Lessons for HR: how to delight customers

There are a number of steps companies need to take in creating and sustaining a true culture of customer delight, writes Dave Hanna

Isn’t it refreshing in the midst of our daily interactions to experience an organisation that is truly committed to doing more than we expected? Take, for example, the couple that was on holiday in Tokyo and bought an MP3 player at the Shiatsu department store. They left the store and returned to their relatives’ home to show off their new purchase. But the player wouldn’t play! Noting it was past the store’s closing time, they planned to settle the matter the following day.

The next morning before they had a chance to call Shiatsu, the doorbell rang. There were two visitors for them – a distinguished-looking man with white hair and the clerk who had sold them the MP3 player! They had some packages in their arms. The older man introduced himself as a vice-president of the Shiatsu department store. He explained to them that after they left the electronics counter, the clerk realised he had put the MP3 display shell in their box by mistake.

“We have had some difficulty finding you,” the vice-president smiled. “But we want to correct our mistake.” He then pulled out another MP3 player, showed them that this one worked, and traded it for the display model. “Because of the inconvenience we have caused you, we hope you will accept these gifts.” They handed their customers the packages containing lovely bathroom towels and some music CDs.

Building a culture of delight
How can you develop your organisation to delight customers like this? You must create a culture that is passionate about doing so.

Culture is shaped initially by leaders. Jeff Bezos, the CEO at Amazon.com, constantly asks his team, “What does the customer want and how can we provide it?” On one occasion a colleague replied, “Customers would like free shipping.”

While others dismissed such a preposterous idea, Bezos said, “We need to find a way to do that.” Thus, Amazon Prime was created. For a modest annual membership fee, Amazon Prime members get free two-day shipping on many of their purchases.

Hiring and training the right people
Next, the organisation needs associates who are drawn to the cause. This calls for a carefully researched hiring process to find people who simply like to help people. A person who follows policies instead of doing what’s right for the customer will be detected and rejected by a customer-focused hiring process. But a good engineer who is also helpful by nature would be at the top of such a company’s hiring list.

Many companies use deliberate training experiences to reinforce and renew the passion. Horst Schulze, the founder of Ritz-Carlton Hotels, was training staff for the opening of the Hotel Arts in Barcelona. He reviewed the company’s motto that states: “We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen”.

Then I observed in several departmental training sessions how the new employees were treated with the same respect, courtesy and attention they were expected to give to their guests. Upon being hired, everyone went to the tailor to have their work clothes custom fitted. When each department returned to pick up their clothing, Ritz-Carlton employees from several other hotels stood and applauded, welcoming them into the family. In a matter of a few days, these new associates became ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.

Reinforcing customer delight
Most importantly, the commitment to achieving customer delight is enforced in daily work. The two best enforcers are leaders and an associate’s peer group. What a leader pays attention to gives a clear signal about what is truly important.

I once observed a regional vice-president of a large health care organisation momentarily abandon her visitor tour when she noticed an elderly patient struggling to get out of bed. She made sure the patient was safe and assisted by a staff member before returning to her visitors.

Similarly, when peers hold each other accountable for delighting their customers, it becomes consistent with or without management supervision.

The role of processes/systems
Finally, organisations make sure their work processes and systems reinforce doing the right thing. Sometimes, serving the customer in an unusual situation might go against a company policy. Like Doris, the airline gate agent who faced an uncomfortable crowd of passengers whose flight was being delayed for several hours.

Company policy did not allow her to purchase refreshments in such a situation. But Doris’ passion drove her to speak with the neighbouring gate agent from another airline to order refreshments for her customers and fund them from her own petty cash fund. The CEO applauded her effort.

The ROI of customer delight
What can organisations expect as far as return on investment from all these efforts? Just one example: Jim Burke was CEO of Johnson & Johnson during the tragic Tylenol episode when some people died after taking Tylenol. Within hours, the product was off the store shelves throughout the United States.

Once the problem was accurately identified and corrected, J&J reintroduced Tylenol to the market – with the first ever tamper-proof cap. The first sentence in the company credo is: “We believe our first responsibility is to the doctors, nurses, and patients, to the mothers, and all others who use our products and services.”

In the aftermath of the crisis, Burke made this observation: “I do not think we could have done what we did … if we hadn’t all gone through the process of … committing ourselves to the credo. We had dozens of people making hundreds of decisions and all on the fly. And they had to make them as wisely as they knew how. The reason they made them as well as they did is they knew what the set of beliefs were of the institution they worked for. So they made them based on that set of beliefs and we made very, very few mistakes.”

Defying conventional wisdom and past history of similar product recalls, Tylenol actually built market share after it was reintroduced.