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What E.T. & Lou Gerstner Teach Us About Excellent Customer Service

What E.T. & Lou Gerstner Teach Us About Excellent Customer Service

ET at Madame Tussaud'sWe all remember that iconic little alien E.T., who so wanted to get in touch with his home ship that he repeated his “E.T. phone home” mantra right into the #15 slot of American cinema’s top 100 quotations.

But what our present day ETs (Executive Teams, that is) don’t always remember is that anyone who runs a business should be just as obsessed with getting in touch with their own ship.

How? Take a cue from that plucky little alien who stole our hearts back in 1982: phone home.

Excellent Customer Service, Direct from Lou Gerstner

Here’s a riddle for you: how can one little customer like me go from a person pursuing a warranty issue to a featured item at the IBM international management meeting?

It starts with a phone call.

Years ago, before they sold to Lenovo, I called IBM because my ThinkPad screen went blank 18 months after purchase. It was well beyond warranty, but it still didn’t seem right.

But my calls to the help line were answered by menus, not people. When I reached a person, he told me I was out of warranty and explained that policy didn’t allow him to do anything.

As a management coach, I love these occasions. They keep me sharp and give me great material for presentations to clients. So I continued.

I called IBM headquarters in Armonk, New York. A real person answered. I asked for marketing. A real person answered the transferred call. I explained my problem. She said, “I’ll transfer you to customer service.”

Then, I got a big surprise.

“This is the chairman’s customer service team,” the next voice answered. The chairman at the time was Lou Gerstner.

“Seriously?” I replied. “Lou Gerstner has his own customer service team?”  She affirmed and went on to listen to my problem and experience.

“Our help line is correct that it’s out of warranty,” she explained once she’d heard me out. “But our screen should not fail in 18 months. So we’ll send you a new ThinkPad.”

I wrote Lou Gerstner a personal note describing how impressed I was with this member of his team. Then what? I received a handwritten personal note back, thanking me for informing him of his service manager’s great performance.

But my favorite part is the final chapter: A year later, the gal who answered the phone that day called me up. She told me that Lou had read my letter – as well as his response – at IBM’s international management meeting, using it as an example of how the company wanted to treat customers.

Then, he had her stand up to applause in the audience.

Lou Gerstner has had a sterling business career. He knows profit, strategy, cost control. He’s run several operations quite well. I encourage you to go to school on his handling of this – particularly on the value he ascribed to excellence in service.

How do you compare? Let’s find out:

Excellent Service Requires Authentic Insight

Please don’t just sit in your executive meeting and listen to other C-suite folks describe the quality of your service. Take it upon yourself to become a customer:

  • Contact your own customer service with a problem. See how the problem (and you) are handled.
  • Call to place an order or ask a question. What are you promised? What kind of follow up do you receive?
  • Call for service. Are you satisfied? Would you recommend you to a friend? Be honest.

Your ET (Executive Team) meetings should include a speaker phone in the middle of the table. Make these calls and let everyone listen.

Then, call American Express, Apple, Freshbooks, Dyson, Zappos, Rackspace, or any other company who provides excellent customer service.

Now compare.

When you called your own line, did you have to hold and listen to awful music? Or did you immediately hear from a real human being or receive an offer for a call back at a time convenient to you?

Were your service people empowered to help – perhaps by taking something back outside of warranty or spending money to make your issue right, no questions asked? Did they explore your proposed solution rather than sticking to their own script?

Next Step: Get to Know Your Team for Real

After the meeting, notice which people on the executive team begin making excuses.

“We have to keep costs down.”

Or was the objective improved earnings?

“We can’t give that kind of decision power to lower level people.”

But the customer has all the decision power she needs. Your under-empowered rep provides poor service, and she’ll drop you from her life forever, tell all her friends, and tweet up a firestorm. So the way I see it, you have 2 options:

  1. Have your customer service rep provide excellent service today
  2. Have your social-media manager try to make up for it tomorrow

It all starts with one simple call to the home ship, ET.

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