Engineering customer service: 3 ways tech companies can improve the customer experience

While most of us know great customer service when we experience it, learning how to improve it can be less obvious, especially for those involved in engineering and technology. A customer service consultant and former Disney employee provided advice in the opening session of the annual business conference for A3, RIA, AIA, and MCMA organizations.

By Mark T. Hoske January 28, 2014

Customer service can improve using three simple techniques. Professionals involved in robotics, machine vision, and motion control heard from a former Disney expert about how to improve customer service in the opening presentation at the A3 business conference, as part of the 21st Annual Robotics Industry Forum, Orlando, Fla., January 22-24. The event, combining annual business meetings for Robotics Industry Association (RIA), Advancing Vision, Imaging (AIA), and Motion Control and Motor Association (MCMA), has attracted 450 registrants, the most ever, according to organizers from the Association for Advancing Automation (A3). The opening session, “Creating a World Class Service Organization, Lessons from the Mouse,” was presented by Dennis Snow, president, Snow and Associates Inc., who worked for Walt Disney Corp.

Disney World aims to develop loyalty, to get guests to return, Snow said. Just like automation companies, Disney wants a greater share of the wallet during the guest’s next visit. Snow asked the audience if they had been to Disney World before and what impressed them. Most had, and their answers included cleanliness, friendliness, people flow, and happiness, but there were no comments about the rides. Even though Tower of Terror cost $100 million, Disney isn’t selling just rides, he said. It’s selling experiences. The rides have to be great, but the overall experience creates loyalty. Automation customers still have a lot of choices, including whether or not to upgrade or automate at all. Three of Snow’s suggestions for creating outstanding experiences follow.

1. Customer perspective

Look at everything through the lens of the customer. Most organizations do not, even though they say they do. For example, a furniture store will ask, “When will you be home for furniture delivery?” You must be there during a window of time the store specifies.

It’s not just Disney that provides a good example, Snow said. Southwest Airlines also has great customer service, though it is not perfect, either. One of the airline’s planes landed at the wrong airport recently. Everyone parks in the wrong place sometimes, but Southwest understands its customers. Its flight attendants have taken the same boring safety spiels and made them more interesting, so passengers listen. Snow recounted a recent experience: When pulling up to the gate, flight attendants reminded the passengers that items might have shifted in the overhead bin. “Shift happens.” Even after a long flight, the travellers laughed. Upon landing, the co-pilot said, with deployment of reverse thrusters, “Whoa, big boy, whoa.” These quips don’t cost anything, but they help customers have a good experience, Snow said.

When customers experience sticker shock or fear, Snow said, we need to turn the lens around to see the issue from the customer perspective. When something goes wrong, it is often a communications issue. When we or our customers are out of our comfort zone, we’re all three years old. At Disney World, when guests ask, “What time is the 3 p.m. parade?” it would be easy to be sarcastic, but what the customers mean is, “What time does the 3 p.m. parade arrive in this location?”

The danger is that the longer we do what we do, the more we think customers know what we know, but they don’t. Map out a process with team members looking through the lens of customers. Look at a process that you want to improve. For example:

A customer calls. -> Transfer the call to the proper employee. -> Customer gives information. -> Customer explains problem or question. -> “Research answer” is the most common description at this point, but looking at it from the customer’s view, this part of the process should be: “Customer waits for an answer.” -> Employees contact customer. -> Customer listens to explanation. -> Customer asks any follow-up questions. -> Conclude call.

Now that it’s mapped out, ask team members, “What would mediocre service versus excellent service look like?” At one of those steps, a mediocre response would be, “That kind of sounds like what we do.” Some steps might already be world class, but this process provides an opportunity to get ideas about how to improve even the best of processes. At a bank, this might entail sending a dog biscuit or a lollipop through the drive-up lane tube. For you, snow Said, it might be looking at warranties, repairs, upgrades, or customer training. This process can work with all of these.

In early 1990s, Disney was looking at the end-of-day experience for visitors, after fireworks, going from the park to the hotel. At the end of the day, people generally are tired and sometimes grumpy. The magic is over. This was an opportunity to map out the processes with cast members. Now bus drivers hold Disney trivia contests or sing Disney songs. Processes in place since 1971 were turned around and improved through the power of applying team ideas.

