The Car Talk theorem of customer service

Some years ago I heard Tom and Ray Magliozzi–the humorous polymaths who host Car Talk on NPR–clue in an exasperated caller to their theory of customer service: Half the companies out there are like Honda – so rarely do they encounter a problem that when they do, the startled dealer is woefully unprepared to handle customer frustration. Meanwhile, the rest of the companies are like “Brand X” (a then-notorious domestic car company, subsequently much improved) and have so many problems that they’re overwhelmed and don’t know how to handle them either.

Now, this isn’t a post about the venerable Honda marque, or about the automotive industry in general.  What it’s about is this:  All around us, you’ll find that this Car Talk theorem does define a lot of companies, with high applicability outside the automotive industry. On the one hand are technologically near-perfect companies like Google that are utterly ill-equipped to interact with you when things do go awry; on the other hand are totally overwhelmed companies that have no time to talk civilly to you because they’re too busy keeping their heads above the complaint-water.

Which is unfortunate, because neither scenario is sufficient.   That’s why the great, rare, truly customer-focused companies go in two directions, more or less simultaneously, in their efforts to build customer loyalty:

1. Work to eliminate defects, often by benchmarking companies outside of their immediate industry: this is especially important if you are in a service industry, because the experts on eliminating defects are very often in manufacturing rather than service. (Striking example: Horst Schulze’s Ritz-Carlton undertook a lengthy, even grueling effort to benchmark manufacturing companies like Xerox and Motorola, ultimately resulting in the luxury hotel chain winning two Malcolm Baldrige awards–an unprecedented honor for a service company).

2. Work explicitly on how to handle the touchpoints that occur when there are, as there inevitably will be, defects:  in product, service, or – as is common – perception.

One without the other—smiles without systems, or systems without smiles – is a recipe for customer (and bottom-line) disappointment.

By Micah Solomon – keynote speaker, customer service speaker, customer service consultant, and #1 bestselling author of “Exceptional Service, Exceptional Profit: The Secrets of Building a Five-Star Customer Service Organization.” Visit with Micah at Or, click here for your own free chapter  of Micah Solomon’s #1 customer service bestseller, Exceptional Service, Exceptional Profit: The Secrets of Building a Five-Star Customer Service Organization (American Management Association/ AMACOM)


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