Amy Conn-Gutierrez has an article in the Dallas Morning News on how companies are struggling in their definition of customer satisfaction.

"Customer service isn't what it used to be. That's a lament expressed by many consumers, convinced that a golden age when the customer was always right is long past.

"But that statement is also a fact of life for businesses – and retailers in particular: Customer service doesn't mean what it used to mean."

What does it mean to you?

"The phrase [customer service] means everything, and it means nothing," said Pamela N. Danziger, an authority on consumer insights and author of several books on the shopping experience. "It's whatever is important to the consumer."

"Everybody knows it when it's not happening. It's like what the court says about pornography. It knows it when it sees it," said Phil Rist, vice president at BIGresearch, a firm that surveys more than 7,000 shoppers a month for the largest retail trade organization.

To me, it's knowing that my expectations will be met and (in terms of great service) sometimes exceeded.

Here's one example: When I visit an on-line bookseller --Amazon, eBay or Barnes and Noble -- I expect one experience where I often know what I want. It's all about finding what I'm looking for and completing the transaction quickly, and then waiting for my product. My questions are usually answered by looking at on-line customer reviews, and sometime via a quick question to customer service (usually related to the transaction or my account).

But when I visit a store, it's different. Sometimes I'll be looking for real-time help in locating an item -- as in a recent trip to find an abridged Jules Verne novel for my sci-fi starved 9-yr-old -- or for the browsing experience with my kids as they look for a new book to read at bed time. (One of the reasons they love the library if for the social aspect, and the exposure to the sheer volume of books available, something that it difficult to appreciate or visualize via a web browser.) 

I appreciate the knowledgeable staff at our local bookstores, just as I do when I am when shopping at the hardware store: I'm buying access to the staff's experience as much as I buy the product. I can't tell you the number of times I've gone to a bookstore on a mission to get just one book, and left with a bag full of stuff,

Case in point: my recent experience in locating a part for a Samsung monitor: the gentleman working at Lowes Hardware with an incredible knowledge of the parts department found a part almost immediately that I wouldn't have found (or even known what to look for). When I need something for the house or a tool, most times I head to the store, sometimes after researching the tool on various sites for customer feedback.

Steve Ballmer spoke at Convergence 2007 this past March, and he (like many of our execs) are passionate about improving the overall product and services experience for our customers and partners. I can tell you first-hand that there are fewer people in the highest levels of a company that go to great lengths to solve customer issues and ensure that customers are heard and get the responses they need. At one point in his talk, Steve discussed how we make technology that helps our customers better serve their customers and improve business productivity...

"I'll tell you a story which really has a profound impact on my thinking about where we need to go with business solutions and applications. I was in Italy late last year, I was meeting with the CEO of a firm called Monte Dei Paschi Di Siena Bank. I won't try to repeat it too many times, but it is the world's oldest bank. It was the bank that financed Columbus' adventure in America. They reminded me.

"We were doing a big project with them, and I was talking to the CEO and he said, you know, one thing that really surprised us, five or six years ago when the Internet was sort of coming  or seven years ago when the Internet was coming into fruition people were telling us we were never going to need branches anymore, everything was going to move online, there was going to be no need for people, customers will completely self-serve. And today we find we need more sophisticated technology in our branches than ever before, and our branches are as important and busy as ever before.

"And I stopped and looked at him and I said, what are you saying? I don't get it. He said, what we found is we were able to move all of the simple transactions online, but now our employees, the people who sit in the call centers and the branches, and the customers who want to interact with us in those places, they actually have more complex requirements, they're more complex, it's more interesting, they're more valuable. We sell them higher value products. They have more complicated customer service needs."

So, in a sense, better automated systems and technology doesn't eliminate the need for a personal relationship or a brick-and-mortar presence, it helps companies with with superior customer service focus on the hard problems while automating the simple transactions.

An for those of you who think that this is a feel-good op-ed piece, I also keep this quote from Bill Gates tacked to my bulletin board:

"Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning."

In cases where customer complaints are escalated, we try to learn about what we did and how we got into the situation (root cause analysis), and then correct the situation. 

A personal example: for several months, I worked closely on the product side of the house to help coordinate on our response to the challenges brought upon by the changes in daylight saving time. Many of our customers have a diverse set of applications, tools, services and solutions installed throughout their IT shops from a number of suppliers: this added to the complexity of the situation. And we had a number of different areas to respond to, given that different product updates were often required (on PCs, mobile devices, calendaring applications, services...). In short, this was a hard problem.

The feedback and response we received from our customers was tremendously helpful in our planning leading up to the daylight saving time "Spring Forward" (March 11, 2007, in the States), and in our planning on how to address such situations in the future. The customer input has helped improve the tools and updates we deliver, as well as some of our support and update policies.

I'll spend more time on this in a future post, as I need to tend to a customer here at home: my six-year-old is looking for a glass of water.

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