Providing Outstanding Customer Service Is an Art Not a Science

Lessons from Experience

Art Not a Science – Shortly after my twentieth birthday I went to work in an art gallery. My job was to make the picture frames. The business was run by one man, I’ll call him Peter. We did quite a bit of work for restaurants and pubs. And we would source and frame pictures around the particular theme of a restaurant, pub or whatever the establishment might be.

We also did some bespoke work. Customers would bring in their pictures or photographs and we would frame them. A few customers would buy pictures from us. Many of these would be prints of famous paintings – the impressionists were quite popular. Selling pictures – particularly original and limited edition pictures – was an aspect of the business that Peter wanted to expand; but it never really happened, for good reasons as you will discover below.

Peter was not an easy man to get on with. Many people simply did not like him and would do their best to avoid him. He knew this and, publicly at least, took great delight in it. On occasions, however, he could be charming. More often, he could be rude, arrogant and, at times, thoroughly obnoxious.

Peter frequently displayedd his less desirable traits towards his customers (more usually potential customers who were soon dissuadedd from becoming customers). There were a small number of customers who came back time and time again. These people were treatedd by Peter with a service that was almost servile. And I could never work out what it was about this handful of people that Peter treatedd very differently from the vast majority of others who came into the shop.

With most potential customers Peter revelled in being contrary. If customers asked for advice: he’d refuse; if customers did not want advice: they got it forced upon them; if a particular moulding for a frame was out of stock: he would refuse to order it for customers who requested it; if a particular moulding was in stock; he’d insist that customers who wanted it must have another. I could go on, but you get the picture (pun intended!).

Peter went out of business in about 1986. I’d left a couple of years before. I was not surprisedd to discover that he went out of business. I was surprisedd that Peter lasted as long as he did. As I said above, Peter never expanded the picture selling arm of his business and the picture framing aspect was always a very small part of what we did. It was the work for pubs and restaurants that brought in the money, which was never very secure at the best of times.

The recession of the 1980s forced hospitality chains to curtail their spending. This had a devastating effect on the business. By 1981, Peter had started to feel the squeeze, but did little to improve things. From about 1983, the business was in trouble. By 1984, the work from the hospitality companies was not enough to keep the business afloat. There was certainly a market for the bespoke framing service: competitors locally appeared to be doing very well notwithstanding the recession. Peter, however, continued to bite that hand that wanted to feed him.

Whilst I worked for Peter, I never thought too much about how Peter ran his business. I guess I found it amusing. Sadly, though, it wasn’t amusing for the people who lost their jobs when Peter went under.

Customer Service

I am obsessedd with customer service. That is no exaggeration. If I’m on the receiving end of poor customer service I’m – to put it mildly – angry. If any of my staff are responsible for poor customer service I’m equally angry – perhaps even angrier – and that anger is infused with heavy doses of disappointment and regret at what they have done and contrition towards the customer we have failed. Once again: that is no exaggeration.

Marketers – especially social media and content marketers – often say that content is king. That may have a great deal of merit lying behind it. However, it is the customer who rules. The customer has always ruled; the customer will always rule. Provide your customers with what they want and you are more likely to retain them as customers. Retain your customers and give them outstanding experiences and those customers are more likely to recommend your services to others.

This is not exactly ground-breaking stuff. If you take a look on the reverse of a Bank of England £20 note you will see a picture of a singularly brilliant man. Adam Smith lived during the eighteenth century during which time he was a key figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. He held a chair in moral philosophy at Glasgow University and is sometime referred to as the father of modern economics.

Amongst his many erudite utterances stands one that contemporary businesses, however large or however small, would do well to heed. The real cost of any product or services, explained Smith, is the time and trouble of acquiring it. For latter day business people the message is that you should ensure that your company has a customer centred philosophy that delivers superior value.

In Search of Excellence

Today there is a mass popular business book publishing industry like never before. I have to say that I’ve never been that keen on that particular type of book, with a few notable exceptions, one of which is In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, the book that some commentators credit with creating that aforementioned publishing phenomenon. I have written about this book before. And I have no doubt that I shall write about it again. I should wholeheartedly recommend it as staple reading for anyone in business.

The book has come in for a bit of criticism in recent years, not least because some of the companies held up by the authors as paragons of excellence have seen their fortunes dip in the years since the book’s publication in 1982. However, many of the books principles, I should suggest, are sound, and offer businesses a source of first rate advice for improving their customer service.

