Living in the United States, we take many things for granted. We, customers, are used to handouts of a mature and competitive market where businesses have learned lessons that help them survive and remain profitable:
- how to grab a customer’s attention,
- how to transform a customer’s interest into action,
- how to keep a customer happy after a purchase,
- how to create a repeat customer.
We, customers, are s.p.o.i.l.e.d; nevertheless, we develop this awareness only when we leave our US ‘safe ground’ and find ourselves in awe of things that are so customary for us, yet neither standard nor even possible elsewhere in the world. To make this ‘spoiled customer’ assumption even more fascinating, I look upon people like me who grew up somewhere else, moved to the United States, and then quite quickly adapted to the perks of living in the Promised Land. People can get used to better things quite easily, can’t they? Maybe I would never have noticed this had I not traveled outside of the US nor, more interestingly, had I not recently moved back to Europe (even if only temporarily). The Old Continent definitely still does it the old way.
Let me say it out loud: Customer Service!
Step back. There is always a difference in how things are done: big guys (corporations) do it in a big way ($$$), small guys (small business) do it similarly but in a small way ($). Big guys hire big agencies to develop and manage their campaigns, small guys hire freelance graphic designers to make their marketing materials. Big guys have 24/7 outsourced customer service, small guys try to act as friendly neighbors who solve issues when needed. Both groups run their businesses in their respective way for the same reason: to attract customers and to retain customers.
Prologue. Since June, I’ve been living in a mid-sized city in Europe (more than 250,000 residents) that is also a tripoint (I highlight tripoint since it offers an amazing strategic location for any business that should be maximally utilized – and in my experience it’s not). In less than three months, I have somehow already managed to have a list of places (shops, restaurants, real estate agencies, etc) where I will not return. Yes, you’ve heard me well! Call me spoiled, but my hard earned money will not end up supporting those businesses that have made it to that list. The culprit: very bad or rather no customer service. On the other hand, I find myself willing to drive to two nearby countries (even though only 15 minutes away) to support businesses where I’ve received excellent, or sometimes even average, customer service.
Situation. For example, restaurants… their customer service – throughout most of Europe – is something that we Americans complain about quite a bit. Since being here, I’ve learned that waiters and waitresses are not tipped at all like they are in the US (e.g., 10-20%), rather receive a reasonable wage. As a result, customer service is not their greatest focus…by far. That patrons come to restaurants primarily for the food and that they pay for their food, and not service, is often felt in the air.
Experiment. I decided to test a restaurant that offered amazing food however no customer service. As I was enjoying my meal and suffering from the lack of service, I thought of an interesting experiment. At the end of my initial visit, I tipped the waiter an unheard of 15%, even if undeserved. I had to wait an unreasonable amount of time for everything and I was the one smiling and being friendly; he remained cold and disinterested. I wanted to check whether he would improve his service the next time I returned to the restaurant (thinking that he would recall someone who tipped so much, spoke the local language with an accent, and indicated that she was now residing in the area). During my second visit, the food was great (still), the waiter was the same (still), and the customer service was the same (unfortunately, still)…and I tipped him 15% (still). I mean, he had to remember me the third time. The third time…unfortunately…was not the charm.
Result. Restaurant added to my no-go list.
Lesson Learned. The look in his eyes told me that I was just a crazy American giving him free money. For me, this waste of money showed that you can’t pay for something that is not offered, valued, nor expected to be compensated. The bottom line is that the market here, although as mature as in the US, has simply matured a different way. Customer service is not really offered, it is not really valued by customers, and neither party really expects compensation for it. So, the same game – ‘Business’ – has been played with two different rulebooks, amazingly successfully in both parts of the world.
Review. Although Europe is also starting to move towards a customer service culture, the US is already deeply dependent on it. The big guys are often multinational and have the luxury of implementing various levels of customer service based on local needs. In some cases, they are even close to monopolizing the market regardless of their level of service. Small business owners, however, are in many cases local and quite often dependent on local customers. Although in Europe small businesses may not need to focus as much attention on customer service, it is quite clear that their American counterparts need to devote sufficient attention to maintain and grow their businesses.
Business Strategy. In the past, I’ve provided a lot of advice for investing in the right marketing tools and tactics to increase customer awareness and drive interest in your product or service. However, any such expense can be a complete waste if customers are not retained once they are captured. Even though you may be doing a great job driving customers into that sales funnel, keep an eye on your customer service and ensure that there are no leaks out the other end. Some people even go as far as saying that customer service is the new marketing; I as a marketer wouldn’t go quite that far…I say that customer service is extremely important (in some geographies) and that it should be implemented as one of the many tools and tactics that any business leverages to attract and retain customers.
What about you? Have you had an interesting experience with customer service outside the US?