on-one performances for just 60 audience members. Invited guests, media and a few lucky members of the public, mainly social-media competition winners, were invited to roam the new hotel and visit some of the key spaces, only for their journey to take an extraordinary detour into a parallel world where all was not as it seemed. Starting in the Screening Room with an introduction to the hotel, as the evening unfolded, guests experienced an intervention by the entertainment collective Punchdrunk.

86% of consumers are more likely to make a purchase following a good encounter

In a promenade production named 192 Doors – W London has 192 guest rooms – guests explored the rooms and corridors of the hotel as Punchdrunk brought to life a complex story, allowing the visitors to discover the secrets that lie behind the doors. Piecing together fragments of the story, guests were drawn into a world inspired by Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window in which they encountered all manner of mysterious happenings and, separated from one another, many were given tasks or instructions which led them from one room to another. Participants, who began simply viewing the hotel, were becoming voyeurs and eventually being implicated themselves in the story as it unfolded.

Most would describe this as an inventive exercise in marketing, but where exactly does marketing stop and customer service start (and vice versa)?

In a hyperconnected world, where any member of the public is now a potential photographer, reviewer and reporter, the lesson to be learnt from the hospitality sector may be that everybody is now in the business of customer service; from the web designer of the reservations page, through first contact at reception, to the waiting staff in the restaurant. Is ubiquity the goal of customer-service planning for business today?

One of the colourful lounge bars

One of the colourful lounge bars

If it is, then there is clearly still a long way to go before any broad performance targets are even neared, let alone reached. Business as usual is not good. Complaints about bad customer service are rife, whether related to poor face-to-face experiences, or unsatisfactory processes and people-skills encountered over the telephone and online. Never mind not being made to feel special, customers are barely left feeling human. Consumers and business clients grumble and moan, even rant, but to their dismay, it seems the creep of couldn’t-care-less indolence continues unchecked.

73% of top-performing companies see customer service as a leading reason to invest in social media monitoring

No doubt every reader could provide their own story of the shabby and the shoddy, but anecdotal evidence aside, three key statistics for responses to this epic failure that is customer disservice tell the sorry tale even more effectively. First, customers quit – 89 per cent begin doing business with a competitor following a poor experience; second, many say nothing to the company concerned – for every complainant, there are 26 other unhappy customers who have remained silent; and third, most do both, they say nothing and quit – 91 per cent of the 96 per cent of unhappy customers, who do not complain, simply leave and never come back.

Room detail from Story Hotel

Room detail from Story Hotel

Furthermore, while the majority might not talk to the service provider at fault about their unhappy experience, they will speak to just about everybody else who cares to listen, telling on average between nine and fifteen of their friends, according to the US White House Office of Consumer Affairs. To make matters even worse, their bad-news broadcast is now technology-assisted, with 46 per cent of the disappointed and newly-departed employing social media to vent their frustrations about poor service. Given these network multipliers, the potential impact on business profits can soon stack up on a wider, perhaps global, scale – in some cases even going viral, as in the example of the widely shared 2011 video showing what appeared to be an irresponsible FedEx courier in the United States caught on security camera throwing a delivery box, containing a flat-screen computer monitor, over a high garden fence.

There is some good news, though, which also comes with statistics attached and is to be found conveniently on the flipside of the same customer-service coin. Figures for positive perceptions resulting in business benefit indicate that 86 per cent of customers are more likely to make a purchase following a good encounter; plus anything between 55 per cent and 86 per cent of consumers would actually pay more for a better customer experience.

The simple and unsurprising takeaway from the raft of market research is that how people are treated matters to them and to the bottom line. So, with fans and followers to be won, what can a business or organisation do to make customer service operate more like a driver of sales, than a drain on resources, and in what ways might the arts be able to help?

Lounge corridor

Lounge corridor

At first glance, success in customer service appears to come in two styles – slick and automatic, often the mark of an established international brand, or homely and personal, the signature of an independent, boutique business. However, Story Hotel’s Sören Hullberg argues that meticulous attention to detail throughout is actually what determines the distinctiveness of the customer-service experience, locking-in the individual character of a business and underwriting the commercial proposition, rather than allowing it to become confused and compromised by mixed messages.

“Ideally, every detail should reflect the image and idea the brand is building its success around – the more blurred, the more mainstream and the less attractive you are,” she says. “As the transparency is total and as news travels very fast in cyberspace, you must stick to your selected positioning, pricing and service delivery.

How people are treated matter to them and the bottom line

“In our business, we must deliver here and now and 24/7. We cannot delay, promise to come back with an answer the next day or simply say ‘sorry we are out of stock of the service you are asking for just now’.

