Successful customer service starts with a relationship


I’ve had more than one customer-service training. The first was in the summer of 1970 in southern Illinois. The only work I could find was selling pots and pans door-to-door.

This was old-school. The “How to Win Friends and Influence People” and “Mad Men” approach. Though I’ve been involved in education first and foremost throughout my life, I’ve been in sales more than once, usually on commission: The customer is always right! was the mantra for most of my managers, even when said with a hefty dose of cynicism.

Then one day an entrepreneur said to me, “The customer is NOT always right, but the customer is ALWAYS the customer.”

What if we actually started to honor the concept of customer service? If you’ve tried to get cable service or called an endless-tree 800 number (“Press 1 if…”), you know how the concept has been hijacked.

Let’s toss out the old, industrial-era framework for customer service and redefine successful customer service as a mutual exchange of developing benefit. In this framework, service is more like a pond than a river.

Within this model of customer service, what counts most is the relationship. And that relationship can be codependent (I get you to feel how I want you to feel, as in “You want this car”).

It can also be interdependent — we want this to be an ongoing, collaborative effort. When we feel great after a customer service episode, isn’t it because we felt understood and respected, two of the most important interpersonal behaviors?

Finally, this kind of customer service doesn’t focus on events (with those incessant online surveys that feed our BS meters). This kind of service focuses on developing capacity for further successful interaction. It’s connection-driven rather than event-driven.

So managers can serve their employees as equitably as employees serve their managers. The public serves government as the government serves the community.

Finally, our schools. Too often, school systems forget their primary customer: the students. Not the boosters, the parents, the school board or the teachers associations. When schools change their focus to a mutually beneficial, ongoing relationship with their students, they can start to realign their priorities.

Think of a school where the students and teachers are equally involved in decisions, curriculum, discipline, bus duty and lunch!

There are plenty of examples in this country and around the world where this model of customer service is prevalent. Why? Because it works.

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