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How a Pair of Slacks Turns into a Suit

Is customer service still considered a differentiator?

I was taught in early in my career that of the three components of any “product” (price, product, service), the only true differentiator is customer service.  Companies will go into bidding wars and drop prices to attract customers, and products will be duplicated until a better one comes along.  But customer service is the only factor that varies from place to place, and giving customers what they want is the only way to go.  The customer is always right.

Fast forward to 2014.  Things have changed a bit. Traditional customer service has been replaced by the get-the-information-and-do-it-yourself-age.  Not only can we get all of the data we need, but we can get all of the data and handle our own accounts.  I can’t tell you the last time I actually talked with someone at my bank.  I’ve opened up new accounts, purchased certificates of deposit, and replaced a stolen ATM card all without talking to someone.

Since things have changed in regards to customer service, that means what makes customer service a differentiator has changed too. 

If you are asked to consider what makes customer service your differentiator, the answer has to be “just giving you what you want is so 19xx (not telling my age). True service is knowing what you need before you do, and you needing me to get it.”

Making customer service a differentiator starts and ends with anticipating customer needs.  You discover the need and communicate the importance of that need to the customer, which changes the customer’s stance and creates a new perspective. It’s more than just first call resolution.  You can take care of the customer’s immediate problem the first time, but customers get tired of having to call in to take care of things, even if it’s a different issue every time.   If you’re only giving people what they want right then and there, you’re already behind eight ball.  They’ve already thought about what they want and will get it themselves if they can. 

But if you can anticipate what a customer needs before they do, that’s great customer service and it will differentiate you from everyone else. That’s being a trendsetter for your customer and that will get you noticed.

To illustrate, I’ll tell you a story.  Not too long ago, I went into a men’s clothing store to get a pair of slacks that I was going to wear to an event.  When I walked in, I told the young man what I wanted and he took me over to the slacks.  We talked a bit, and when I pointed out a pair of slacks, he replied, “I guess these are ok…”

I was intrigued.  He then went onto say that if I was going to the event I was talking about, slacks weren’t going to cut it and walked me towards the suits.  It wasn’t about the slacks, it was about the event, and slacks wouldn’t cut it.  In the end, I bought a suit, a belt, a shirt, and shoes.  It cost me more than what I originally planned, but the representative gave me what I needed, and he knew what I needed before I did.   That’s the difference.

There’s no magic potion or crystal ball to anticipate customer needs.  Making customer service a differentiator requires putting your finger on the pulse of your customer base and keeping in constant contact with them.  Sometimes it involves telling a customer they’re wrong if you think something better for them is around the corner.  Predicting customer needs just isn’t good business; it’s smart relationship building.  It shows that you care about your customer for more than what their buying power.  It shows that you care about what they can become.

In the end, I went to the event, a little lighter in the wallet, but with a brand new perspective.  But I’ll definitely go back to that store and ask for that representative.

And that, my friends, is the difference.

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