The Cohen-Miller Report: Customer Service Strategies from the Real World

by Emily Cohen    Cohen-Miller Consulting

In the last few months I’ve encountered a variety of customer service experiences that have made me think a lot about my father and the business lessons he taught me over 30 years ago. From my father, the bookseller, I learned that customer service is the most important aspect of any business (that, and I should not ever sit down, as there is always work to be done!). The following retells some of my recent experiences with customer service that my father would have never tolerated when he ran his own business. His focus was always on providing a high level of personal attention and responsiveness combined with a genuine friendliness that his customers always appreciated. This article is dedicated to my father, who instilled in me an entrepreneurial spirit that was built upon strong, authentic customer relationships.

Strategy #1 – “The customer is always wrong” – courtesy of my son’s baseball coach

My teenage son recently tried out and joined a private baseball team. Prior to that, we always were in local teams coached by the players’ parents – each with various degrees of skill, but all truly dedicated and committed. After 10+ years of my husband being one of those selfless, untrained but well-intentioned volunteer coaches, I truly appreciate coaching and the various challenges involved. I get it. Really, I do. And, overall, I am a relatively well-behaved parent/spectator. However, we recently decided to move to the private model, so that our son could receive professional-level training, increase his skill level and be prepared to try out for his high school team. We also have committed significant financial resources to this new path. Unfortunately, our experience with this new team simply does not align with our expectations and the money we are paying. Our level of expectations for the value we would receive increased as soon as we wrote the check. As in the business world, the customers naturally perceive that increased costs directly correlate to an increase in value. In order to air our grievances, many parents asked to speak to the coach about our concerns. The day before the scheduled meeting, the entire team received an email from the coach essentially telling us that our concerns wouldn’t be heard and that we should respect the coach, no matter what. Clearly this coach cared little for his “customers” and even less for his business. This resulted in many parents agreeing not to come back next season and we are now collectively taking our “business” elsewhere.

The coach’s “business objectives” focused on playing and winning games, while the parent’s objectives were focused on practice, training and improvement. In our world, this equates to a misalignment of objectives; for designers this occurs when their objectives don’t consider or align with the needs or objectives of their clients. Overall, this is the most offensive business strategy one can encounter in customer service.

Strategy #2 – “Provide incentives for staff” – courtesy of J.C. Penney

I recently encountered an exceptionally friendly smiling cashier after some last minute shopping during a particularly busy holiday season. Without even looking up, the rather superficially perky cashier asked if I found everything I was looking for and apologized for the long line. If he was truly attentive he may have noticed that, in fact, I hadn’t waited in any line. The result was the “script” simply didn’t align with this particular customer’s experience. He clearly had been told to ask this, though, and ask he did. Then, after further friendly inquiries about my shopping experience, which took less than one minute, he asked me if the level of service he provided me was “high”. Feeling a bit put on the spot and wanting to get the heck out of there, I said yes. At this point, he immediately directed me to a website and wrote down his name on my receipt asking that I please inform J.C Penney of my high-level of appreciation for his “service”. Ultimately, this approach isn’t a solid business strategy and the experience didn’t benefit me, the customer, at all. In fact, it did the opposite; it required me to do “work” (going to a website).

This reminded me about the function of client management within in-house creative teams. Many creative teams require clients to do much of the legwork (filling out “work orders”, developing schedules, drafting creative briefs and, even specifying printing specifications). In this situation, those designers that are managing clients are essentially positioned as paper-pushers (but with better titles) rather than value-added consultative account managers. Secondly, many account managers don’t always customize their interactions for different client experiences or behaviors; this can result in miscommunications and/or frustrations in client experiences.

Strategy #3 – the “I care and relate to you” strategy, courtesy of Capital One

As someone with an unhealthy need to monitor every penny my family spends, I have had the interesting opportunity to call Capital One Visa customer service at least three times in the last few months. Each time, I’ve called for various reasons and each time the person I spoke to was super nice and tried very hard to relate my current concern to something they personally experienced, cared about or understood. In the case where I inquired about the terrifying idea of getting my teenage daughter her own credit card, I heard about one representative’s inability to share that same level of trust with his own teenage son. In another case, I questioned an unknown charge on my bill and heard my representative’s same concerns when he sees such unexpected charges. During the first call, I appreciated the informal personal chat and attention to my concerns. The second experience just seemed like an odd coincidence that I lucked into (receiving two attentive friendly customer service representatives in a row!). By the final call, I wised up and realized that the conversations were the result of a larger attempt by the customer service representatives to personally connect with their customers. Overall, I appreciated that these nice “chats” weren’t scripted and that some effort was made to relate to me as an individual; however, collectively, the conversations felt a bit inauthentic.

Great customer service is truly built upon meaningful and individual experiences. Making personal and authentic connections within a professional environment is critical. Those skilled at managing clients truly understand and sympathize with each client’s personal and professional challenges. Rather than use these challenges as stumbling blocks, they embrace them and provide tools or support that help clients better mitigate and overcome these challenges.

Strategy #4 – “Customers are always right” strategy, courtesy of teenage retailer Delia*s

My daughter buys all her pants and shorts from only one store – Delia*s. The jeans from this store always fit her perfectly and, best of all, come in shorter sizes for us diminutive women. However, we’ve noticed a troublesome trend. Most of her jeans were slowing coming apart at the seams in the thigh area, and a few had become larger holes. It was really unclear if this was due to her larger-than-average thighs or poor quality. Many were over a year old and, certainly, we hadn’t kept any receipts. We found ourselves in a dilemma. On one hand, it was hard to find the right fit and this store saved us tremendous time and aggravation. Yet, our allegiance to this brand was being challenged by the current situation. I went back to the store and politely mentioned this situation to the salesperson, expecting little to no results. Immediately and without question she offered to replace all the jeans without question. She did not even look at the pants to confirm our complaints but simply found the current style and gave them to us. True to her word and without any fanfare.

This experience is truly the best example of customer service. It was done without any fanfare and effectively built lifetime brand loyalty. As an added bonus, we are personally doing everything we can to make the experience go viral, at least within our own community of teenager girls and their parents! The lesson here is that building true customer loyalty is a direct result of a keen emphasis on authentic one-on-one relationship building and admitting mistakes!