Being a Disney housekeeper is the hardest job, with the average guest staying four nights and five days. A housekeeper named Helen, after she cleaned the room, started putting the purchased Disney characters neatly tucked under the covers when she turned down the bed, leaving a personal note that they looked tired and needed tucking in. That restores the magic in a long day, Snow said. After a process flow session, Disney captured and spread this practice. Some housekeepers even have turned on the TV and seated characters in front of it, creating the opportunity for a parent to say: “Whoa. Back away, kids.”

2. Examine details

Pay attention to the details because everything speaks. Every detail in any customer experience either adds to your brand or detracts from it, Snow said. A Pepsi can in a hotel’s intricate flower garden creates a visual intrusion. Subconsciously, customers question if other things are wrong if there are too many of these intrusions.

“I saw duct tape on the wing of a small airplane,” Snow said, “the kind of plane where the pilot also is the flight attendant. ‘No,’ the pilot said, ‘that’s high-speed aviation tape.’” It looked like duct tape, and that’s all that mattered.

A sign in a hotel read, “For your convenience, ice machines are located on the floors above and below this floor.” (For whose convenience?) Another sign in a room said, “Towels will be inventoried daily.” (I’m a thief?) Challenge everything that customers see, Snow said. What do your materials really communicate?

In a store, a stock room door propped open with broom during restocking showed customers the “backstage” area, Snow observed. All the money and effort on store design and presentation was being wasted. The attitudinal backstage was shown. The message in such a case was that employees were more interested in something else rather than taking care of the customer. This also can happen if customers hear employees say something negative about another customer, a process, or another department. Disney carefully segregates the back stage so all human, non-cast-member activities are hidden, Snow said. What are the behaviors that take away from your brand?

Another exercise is to make an “Everything speaks” chart, putting distracters on the left and commitments on the right. One distracter for Disney is trash, Snow said. “If you see trash in the park, you must pick it up. That’s in everyone’s job description.”

3. Impress your customers

Create Wow moments. Magic is in the little moments of Wow, Snow noted. It is in big moments also, but little things add up. Disney cast members offer to take pictures, Snow said, so the official family photographer can be in the picture too. Snow saw something on Facebook that said, “Every person you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about, so be kind.” How can you make this part of an organization?

Customer expectations can be put into a large triangle. Looking from the top down, write:

  • Advice (When you teach them something they did not know, that’s the highest level of service.)
  • Partnership (Do I feel that you are partnering with me for the success of my company?)
  • Availability (When I need you, how accessible are you?)
  • Accuracy (This is the base level. You have to get it right.)

In the triangle, the bottom two items can be called dissatisfiers, because they are expected. Above the line, those are the Wow opportunities. Not every interaction can be the top two, but every interaction is important to demonstrate excellence. If you’re getting great service anyplace, you will see these four done well.

“I was at a shoe store to buy dress shoes,” Snow said, “already annoyed for having forgotten mine on a business trip. And I hate shopping. It was crowded, and I was about ready to leave, when one woman caught my eye and gave me a concerned, interested look that made me felt as if I would have disappointed her by leaving. When she came over a couple minutes later, I handed her a shoe and asked for my size. She asked if she could please measure my foot to ensure proper fit, and then recommended a different style at the same price to make my shaped foot more comfortable. When I left, she told me that even if I didn’t return to that store, to please be sure to ask for future shoes with extra arch support, because mine had fallen. But my spirits were lifted. I’ve purchased four more pairs of shoes there, and recommend it to others.”

The three areas that can create customer loyalty are 1) Look through the lens of the customer, 2) Pay attention to details, and 3) Create Wow moments. Harley-Davidson has perhaps the greatest customer loyalty, as some customers get a Harley tattoo. Most of us won’t get to that level, but these are things you can do to create moments of Wow in your customer service, Snow said.

– Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering, Plant Engineering, and Consulting-Specifying Engineer,

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Author Bio: Mark Hoske has been Control Engineering editor/content manager since 1994 and in a leadership role since 1999, covering all major areas: control systems, networking and information systems, control equipment and energy, and system integration, everything that comprises or facilitates the control loop. He has been writing about technology since 1987, writing professionally since 1982, and has a Bachelor of Science in Journalism degree from UW-Madison.