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Editor's Notebook

Trying to Get to the Bottom of World-Class Customer Service

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Thanks to our annual search for the "best of the best" tire dealers through the Top Shop Award program, we often are asked for tips on how to win this honor.

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To which we respond: "The best dealerships are those that are very good at everything. More than anything, though, they have an obvious world-class customer-first attitude that permeates the entire organization from top to bottom."

And then we’re asked: “So, just what is ‘world-class customer service?’”

This is where thoughtful silence ensues, emphasized by prayerful glances to the heavens as though the true answer can only come from above. In fact, we’re hoping we can think of an excuse to excuse ourselves before trying to offer an an­swer that is not so clear-cut.

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The real truth is that great customer service is totally up to the customer. They are the ones experiencing the “customer service” afforded by your tire dealership. It would be far easier to describe quantum mechanics than to provide a definitive explanation of “world-class customer service.”

We’re not trying to dodge the question, but there is no black-and-white, absolute 100% sure thing, bet-the-house-on-it world-class customer service system.

For every 100 customers, there are 100 entirely different sets of expectations. Some are simple, cut-and-dried transactions: warm smile, personable tone, thorough and easy-to-understand responses, tire recommendations that make sense, well-explained service- and tire-cost estimates, comprehensive review of vehicle systems, comeback-proof repairs, clean vehicle ready to go at the prescribed time, and a few other points.

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Unfortunately, others are more difficult, often because the customer’s native mode is “difficult.” Or a human error intervened, accidentally creating a tough customer service pickle that must be carefully and thoughtfully navigated.

Defining “world-class customer service” becomes difficult because what we think should be simple and cut-and-dried is not so. What are “easy-to-understand responses” to some are “gobbledy-gook” to others. “Tire recommendations that make sense” to most can be heard as “trying to rip me off” by certain customers.

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Everyone is different, and that’s why a singular, true definition of “world-class customer service” is entirely in the hands of the customer.

Or is it?

Skilled practitioners can suss out most potentially difficult customers early in the sales process, and adjust their approach to match the situation. This includes letting others in the service chain – from the tire tech to the service desk – redouble their efforts to win over Mr. Grumpypants.

They can smell from a parking lot away the potential for an unfortunate customer experience, and adjust their tone and manner to put things on the right path from the start.

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They can plan ahead in an effort to deliver world-class customer service to world-class pains in the arse. You can avert customer service disasters by doing the unexpected nice things, like vacuuming out a customer’s car, washing the windows, keeping up with the latest waiting area magazines or offering free coffee or soft drinks, having an area to amuse a flustered mom’s little ones.

These are not bank account breakers, by any means. These are how you build a sustainable customer base, creating additional reasons to pick your shop when it comes time for new rubber or brake pads instead of turning to the price-guy down the street.

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We’d all quickly recognize bad customer service because we’ve all lived through it. Many, many, many unfortunate times. Despite years of often ugly experiences, it’s as difficult to clearly define crappy customer service as it is to spell out great service. We know it when we step in it, but don’t ask us to explain it!

I had occasion to step in it recently while trying to help a family member sort through an insurance issue. This was a big, major, national insurance company, not unlike the one I have my personal insurance with. But I had not dealt with this outfit, and now I have no reason to do so in the future.

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Over the course of five painful days, I made contact with seven different people in the company’s ill-named “Customer Service Department.” Over that time, it seemed no one communicated with any others, that there was no one file – paper or electronic – that held notes from my previous contact. I envisioned this long hallway of tiny gray offices, with those old-school vacuum tubes clogged with memos and file notes and letters and such, all zipping along to nowhere in particular.

And that’s exactly how I was treated. None of my conversations with the agents were “recorded for training purposes,” so none of the conversations featured an actual resolution of any kind. Or the hope for one. They were happy to offer their “apologies,” but no effort to help me unpeel the onion layers separating the problem from complete resolution.

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Not world-class customer service. And for that, they have lost a customer for life.

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