I’ve Said It Before and I’ll Say It Again…5 Principles of Customer Service

We get so busy in our work that we sometimes lose sight of those basic principles that are the foundation of great customer service. So every once in a while, it’s good to go back to those roots…to sit down and reflect and make sure you’re really using your time to do what’s important for your customers.
I’ve gone over these many times in this blog, but here are 5 basic principles of customer service that always bear repeating.
1. Know your audience. This is where you start. This is the first step, and you can’t skip it. Who are you trying to serve? Who is your audience?
Don’t forget about those unanticipated customers – the ones who show up and without an invitation. I remember when my friend, Sam Gallagher, put up a website for his community association. His intended audience was the people who live in the community. His biggest audience turned out to be people who might want to move to the community or who want to know more about the community. With a little tinkering, he was able to address the needs of both audiences, for the better of the community.
Audiences can shift. Customers can change. Circle back to this question often.
2. Listen, respect, and follow. You know who you’re serving. Now, find out what they want. How do you do that? You listen to them – I mean really listen to them. Constantly.
You can/should do that in many ways. Watch your stats, read your email, and do your usability testing.
Use social media. I’ve long believed the real value of social media isn’t pushing out information but listening to your audience. Hearing their questions and discussions, learning more about them… what worries them, what pleases them. Remembering the words they use so you can communicate with them better.
And you can’t just sit in your office (especially if your office is in Washington, DC). If you really want to know your customers, get out and talk to them. Go where they are. When I was HUD’s web manager, we piggy-backed on conferences and meetings where the agency had a presence – events both for business partners and for citizens. We set up our computer, showed people what we had, and asked them what they wanted. I can’t tell you how many times we got new ideas or corrected our misconceptions, by talking to our customers.
But listening is only the first part. You’ve got to respect what they tell you – especially when they tell you you’re doing it wrong. And you’ve got to fix it. Customer feedback isn’t an annoyance – it’s an opportunity.
3. Give them what they want, when they want it, in ways that make sense to them. To serve well, you need to know how your customers behave and how they communicate. Where and when do they want your service? Do they look for your services online? Or do they prefer to use the phone? Or mail? Or do they use multiple delivery methods…maybe request a brochure, then do something online, then phone a call center for clarification, and then go into an office to complete the task? You have to design – and refine – your services to help your customers find and use them just as easily as possible. That means “easy” for them – not you.
Use the words they use. And keep it direct and to the point. You have to make sure they understand what they’re supposed to do to complete the task and what they’re supposed to do with the results. You have to offer them help if they get stuck.
If you want satisfied customers, understand what they want to do and when they want to do it. And make sure your information and instructions are absolutely clear to them, so they can get it done and move on in their busy lives.
4. Measure what matters. In 1995, when I became HUD’s web manager, it was a big deal to be able to tell the Secretary how many people came to our website. Woo hoo! Our audience increased by 150% in the past 6 months. What did that measure? Maybe how well we were marketing the site. More likely, it measured how well the computer companies and internet service providers were increasing their business. It didn’t tell us a darn thing about how well we were serving our customers.
We soon figured out it’s not the quantity of the audience that matters – it’s the quality of their experience. Could they find what they wanted? Could they use what they found? Did we do what we were trying to do?
Measure what matters. How long does it take customers to find your top tasks? How long does it take them to complete those tasks? Do they get the right answer/a successful outcome? Did they understand the words the first time they read them? Did those improvements you made reduce the time it takes to complete the task and/or increase the success rate?
Don’t waste your time and money. Throw out statistics and measures that don’t help you answer these questions. Measure what matters, and use the results to improve your services.
5. Be consistent. Consistency is the hallmark of great customer service. Customers need to get the same answers, no matter how or who they ask. They need to get the same respectful treatment, whether they use the web, the phone, or the mail. So if you’re a web manager, you have to know what the call centers are doing, what the publications are saying, what social media is learning, and what correspondence units are hearing. You have to compare notes and figure out how you can work together to make the customer experience as easy and effective as possible, especially when customers use multiple channels. Keep your focus on the customer – and not on the delivery channel. Be consistent.
Do yourself – and your customers – a favor. Carve out time – once a month or once a quarter- to think about these 5 principles. What’s changed? What’s new? Is everything on that “to do” list of yours related to these goals? Could you be using your time better, to achieve what’s really important to customer service?
These principles are your foundation. Maintain your foundation, and you’ll have a solid customer service strategy.
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Wayne Melton

Hi Candi

This is what apple uses as customer service in their retail stores. While retail and government are different perhaps the experience of service by the customer may not be so much different. I am attaching the link to the full WSJ article.

I think you too service from the point of view of top management however unless you control the experience the actual experience for the user is generally quite different from what you planned.

Steve Jobs was pretty unique in that he delivered service and products that his customers did not know they wanted. Who wanted a smartphone or ipod before Jobs showed them what they needed.

Edward Melton


“Approach customers with a personalized warm welcome,” “Probe politely to understand all the customer’s needs,” “Present a solution for the customer to take home today,” “Listen for and resolve any issues or concerns,” and “End with a fond farewell and an invitation to return.”

From WSJ article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304563104576364071955678908.html

Dale M. Posthumus

These are great guides. I would add honesty. The customer is not always right. You must be prepared to tell a customer, respectfully, when their sights are higher than their resources, what they want is beyond the scope of an agency’s mission, when their demands are not reasonable. This must include a discussion on how a different resolution might be found. Early in a relationship, this can be difficult. With greater trust, a customer will appreciate the honesty.