Going the extra mile in customer service – what does it really mean?

by James Butler, Your Business Your Future coach and tutor

When we ask owner managers what makes their business better than the competition, many will say “customer service”.  Some will claim that they “go the extra mile” for their customers.  Of course, “customer service” can mean many different things – friendliness, reliability, courtesy, understanding the customers’ requirements, on time delivery, etc.  And, what does “going the extra mile” really mean?

Last month, I was with my long-suffering wife, Bev, walking part of the South West Coastal Path.  Bev was enduring my moaning about the length of the walk and the physical effort involved – traditionally, this starts about ten minutes into any walk!  At the small town of Seaton, still some 7 miles from the destination of Lyme Regis, we came to cross the River Axe at a road bridge.

The road was closed; the way was barred by builder’s metal fencing behind which sat a very, very large crane.  On our side of the fence, was a burly construction worker, stopping people entering the site.  There was a clear pedestrian route past the crane, onto the bridge and onwards to Lyme Regis.  But, the fencing, and the builder, barred the way.  The alternative route involved using the next bridge along the river, approximately two miles away, meaning a diversion of nearly five miles.  I was a little concerned at the escalation in exertion this implied.

Protracted negotiations, attempts to plead to the guy’s kind nature (NB never expect too much empathy from a construction worker), intervention by sympathetic local residents, and outright begging, failed to move the builder (working on behalf of Tesco, who deserve their share in the negative publicity).  Our only option was to trudge around the diversion. I was dreading the effort, Bev was dreading the moaning.

As we passed the garage of the local bus company, Axe Valley Mini Transport, the prospect of catching a bus became a very attractive possibility. So, I asked a guy washing the buses whether that was feasible.  After finding a timetable, it was established that the two-hourly bus had just departed, so the bus wasn’t going to save the day.

At this point, the guy cleaning the bus said, “That’s daft. I’ll just take you in the car”.  We’re permanently indebted to the guy who undertook a ten mile trip just to help two visitors, because he didn’t want them to think ill of Seaton.  He wouldn’t even accept something to buy himself a drink.  He literally went the extra mile – or extra ten miles.  And we will forever speak highly of Axe Valley Mini Transport!

So, as business owners, what can we all learn from this story?  If we put the story into the context of a customer coming to your business with a question, a complaint or a request:

Listen: Make sure you hear and understand what the customer is articulating.  To be fair to Tesco’s intractable construction worker, he did at least do this stage.  Be sure that you have genuinely listened to what has been said, not just waited silently for your chance to speak because the difference is huge.

Empathise: Show that you understand what the customer is saying, and how they are feeling – which doesn’t mean you have to say they’re right, just that you understand what they’re feeling.  Research on customer service calls shows that customers hate being brushed off, and like being told they’ve been heard.

Take ownership: Part of going the extra mile is about making the customer’s issue your own issue.  People remember (and subsequently refer) when people step up and own sorting things out.  A friend had to travel internationally at very short notice after the death of a parent.  He left Barbados on the first flight for London, not knowing if he could connect with a flight to Australia.  When his wife rang customer services in Heathrow, to try and get someone to meet him off the flight with his next flight details, the lady at BAA said “I won’t leave tonight until your husband boards his plane”.  That’s the extra mile.

What’s the right thing to do: Christians sometimes wear a bracelet asking “What would Jesus do?” – a constant reminder to base their regular actions on their beliefs.  A secular alternative is to ask, “What if this person was my Mum?”  Family disputes notwithstanding, most people would go the extra mile for their Mum.  What’s the right thing to do on a human level?

Offer a viable solution: Our construction worker offered a solution – a long walk.  He was unwilling to offer any viable solution.  What you offer need not be what the customer is asking for – customers have been known to make unreasonable requests!  If you’ve listened and empathised, you may have an idea of which solution might actually meet their needs, which may not be the one they originally asked for.

An extra mile is all it takes: It’s important to respond to customer requests, and it’s important to go the extra mile.  And, it’s also important not to be taken for a ride.  You still have a business to run, and margins need to be maintained, or you won’t have a business to help the customer in the future.  We meet a lot of lovely people who run businesses and are just too generous with their time or their fees. There’s a fine line between providing exceptional value and undermining your value.

What’s the culture in your business – are you an Axe Valley Mini Transport (cheers!) or a Tesco construction worker (boos!)?

What’s likely to constitute going the extra mile for your customers?  Have you got some examples and stories of occasions when your staff have gone the extra mile that you can celebrate and use as examples for others?

What autonomy and responsibility does your team need to empower them to go the extra mile when they feel it is right to?

Could you be going the extra mile even before your customers ask?

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