By Frank J. Rich
We are seldom made of the clay that repels insensitivity. In a world that pursues individual rights as though the elixir for fulfillment, we are near desperate for the comfort of an understanding voice—the philter in the art of customer service.
Why does Amazon guarantee satisfaction with products purchased on its site, even though from another vendor? Why has Google inserted itself into the buying chain with an offer to do the same? Why did Progressive Insurance break the “buyer beware” shackles by allowing easy online changes to policies and a list of competitors’ rates? Why have L.L. Bean, Lands’ End and so many others prepared a buying public for a “good customer experience,” with a 100% guarantee on all products sold, one of the keys to a successful revenue retention model? Why indeed? Because “business is personal,” and those who treat their customers with this in mind do best.
This column spends more ink on customer service issues because it matters more than anything else. Its underpinnings are as applicable to any area of human exchange. Even Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith in their recent book, Most Likely to Succeed …, find in the roots of failure (in the American educational system) the need for a more personal approach in matching skills and motivations to curriculum. I worked briefly with both as a member of the Boston-based group The Massachusetts Redevelopment Institute (MRDI), whose purpose was to rebuild the elements of the technology machine known as The Massachusetts Miracle. They were then, as now, astute observers of their surroundings.
In a visit some years ago to the Zuni reservation in southwest Arizona I was struck by the farm scenery on the reservation. The plants were plentiful though small. In researching the agricultural model of Zuni farms I came upon a revealing story. It tells of a man, like me, who paused over a similar curiosity. When he asked a local Zuni farmer why so many of their stories have to do with water, the farmer answered, “It’s because we have so little of it. I guess, it’s the same reason so many of yours have to do with love.” The small plants mystery, and the Zuni’s irrigation model were revealed.
In a sense this column may have co-opted the farmer’s sentiment. Customer service needs more airing for its lack of it. Buyers are people, and though we may experience those who appear without much credential, business is also personal.