I confess that I have drunk deeply from the cup that is In Search of Excellence and become intoxicated on the “… eight common themes which [Peters and Waterman] argued were responsible for the success of [their] chosen corporations, which have become pointers for managers ever since.” I’m not expressly going to refer to those themes; however, much of what follows is underpinned by the work of those two authors.

All Experiences Are Valuable

I’ve always taken the view that all experiences are valuable. Human beings learn from experience. Sometimes the worst experiences are the ones we learn most from. My time working for Peter in no way constitutes a bad experience. Quite the reverse in fact: it was a time when I was extremely happy. My time with Peter, though, did provide me with a formidable learning experience. I came to appreciate this many years after I left Peter’s gallery.

I am going to go through just six principles that I consider to be central to providing outstanding customer service. My time with Peter offers me innumerable examples of a business failing to follow these simple rules and suffering the consequences.

The following are not the only principles of outstanding customer service: there are others. The following may not be the most important principles: there may be others that could conceivably claim a higher ranking. They are not principles in any particular order: there is a solid case to be made for all to share star billing. One thing is sure, however: companies that fail to do these things are not providing outstanding customer service. Indeed, fail to do these things and providing outstanding customer service is next door to impossible.

Principle Number One: Always Be Polite

I know this is obvious: it is obvious. But how often does it fail to happen? How often have you been subjectedd to the rudeness of some company employee? Let’s look at things from the employee’s point of view: customers might rule but sometimes they can be very difficult. And that is very true. Impoliteness is not a one way street. For that reason, employees who deal with the public need very special skills.

Many might disagree with this but I’ll put it out there anyway. There are some things that cannot be taught, and one of those things that cannot be taught is how to deal with people. Either you can deal with people or you can’t. If you can’t deal with people, there are a few things you can learn to make things easier for you. But you will never learn how to do it in the way that it is done by someone to whom it comes naturally. It is something that is innate.

Even Peter knew this. He knew that he could upset people just by being in their presence. Fortunately, he had someone who was far better at dealing with customers than he was. Her name was Beth. She’d worked for him for a number of years. Now and again he would let her deal with customers. I never knew what the criteria were for assigning Beth to these customers. Peter never gave any reasons; however, he was quite open about the fact that when he sent Beth to deal with customers it was because he wanted to win the business.

Principle Number Two: Answer the Telephone

When I worked for Peter, I never answered the telephone. Peter insisted that he or Beth answered it. If he was in the gallery he would usually answer it. If he was busy Beth would answer it.

Some companies set targets for how quickly the telephone has to be answeredd. There’s nothing wrong with such a target so long as answering the ‘phone is not the job of just one person who has multiple other tasks to do and the ‘phone rings every five or six minutes.

Peter used to set a target for how quickly the ‘phone had to be answeredd. He used to say that it should ring fifteen times at least. His reasoning, I’m not sure whether to dignify what follows as being the product of reason is justified. Was that if the call was important the caller would hang on or would ring back!

If someone is taking the time to ring my company then it is right that I should assume that the call is important. What may seem a trivial matter to me may well be of monumental importance to the caller. Of course, there are times when it is physically impossible to answer the ‘phone immediately. Today, however, there are various ways that customers can leave you a message. And you can then ring them back the first moment you have a chance.

Principle Number Three: Return Telephone Calls

This follows on from the above principle about answering the ‘phone. Inevitably, there will be times when a customer calls and the person she wants to speak with is unavailable. It beggars belief that anyone in business would not claim it as a company mantra that calls must be returned at the earliest opportunity. It may beggar belief but the failure to return calls happens all too frequently.

I have no idea how many customers Peter failed to gain (and how many existing ones he lost) through his arrogant insistence of returning only certain calls. Peter would go out once or twice every week usually to auctions or art galleries. He would be out the whole day and Beth would answer the ‘phone and diligently take down messages for Peter’s return (these were the days before mobile ‘phones).

Beth told me that he would return calls from friends and usually from designers who worked for the large hospitality chains. He would never return a call from a name he did not recognise, unless it was a new designer. And rarely return a call from private customers even if he did recognise the name. When the gallery was doing quite well in 1979 – 1980. Beth said it was rare to receive fewer than 10-12 calls a day.

Just recently I had to contact a local firm of solicitors. In my area this firm is very well known. I askedd to be put through to the department I neededd on five separate occasions spread over about five weeks. On each occasion there was no one there to take my call. On each occasion I asked if someone could call me back. And on each occasion I was assured that I would be telephoned. On no occasion was my call returnedd.