“Our business is not rocket science, it’s much more complicated than that because we have clients in front of us, here and now. Good customer service and top guest experience can only be the result of collaboration between customer and service staff. So, rule number one – make your client work with, not against, you.”

W London, Leicester Square

W London, Leicester Square

While hospitality is in many ways still a people business, the dominant trend in customer-service investment in general is in virtual and online reception and response systems, especially for social and mobile technologies and platforms.

It is forecast that by 2020 customers will manage 85 per cent of their relationship with an enterprise without interacting with a human. Some 62 per cent of companies think mobile customer service is a competitive differentiator and 70 per cent are predicted to use social media as part of their customer-service programmes by mid-2014. Customer service is seen as the prime driver for many and is identified by 73 per cent of top-performing companies as a leading reason to invest in social-media monitoring.

DJ Liz Mugler in Verbier W Hotel

DJ Liz Mugler in Verbier W Hotel

Metrics are the lifeblood of a modern corporate culture built on the business maxim: “To manage it, first you have to measure it”. The magic of hospitality and the arts is not, however, a commodity suited to being weighed and counted. It is persistently unpredictable, typically subjective, resistant to numeric values and inspires decidedly unbusinesslike tendencies towards poetic descriptions sprinkled with the language of human attributes. It is a thing of beauty.

Bathroom in the Wonderful Room, W Hotel

Bathroom in the Wonderful Room, W Hotel

In the book Business is Beautiful: The Hard Art of Standing Apart, global design and innovation business Dragon Rouge identifies five hallmarks of success – integrity, curiosity, elegance, craft and prosperity – the application of which is manifest throughout a company’s customer-service offering, as chairman and co-author Dorothy Mackenzie explains:

“Organisations that display the hallmarks of success that characterise a ‘Beautiful Business’ will reflect these in their approach to customer service. Integrity and sense of purpose inspires committed employees whose enthusiasm drives exceptional delivery; a sense of curiosity and inventiveness ensures a genuine focus on understanding customers’ real needs and a desire to deliver these better, today and potentially in radically different ways tomorrow. A commitment to pursuing elegance leads to thoughtful, empathetic design of the customer experience, to make it as coherent, seamless and pleasant as possible. Companies which value craft will be skilled at telling compelling stories and creating immersive experiences for customers that convey the personality of the brands, while those that value prosperity beyond profit will always place society and people first, designing their service around delivering customer needs in ways that don’t compromise broader society and environmental needs.”

Istanbul W Lounge DJ booth

Istanbul W Lounge DJ booth

With business, as with people, “beauty”, if not perhaps in the eye of the beholder, does nevertheless come in many different forms. Case studies of service innovation, featured in the book, range from the example of an enlightened retailer in Brazil, Grupo Pão de Açúcar, which has its highly empowered customer-service department called Casa do Cliente (Customer’s House) located separately in an actual house, so giving it a human-scale character and sense of dedicated purpose – to a specialist in the art of listening – to Danish hearing-aid manufacturer Oticon, which has its own customer research and support teams “deep diving” into the personal experiences, emotional challenges and practical details of living with hearing impairment, in order to optimise understanding of the needs of the end-users as well as hearing-care professionals.

The uncommon denominator with all these winning approaches is that good, even great, customer service is now so exceptional it can represent a brand differentiator; forget compliance and minimum standards, excellence is the aspiration. Success requires vision and training, coherence and communication to weave the principles throughout company culture and organisational structure, so ensuring delivery every time, everywhere, by everyone connected to the brand. It also calls for creativity.

For the likes of hotels, bars and restaurants, the ambition is to make the concepts of “reception” and “hospitality” mean something once more. The arts can assist with creative input and personal coaching, where there are elements of performance and theatre to the offering, but all must be underpinned by robust rigour and personal integrity, old-fashioned pride and respect.

The Spice Market

The Spice Market

Without investment in people, in the behavioural aspects of customer-service delivery, the capital expenditure by a business on office, facility or room design, development or refurbishment, is money risked. Creating the environment is only part of the story. The experience is what happens next, when the “who” starts to take precedence over the “where” and the “what”; when you and I enter the scene.

There is no hiding place for organisations and companies today: good customer service is not an optional extra, it is a brand-defining, business-winning-or-losing essential. Come the era of authenticity regained – truth both tells and sells. In the eyes of the 21st-century “so-mo-glo” (social-mobile-global) customer, in as much as every employee is a brand ambassador, we are all the maitre ‘d now.

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