I cannot say if customer service is, in general, improving or getting worse.  The American Customer Satisfaction Index suggests that customer service improved until mid-2014 but has been trending downward since. It is probably growing in some industries and not in others. Personally, I am occasionally impressed with the service, but the service I receive is “adequate.”  I give talks frequently, and I often start the presentation by asking who can recall a positively memorable service experience in the last few months. Typically, I will see a smattering of raised hands.  If asked about unsatisfactory service experiences, the number of hands raised is usually far larger. Is Customer expectation changing or is consistency slipping?

Just relying on the product as a differentiator is no longer as robust a strategy as in the past.  Providing a truly differentiated service experience requires that a company create a positively memorable experience that gets people talking about the experience and meeting customer expectation. Not only do customers with great customer service experiences tend to be loyal but they tell others.  How do we define exceptional service experience? Let’s take a look.

Customers Want Consistency Whenever Possible

It is an uncertain world and those companies that reduce uncertainty by being consistent will be the winners now and in the future!  Let me illustrate this with a personal story. I travel a good deal in my work. Besides plane travel, there are some aspects I can control like the hotel and car rental companies, and I prefer Hilton hotels and Enterprise Rent-A-Car because I can expect a positive worry-free experience. They are consistent and, thus, remove the uncertainty of what might happen. Readers of this blog may have had different experiences, but my experiences have been mostly positive. My customer expectation is met through consistency and quality

Applying this customer expectation to our markets, if a customer purchases construction equipment, a power generator, a lift truck or machining equipment, their expectation is that there is someone to repair it in a timely and accurate fashion.

Our research supports the importance of consistent service.  We use the Net Promoter Score (NPS) as one of the key measures of the service experience. For those note familiar with NPS, it is a question that asks the customer about their willingness to refer on a 1 to 10 scale.  A customer giving a 9 or 10 on this question is a Promoter; a respondent giving a 7 or 8 is a Passive, and one giving a 6 or less is a Detractor.  NPS is determined by subtracting the % of Passive customers from the % of Promoter customers.

We began looking at the responses of an individual customer to this question from one interview to the next (we typically interview a customer twice yearly). We find that clients with a higher NPS also have a higher percentage of customers remaining promoters from one survey to the next. The top-performing client retained 87% of their customers as Promoters from one survey to the next versus an average for all clients of 75%.  The client is providing reliable service.

Customers Are Seeking a Provider/Partner

Our completed survey results reveal that often the customer wants the provider to perform better because they want to do business with them.  This behavior in people points to a much deeper motive in human nature. Many books and articles celebrate individual autonomy. However, new research, such as that found in A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution, points to another conclusion:  humans succeeded because we are innately cooperative.  Altruistic cooperation, as the authors called it, allowed humans to evolve and build our societies.

If we are at heart a cooperative species, then must rethink our assumptions about customer motivations. We often hear “this customer is just trying to get something from us by complaining.”  Customers may play this game if provided the opportunity. However, our extensive research from our thousands of interviews indicates that customers seek consistent and reliable service delivered with a smile. If given the opportunity, they want to cooperate rather than compete, with their provider.

If people are more a cooperative species than a competitive one, there are significant implications for service providers.  For example:

  • Customers will talk about their service experiences, good and bad.
  • Approaching customers with the notion of creating a two-way partnership in which both sides benefit is a sound strategy.
  • No matter the service you are delivering, customers build communities of followers are the time with social media tools and the Internet as facilitators. If you do not believe this, go to YouTube and search for a broken guitar and United Airlines.  To date, this video has garnered over 15 million views.
  • Customer Expectation must be met in order to have a positive experience. This customer expectation almost always involves being consistent no matter what industry you are in.

What Do Customers Want?

When it comes to service, customers expect a few simple yet challenging things delivered:

  • Consistent worry-free service. It is like knowing that your lights will come on when you flip the switch.  When you take a shower, you will get hot water and not have to shiver through a cold shower.  We all make many decisions each day.  If knowing that the risks of a bad experience are far lower with one supplier versus another, then making the decision becomes far easier.
  • They want excellent service they can talk about with others. Remember, people are wired to be cooperative.  Customers want to cooperate with a provider and build their communities. They will share the positive aspects of their experience. The flipside is they will also talk about bad service.  New technologies make the bullhorn even larger to broadcast about both good and bad.


American Customer Satisfaction Index, http://www.theacsi.org/

“Net Promoter, Net Promoter System, Net Promoter Score, NPS and the NPS-related emoticons are registered trademarks of Bain & Company, Inc., Fred Reichheld and Satmetrix Systems, Inc.”

A Cooperative Species:  Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution, Bowles and Gintis,  Princeton University Press, 2011.

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