Serving Customers in the Dark

On a three-week driving vacation a couple stopped at a coin-operated laundry in Montana. It was very early in the morning. The place was spotless, inside and out. And empty.

A pot of hot coffee and a vase of fresh flowers rested on a small wooden table next to the change machine. Two snapshots of the owner’s family adorned the bulletin board, along with a 24/7 phone number “if we can help.” Other customers had accepted the obvious invitation to add pictures of their families. On the wall was a colorful welcome sign, including a reminder: “Don’t forget we have free Wi-Fi.” The newspaper rack had an unexpected surprise ­­a left-behind Wall Street Journal. And, it was that day’s edition! The couple felt as welcome as the previous customers whose photos was on the bulletin board.

How do you create customer loyalty with customers whose face you never
see? There have always been a host of service providers whose only service signature was the quality of the work they left for the customer–the hotel housekeeper, the auto repair person on the other side of the “customers not allowed beyond this point” sign and the night nurse who checks your medical stats after major surgery when you are too drugged to communicate. But what about service providers who depend on a strong interpersonal relationship with the customer for repeat business?

Create a “Partnership”

The route to creating a positive service relationship with customers requiring service without direct contact is to simulate the quality of a partnership. As with service in general, effective management of service details can turn an “at arm’s length” encounter into a responsive, kinship experience. It means first making the relationship matter and then seeking subtle, but powerful actions designed to communicate care, trust and authenticity.

Look at the signage in your operation. Do signs sound like warm instructions to valuable partners or like tough laws for greedy criminals? Like the library that changed “overdue fines” to “extended use fees,” the tone can communicate a lot to your customers. “Don’t leave trash on the floor” can be altered to read “Thank you for helping us keep your grocery store as clean as you want your tomatoes to be.” A suggestion box gives customers a way to register their feedback and ideas. But make it colorful and unique. And, find a way (like a bulletin board) to post previous suggestions along with the action you took. Suggestion boxes only work if customers are convinced their input matters.

Personalize Your Offering

Can you find a way to leave behind personalized communication to frequent
customers? I use a service for refurbishing my laser-printer cartridges. When the “toner low” sign flashes on my laser printer, I pull the cartridge, mail it to this company and (within 48 hours) get a refurbished cartridge for about half the cost of a brand new cartridge. A “personalized” form letter accompanies the returned laser cartridge. One letter I recently received contained a handwritten P.S….”I’ll bet you¹re real proud of the Atlanta Falcons!” The clerk or packer or someone noticed my Georgia address and scrawled a little “value-added” to the letter.

What reading materials are in your reception areas? Think of asking your partners to leave behind their own magazines for others to read by having a magazine bin with a note that reads, “Thanks for sharing your magazines.” People will care if they share. Periodically ask customers their preference in magazines and subscribe to the most frequently mentioned titles. Sure, the magazines will be ripped off from time to time. But a friendly “Please leave behind for your neighbors to read” can curtail absentminded shoplifting!

Trust Your Customers

Trust your customers and they will trust you back. Bob Frandsen of
Homestyle Laundries says, “One thing that I do to keep customers loyal is
that I always send out the customers their refund money if they have
filled out a simple refund slip. Even if they only put down that they
lost 25 cents, I spend 49 cents in postage to send them their refund.”

Airport concession stores sometimes put the morning newspaper purchase on
the honor system. Instead of standing in line just to buy a USA Today,
customers pick up a copy as they put two dollars through the slot in the
money container above the papers. When store operators are asked about
the end-of-the-day shrinkage, they will tell you that, while they may lose
a paper are two, it is more often due to customers accidently picking up
two copies instead of one. The trust practice benefits the in-a-hurry
customer trying to catch a flight. And, it helps the store to manage
efficient traffic flow with customers buying either more items or items
less common than a newspaper.

“Serving in the dark” does not have to be silent service, stoically given
without customer rapport. The superior service provider finds ways to
build a partnership with distant customers even if that relationship must
be more like a dedicated pen pal than a friendly neighbor. As customers
require better service delivered more quickly and with greater
convenience, “serving in the dark” will become to paraphrase the familiar
ad line, “the next best substitute to actually being there.”

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