Would You Treat Your Mother That Way? The Secrets of Great Customer Service

There was a time when most companies followed the Golden Rule out of the belief that treating customers right created brand loyalty and repeat business. But many firms have lost their service component, especially as automation replaces human contact. As a customer service expert, Jeanne Bliss has spent her career helping major companies learn how to behave in the best interests of the consumer. She’s put her expertise into a new book, Would You Do That to Your Mother? The “Make Mom Proud” Standard for How to Treat Your Customers. She joined the Knowledge@Wharton radio show on SiriusXM to explain how increased competition makes customer service more important than ever for businesses that want to grow.

Knowledge@Wharton: You have spent more than two decades working as a chief customer officer. Tell us about your career.

Jeanne Bliss: I’ve been doing this work since 1983, and my entire career began because I answered an ad in the Chicago Tribune to train 2,500 phone operators at Land’s End. I started peppering Gary Comer, the founder, with questions about what we needed to do for customers and employees. After a year of that, he said, “Look, you come and report to me. You’re the conscience of our company. We’re growing 80% a year. We need somebody to help us all as a leadership team to keep ourselves together and united.”

That was the first version of doing what I call being “the human duct tape of the organization.” I stayed there for 10 years. The company grew and went public. We were wildly successful back then, and I decided I love this work. It’s right-brained, left-brained. It’s uniting an organization unlike any other role.

I deliberately moved industries. I went to Mazda Motors of America; the Miata and the RX-7 had just come out. They were trying to wrap an experience around those vehicles. Then I went to Coldwell Banker Corp. I was the senior vice president of franchise services, supporting a business-to-business model. Then I knew I needed to go really big, so I went to Allstate Corp. I reported to the president. I was the first person in charge of the customer experience there. Then finally I said, “You know, technology is the thing. I need to do technology.” I went to Microsoft and was the first general manager of worldwide customer and partner loyalty. And that kind of gave me my chops.

Knowledge@Wharton: What are some blatant examples of companies that don’t treat their customers like they would treat their mom? I’m thinking of Wells Fargo, most recently.

“We’re finding that the more high-tech we get, the more humanity we need.”

Bliss: You’ll notice that throughout the book that I do give the bad examples, but I’m not naming the companies because the point is you live your life through this book. If you go through the 32 case studies, it’s the story of our lives as customers. What’s interesting is that our human condition as customers, unfortunately, is what binds us. We’ve all been through waiting four hours for our cable guy or something. We’ve all seen a pen chained to a bank and go, “Really? I gave them my money and they’re chaining this pen.” What I wanted to do was give people a toolkit that offers them action items and is organized in a very simple way. You’ve got to get out of the way of the good people you hire. We don’t let our employees do the right thing. We lock them into rules and regulations, and policies. Would you turn your mom’s warranty claim down two days out of warranty?

Knowledge@Wharton: The title of your book reminds us of the level of respect we are taught to have as we’re growing up, then something happens when we enter corporate culture. It’s like a switch is flipped and things are totally different.

Bliss: Good people get stuck inside of a corporate environment, where we’re not able to have what I call congruence of heart and habit. It sounds kind of Pollyanna-ish, but it isn’t. Everybody comes to work, but things take over — silos, short-term priorities, red, yellow and green dots, saluting the flag of the board, short-term financial pressure. Those things come before long-term growth, or what I call strings-attached growth.

The companies that somehow find a deliberate way to grow [show] why the “make mom proud” question is a conscience question. That whole theory of REI closing on Black Friday is a deliberate move that says, “Look, here’s who we are. … Because if our whole foundation is around being outside, we’re not going to make money on a day where you should be outside and with your family.”

Knowledge@Wharton: How prevalent do you think that “make mom proud” mindset is at the C-suite level where the core decisions are made?

Bliss: I spent the majority of my career coaching the C-suite on this work. What’s happened in the past 10 years is we finally have this understanding that three things have shifted. No. 1, in most cases the C-suite recognizes now that organic growth is 10 times more profitable than simply going out [and acquiring] new customers. No. 2, social media is a burr in the side of C-suites who aren’t delivering an experience that customers want. … You can say what you are, but your customers are speaking what you really are. They’re speaking your values.

The third thing is the silos don’t organically unite. We’ve got something that we do with C-suiters all around the world that I call customer math. Did you bring in more customers than you lost? Are you keeping more customers than you’re losing? What we’re finding is that if we can make the metrics simple and around the growth or loss of the customer assets, it then drives them to [adapt] the behavior to grow and honor that asset. But you’ve got to start with the customer asset from a growth standpoint. Otherwise, it starts to feel too much like “kumbaya” to many of them.

