Great customer service requires custom fitting: You need to provide a customer experience that is exactly right for a specific customer, not something aimed vaguely at what you think customers are like in general. To pull this off you need all of your employees to be able to provide individualized service—no matter how briefly they’ve been part of your team and no matter how poor their memories are.
The secret to pulling this off is what I call “small data”: the details that allow you to custom-fit your customer service to the particular customer you’re serving.
Far more than the much-hyped Big Data, small data gives you the power to improve your customer service and to stimulate and support your successful business expansion.
Capturing Customer Likes, Dislikes, Values and Aspirations
You need to develop a tracking system that captures each customer’s likes and dislikes, as well as what each customer personally values and is hoping for when doing business with you. After each customer interaction, your staff will use this system to note the idiosyncratic personal values and preferences of the customer and then share that information, however or wherever it is helpful within your company.
A commitment to systematic noting and sharing will separate you from that wonderful dry cleaning business on the corner (the one that lost most of its customers when the owner fell ill). It will allow you to avoid the fate of those popular, lively one-location restaurants you see that never quite succeed when they try to open other locations.
If It’s Important To Your Customer, It Belongs In Your System
Use your system to allow staff to capture information in specific categories (for example, in the entertainment industry a category would be “genre of music our customer plays”), as well as unique details of nearly any sort in which your customer shows interest or appears to take pride. This latter, general category may include (to continue with the entertainment industry example) a big movie the client has worked on, a treasured industry award he has received, and so on. Or, it might be more important to use this space to note that his wife is ill and that he hates being called on the phone in the morning.
I call these data points Roles, Goals, and Preferences, and I insist that all of my customer service consulting client companies commit to tracking roles, goals and preferences consistently. No matter how tiny your company is at present, doing this is important, or you’ll stay tiny forever because your staff won’t be able to remember these emotionally powerful tidbits as you grow.
What types of items should go in your tracking system? Track whatever is most important to the customer.
Here are seven categories of items I recommend to my consulting clients to keep at their fingertips:
1. Information on any missteps your company has made on this customer’s past projects, visits or transactions with a particular customer.
2. Product/service preferences, whether stated by the customer or observed, which you should try to accommodate without being asked.
3. Anything your customer filled out earlier on a comment card or electronic survey. These forms contain not just statistical data but feelings expressed by a real, live customer. In addition to responding to such feedback personally and promptly, include this information in the customer’s tracking file so that you can keep it in mind when working with the customer in the future.
4. Any personal ties to your establishment, such as a shared history, friends the customer has who work at your establishment, etc. Some of your customers will perceive your business in especially emotional, personal terms. Encourage this. For example, if a customer explains that she first visited your drugstore with her dad as a child 30 years ago, be enthusiastic about that. Then write it down.
As another example, some of your customers may express special attachment to a particularly charismatic member of your team. Record those feelings, and cue that employee to be sure to make contact with the customer. The employee’s personal contact will enhance loyalty far more than a discount.
5. The number of projects, purchases and visits. Make sure your tracking system identifies unusually valuable customers clearly. This is both for crassly commercial reasons and because your more valuable customers appreciate being identified as such.
6. Especially challenging customers. Never write notes about challenging customers except in a tactful code, of course. And please consider: Many ‘‘intractably’’ difficult customers are actually misunderstood customers responding to a specific situation; the next time you encounter them they may be as easy as the day is long. So while service establishments often do have codes that alert staff to troublesome customers, it’s crucial to keep such negative notations secret, and only maintain them with the approval of senior staff.
7. Family-type facts: spouse, pets, kids, etc. If included, such details need to be accurately dated. (For example: Pets noted five years ago are, sadly, not safe to inquire about. Husband you haven’t heard mentioned in a few years? Probably ditto.) Use a software system that automatically time-stamps entries.
Very important note/caveat: Privacy training and systems security are critical parts of any professional setup. And for added peace of mind, assume your files are a lot less private than you think. Anything that is potentially embarrassing to a customer should be on internal screen that is not only password-protected, but cannot be accidentally overseen by a customers. See Sara Kearney from Hyatt’s comment on this here.
Another important caveat: asking intrusive questions is not cool. Especially when you’re not face to face. Don’t ask income level, date of birth, or anything else that you don’t absolutely need to know–it’s wrong, it’s bad business, and it’s possibly illegal. And if you do need to know these, ask the questions, where possible, face to face where emotional cues are visible to, and from, the customer.
The Information You Gather Needs To Be Available In Real Time.
Information on any problems that have already occurred on this visit, or that seem to be unfolding at that moment, need to be included in your approach—instantly. A customer who has already received poorservice on this visit shouldn’t, later on in the visit, receive oblivious,chirpy greetings from other staff members (‘‘Are you enjoying your time with us so far?’’), requiring the customer to educate the staff over and over (‘‘Actually, it’s been problematic’’) in response.
Micah Solomon is a customer service consultant, corporate culture speaker, and author