In my business, it is not too much of an overstatement to say that my insistence that staff return calls at their earliest opportunity comes close to being a mania with me. I have four simple rules.

  1. If you are askedd to return a customer’s call, return the call as soon as possible.
  2. The person who takes the call initially should indicate to the caller when the person the caller wishes to speak with will be available.
  3. If there is someone else who can deal with the matter then that person should have the call transferredd to him immediately or should be askedd to call the customer at the earliest opportunity.
  4. Always keep the customer informed, which brings me to my next customer service principle, number four…

… always keep the customer informed…

… because sometimes the world conspires against you and you cannot do what you have said you will do. In my experience, people are very reasonable so long as you let them know what is going on.

When customers brought pictures into Peter’s gallery to be framed they would be given a receipt. And on that receipt Peter would write a date from which customers could collect their framed pictures. All too often, we failed to have the pictures framed and ready for collection by that date. Some customers were fairly phlegmatic about things; some were irritatedd; some were angry. If Peter dealt with the angry ones the outcome was almost inevitably that they were given back their unframed picture and told to go elsewhere. If Beth dealt with them, in Peter’s absence. She would ensure that the picture was framedd within the hour and we had a relatively happy customer. I don’t recall once our ever ‘phoning a customer to tell him his picture would not be ready on the day we said it would be ready.

It is always a salutary experience for managers and business owners to put themselves into their customers’ shoes. They should do it often and ask the question: “As a customer, what are the things that are likely to make me view a business in a particularly unfavourable light?” High on the list of answers will surely be: “Not knowing what is going on”.

Principle Number Five: Say Yes

There are few words more pleasant for a customer to hear than “yes we can do that for you”. Don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not for a moment suggesting that you should say yes to everything that customers ask for, however unreasonable. If you are an electrician you’re probably not going to agree to plaster a customer’s walls. If you’re a physiotherapist you might draw a line at dental surgery. And if you’re a tree surgeon unblocking drains may not be your thing.

The point I’m getting at here. Is that businesses should take every opportunity to delight their customers with the services that they can offer. Electricians may not plaster walls but they may well be able to recommend someone who can do the job.

A couple of years ago we took out a group of staff for lunch at Christmas. The choice was a Christmas menu, which some people wanted, or the normal menu, which others wanted. However, the restaurant insisted that if you were sat on one table you must all choose from one menu or the other. Eight people on one table must have the same menu. Eight people split into two groups of four and each group on a separate table could have had a different menu.

Once again, I should exhort business owners to put themselves in the position of their customers. Peter either could not do this or perversely could do it very well. And knew exactly how to make his customers miserable. Beth seemingly had the ability to empathise with customers.

Principle Number Six: Promise Less; Deliver More

I think this principle is very much implicit in much of what has gone before. Never, and I mean never, promise what you know you cannot deliver. Just in case I haven’t made that clear let me say it again: never promise what you know you cannot deliver. The temptation is often to promise something to win business even though you know the chance of your delivering on your promise is less than that of winning the national lottery jackpot (and that by the way is a one in 13 983 816 chance; your chance of being hit by lightning is significantly higher).

For a small period of time I worked in car sales (this was after my time with Peter). Note I didn’t say that I sold cars. I didn’t say that because it would be stretching a point to say that I sold cars. The reason I worked in car sales for a short period of time is that I was not particularly successful at selling cars. The point of this is that I used to work with sales people who would promise almost anything to get the sale. The consequences of this were usually three-fold (at the minimum). First, there would be a pretty upset customer to deal with at some point in the near future following the promise that had been madee. Two, that customer would not come back to the dealership a second time. Three, that customer would never recommend the dealership to people he or she knew.


I know what you are thinking: you’re thinking that surely some of these principles clash with each other. For example, principles five and six appear, potentially, to be inconsistent with each other. And you would be right to point that out. But that’s the problem with any system of principles: unless there is a hierarchy of principles clashes are inevitable.

Providing outstanding customer service is not a science; it’s an art. There will be times when things go wrong. There will be times when you cannot do what you would like to do for your customers, and there will certainly be times where you are facedd with dilemmas. Do one thing and you get an undesirable by-product; do a second and you get a different undesirable by-product. In situations like this I should submit that the course of action you should take is the one that is least damaging to the customer. The alternative is to do what Peter would have done: take great delight in upsetting a customer.