“It doesn’t do you any good to hire the smart, energetic, innovative human if you lock them into blanket policies.”

Knowledge@Wharton: Anybody who has stayed at a hotel has lived this story: You get to the hotel, you’re thirsty, you’re hungry. You want to go to the minibar, but you know that the prices are insane. In the book, you talk about Virgin Hotels changing that practice so the price of a candy bar is the same price that you find in your local convenience store.

Bliss: Raul Leal, the CEO of Virgin Hotels, and [Virgin Group founder] Richard Branson made a deliberate decision about how they would and would not make revenue. That’s leadership. [Leal] said, “We don’t ever want our customers to feel like [they’ve been had],” so they created this thing called street pricing. In fact, their managers walk around with note pads to make sure that they’re [charging] the street pricing of the local 7-Eleven or the mom-and-pop store down the street. They also don’t charge for delivering your meal, nor do they charge for WiFi. Raul Leal says, “We consider WiFi a right, not a revenue stream.”

There’s another great example in that same chapter about the Columbus Metropolitan Library. They are the first urban library in the world to get rid of late fees. It’s this kind of very deliberate choosing of how you will grow. Those fine print, ‘gotcha’ moments are the things that may get your customer short-term, but you’re not going to earn their love and admiration long-term.

I also think there’s something to be said about the times we’re living in. We’re finding that the more high-tech we get, the more humanity we need. Yes, you can possibly now have your refrigerator repairman indicate to you on an app when he’s going to show up, but it’s the man and how he shakes your hand and how he cares for your furniture that tells you the kind of mother he’s got.

Knowledge@Wharton: How do companies go about hiring people that share this philosophy?

Bliss: It changes everything. Wegmans waits until they find people that meet their core values before they open a market area. The Container Store only hires 3% of people who apply. We’re seeing more and more deliberateness around hiring to core values and hiring the human behind the resume. We’re walking away from reading the piece of paper. We’re watching behaviors. We’re putting people in situations.

Southwest Airlines for years has had this whole role-playing exercise you go through for a full day so that they can see the human. These companies are changing how they hire, whom they hire, and making the employee experience as deliberate a path and priority as customer experience.

“You can say what you are, but your customers are speaking what you really are. They’re speaking your values.”

Knowledge@Wharton: These companies are trying to build a specific culture of camaraderie, which should have a positive effect on the bottom line. Correct?

Bliss: That’s right. That’s why I focused on that in the first chapter, which is titled, “Being the Person I Raised You to Be.” It doesn’t do you any good to hire smart, energetic, innovative humans if you lock them into blanket policies. Instead, you give them information, data, knowledge, and then trust them to make judgment calls that are right for the customer standing in front of them, which elevates them to ‘customer-rescue artists’ and customer development people versus policy cops and phone-answerers. That diminishes their spirit.

Knowledge@Wharton: Give us an example or two of companies that have been transformed by following these ideals for customer service.

Bliss: What I’ve tried to do in each of these case studies is give an impact in terms of what drives the growth of the company. CenterPoint Energy is a utility company. What’s interesting about energy companies is that we’re captive to them. But these companies are recognizing that there’s an imminent competitor in solar and other things. CenterPoint has created this experience that when your power goes out, it doesn’t mean that you’re in the dark from a human standpoint. They have set up a whole series of communications, responses, alerts. And they have put as much money into the product of communication as they have put into their power grids. They just won the top award for their market area and for their division around customer satisfaction and customer support.

There’s another example that’s super fun. All of us have had that experience of going to get our car repaired, then we bite our fingernails to the quick, waiting for the phone call for how much it’s going to cost. That $20 oil change is suddenly a $2,000 bill. There’s a garage in San Francisco called Luscious Garage. They mostly take care of hybrids, but I love their model because what they’ve done is they have gotten rid of that service adviser in the middle who basically plays telephone between you and the technician. Instead, you go in and meet your service technician right away, face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball. They have a mobile app where you stay in contact with them throughout the total time that they’re looking at your car. They’re sending you pictures. You’re communicating with them. They moved it from a one-way, fearful relationship to a two-way communication and partnership.

Knowledge@Wharton: Do you believe more firms will adopt this approach?

Bliss: Absolutely. We’ve got this younger group of people, whether you call them millennials or whatever, who are expecting Amazon Prime service no matter what you do. They’re expecting even higher value congruence in the behaviors of the companies that they will and will not work with because they are so fast to click “goodbye.” What we’re recognizing is that you’ve got to embed these things. You’ve got to make communication a product. You’ve got to make transparency a core value. And then you need to operationalize that — not only in your human beings, but also in the mobile apps and the other things that you do to communicate with them.

This article is reprinted with permission from Knowledge@Wharton.