Service is Not
 It's an Ethic

 a Strategy-

by Rabbi David Lapin

Customer Fidelity

Why after investing so much effort in customer service, are you still not achieving high enough levels of customer loyalty?1 Accessing products and services has never been as easy as it is today. Customer convenience has never been so prolific. Yet customers wander from one supplier to the next in an endless search for that elusive quality they call service. You on the other hand, are confounded by your customers' fickleness: What more could you be doing for them?
   In desperation you incentivize loyalty and penalize infidelity. At great cost you offer discounts, bonuses and vouchers. Your competitors do the same. Your margins narrow as do those of your competitors. To remain efficient, you downsize, working your remaining staff a little harder. Amidst shrinking margins and expanding workloads, you pursue customers as relentlessly as they pursue a service offering they can't quite define.

Valuing Your Customers vs. Valuing Their Money

Customers may not quite be able to define what specific service they seek, but they can most definitely identify the service they reject. You see, customers have uncovered the insincerity of "customer service excellence." While salespeople proclaim their love for their customers, even the most unsophisticated customer knows that salespeople do not really value their customers, they value their customers' money!
   The airline business offers an interesting model: Airlines call us "customers" rather than "passengers." This may give us a sense of having more rights, but not of being more cared for. In the United States, airline captains often bid farewell to their passengers by telling them "how much our airline values your business," but never how much they value you. On the other hand, most Asian airline personnel don't tell you how much they value you, your business or your money. They don't need to. They greet you with respect and serve you with honor so you feel valued and valuable every moment of the flight. That is the difference.
   Compare those airlines that have mastered the service ethic to those that have not. Those that have not, for example, tend to throw food packaged like a child's school snack at their coach class passengers. Flying, say customers, is "like a cattle haul."2 Airlines that possess a true service ethic present meals with a touch of elegance and a lot of dignity. This goes beyond the porcelain, silver and linen to an efficient graciousness present throughout. Airline attendants that have mastered the service ethic anticipate passenger needs with an apparent delight, rather than respond to passengers' requests with noticeable irritation. All of this differentiates those that offer convenience from those that truly serve.
   The low cost of true service is illustrated clearly by the success story of Southwest Airlines. It cuts the frills of customer convenience but never adulterates the ethic of customer service. The airline maintains consistent integrity in the way its staff communicates openly and warmly with its customers. The frills are cut, but not the caring. Caring doesn't need to cost a whole lot though, it does need an ethical commitment. One which Southwest has successfully cultivated.
   Coupons, discounts, vouchers and bonuses are costly and do not buy loyalty. The most effective strategy to achieve customer loyalty entails no financial cost at all. It only requires that all employees learn to view service not as a corporate strategy of expedience but as central to a genuine corporate ethic. A service ethic expands beyond a strategy to encourage customers to part with their money. A service ethic is a moral imperative; customer spending is its outcome. When service makes customers feel worthy, they delight in spending and will return to do so again and again.

   1 Harvard Business Review Study 1995 "Why Satisfied Customers Defect" by Thomas Jones and W. Earl Sasser.
   2 "Consumer Satisfaction With Airlines in Free Fall" Los Angeles Times, February 7, 1999, Page L2.

David Lapin is CEO of Strategic Business Ethics,( a consulting firm that grows clients' value and market dominance by optimizing the contribution of their human capital. He is a compelling speaker and business thinker of international repute. SBE, based in Los Angeles, consults to cutting edge companies, large and small, throughout the world. His clients include General Electric, Coca Cola, and companies in the Financial Services and Health Care industries.