Expert’s Corner: Chip Bell on Unconditional Customer Service

NoodlesToday I am pleased to feature another guest post by Chip Bell. If you have seen the movie Ramen Girl (and even if you haven’t!), you will relate to this post. The parallels he draws between passionate cooking and customer service will be something you will noodle on for awhile.

Chip is the author, with John R. Patterson, of the book Take Their Breath Away: How Imaginative Service Creates Devoted Customers. He can be reached through www.taketheirbreathaway.com.

Unconditional Customer Service by Chip Bell

Ramen is a traditional Japanese noodle dish that, well prepared, is a highly desired delicacy.  That’s the back story for the movie, The Ramen Girl.  A young woman finds herself in Tokyo and wants to understudy a master ramen chef who speaks no English; she speaks no Japanese.  He is impatient and demanding; she works hard to be perfect.  The climax of the movie (without giving too much away) happens when the frustrated chef takes the equally frustrated protégé to visit his mother, the person who taught him to be a great ramen chef.

Creating ramen, the mother tells the young women, is not about mixing ingredients in the proper proportion and cooking the broth at the right temperature.  In order to make a dish that connects your heart to your customer’s heart, you must put your soul into the preparation and presentation, not just your smarts and sweat.  It was a turning point.  The woman let go of her pursuit of precision and embraced the “from the heart” expression of her spirit.  Great customer service is like preparing ramen.

Step One:  Learn to Cook

There has always been a major difference “being a cook” and “being a chef.”  Cooks follow food recipes; chefs fashion cuisine creations.  We spent an evening with Tim Love, a world famous Southwest chef.  He had defeated the “Iron Chef” on the popular TV program.  “Before you can become a chef,” he described to us over roasted portabella mushrooms he had prepared, “you must first learn to cook.”  A good cook makes sure they have the right ingredients, the proper utensils, and have the oven set on the correct temperature.

Great service starts with the fundamentals of your quality service.  Bank customers want accuracy; hospital patients desire cleanliness, and airline passengers expect safety.  I call it service air.  We pay little attention to the air we breathe until it is removed or threatened.  Think we can think of nothing else.  Think about all the wasted energy creating a great service experience only to have it erased from the customer’s mind because something fundamental is mishandled.  Think of them as service condiments.  No salt and pepper on the perfectly set banquet table can remove the gourmet from the experience.

Step Two:  Remember the Goal

Then, without losing sight of “the right ingredients in the broth,” put your energy into your customer’s needs and hopes.  Service is not about you, it is about assisting another in a way that makes a difference while making an impression.  Great service is all about thinking of fashioning a delightful outcome by serving through the customer’s eyes.  It is not ever about what is easiest for the service provider; it is always about crafting processes and procedures that enable the service provider to make it great for the customer.

Who benefits from bills sent at the end of the month, opening and closing hours, paperwork of any sort, phone trees (punch 2 if you want…) and hold times.  If the customer could be in charge of designing “service their way,” how would it change.  Granted, no organization can turn service process design completely over to customers.  And, some of those forms are required by regulators who can pull a license or close a business if there is an absence of compliance.  Yet, our quest for efficiency sometimes entices us to forget to wear the “customer hat” when designing how service will occur.

Step Three:  Lose Yourself

Francis Coppola is one of this century’s best film directors.   Even folks who cannot recall his name, know his films—The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, American Graffiti, etc.  While making the movie Apocalypse Now, he ran into a challenge with highly independent actor, Dennis Hopper (remember Easy Rider?).  The encounter was chronicled in the documentary, Hearts of Darkness.  Dennis was spending too much time in the bar and not enough time exercising the boring but necessary discipline to learn his lines.  “You learn your lines so you can forget them,” coached Coppola.  “I need you to go past your lines and come from who you are, not what you recall.”  Great service comes from going beyond the basics to “come from who you are.”

The Good Samaritan story is well known.  But, a few facts about the story are known largely by students of the bible, not just casual readers.  The main character was a Samaritan and the target of his kindness was a Jew.  Samaritans were hated by Jews and vice versa.  The Samaritan went beyond self-held views of aversion to help his “neighbor”–the enemy.   When the scripture says, “A Jew went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among thieves” one might think he was going South.  Jericho was actually North of Jerusalem.  But, it was 3500 lower and the route was physically taxing.  Stated differently, the Samaritan had just traveled uphill along a challenging journey to help Jewish man who was starting downhill.  The Samaritan’s compassion was not clouded by his fatigue.  Great service is not borne of duty, responsibility or contract, but delivered from the heart with little regard for gain, advantage or reciprocity.

Step Four:  Fill the Bowl

“Fill the bowl” in the Ramen world means giving customers more than they expect.  I grew in a small South Georgia town.  I made all my spending money mowing yards, especially during the summer—my parents were not fans of the concept of an allowance!  I got a $1.00 for a small yard and $2.00 for a large yard.  My grandmother had a two dollar yard.  One summer we had a major draught.  Yards barely grew at all and I was looking at a bleak year financially.  Toward the end of the summer, my grandmother asked me to mow her yard.  I was thrilled.  After doing a perfect job I met her at her back door to get my two dollars.  She handed me a $5 bill with the most wonderful words a ten-year old could hear:  “Keep the change.”  And, it did change my relationship with my grandmother.  A relationship I kept until she died at age 84.

There is an expression in golf of “playing over your head.” It means that a golfer is playing at an unexplained level of excellence in which serendipity and the extraordinary seem the momentary norm.  Customer loyalty soars when customers experience someone “serving over their head.”   Take the governors and conditions off your service and enjoy the difference your efforts can make.  Service that emanates from places in the heart touches the soul of the customer in a fashion they are left enriched as they are served.

(Photo: wootang01)

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7 Responses

  1. What I felt when I first came to the US was that the companies here seem to do the math before offering service whether their it is going to generate profit. On the other hand, Japanese customer service is offered if that makes the customers comfortable, regardless of the profit or return.

    That is why people who traveled to Japan often talk to me how they felt comfortable with how people talked to them, the service, equipment of the facility, etc. There is even a saying in Japan that “Customer is God”, whereas “Customer is King” in China and Korea.

    This is just my perception of the customer service comparison. I might be wrong.

    This was only my impression.

  2. Pingback : Servicio a cliente sin condiciones: ese es el camino | Amo a mi cliente

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