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While the art of customer service has evolved over time, the heart of it hasn’t changed much in the past 2 centuries. Despite technological advances of customer service CRM software that have brought companies closer to their customers, many of the same approaches that business gurus like Marshall Field made famous back in 1852 are applicable to modern companies like Google, Apple, and Zappos.

We’ve dug up quotes from some of business’ biggest names in the 1900s and paired them with a few of today’s prominent CEOs to see how they stack up. 

 

What hasn’t changed

 

Giving the customer what they want. 

Marshall Field, who founded the popular US store Marshall Fields, coined the now notorious customer service-centric phrase “Give the lady what she wants” to impart on his staff the importance of serving the customer

Pair this with the sentiments of John Wanamaker of Wanamaker’s, who was often viewed as a pioneer of marketing as well as customer service: “When a customer enters my store, forget me. He is king.”

The idea of the customer as king has travelled mostly unscathed through to the 21st century, with the founder of Wal-Mart, Sam Walton, making it his own. His philosophy was that every customer is important: “There is only one boss—the customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.”

 

Morality makes the world go ‘round.

Upstanding morals are crucial to great customer service. If customers trust you, they’ll buy from you. We’ve seen this time and time again with present day customers demanding more transparency from brands, with words like “honest” and “trusted” being used in advertising more than ever before.

This was a huge tenant of the 1900s customer service model as well. Harry Gordon Selfridge swore by honesty, saying that “honesty always pays. Honesty alone will never build a business… but the policy of honesty, of scrupulous integrity, will—other things being reasonably equal—always win in the race for success.” 

Meanwhile, Field looked to goodwill as a means of ensuring customers wouldn’t leave for the competition: “Goodwill is the one and only asset that competition cannot undersell or destroy.” It’s the intangibles like goodwill, courtesy, respect, trust, and dignity that make the difference.

This flowed into the 21st century with the rise of Google and Larry Page, CEO of Alphabet (Google). “We have a mantra," Larry explained, "don't be evil, which is to do the best things we know how for our users, for our customers, for everyone.” The original “Don’t Be Evil” was suggested by either Google employee Paul Buchheit or Amit Patel. This company slogan has since been retired and replaced by “Do the right thing.”

 

Being a good “host”.

Whether you realised it or not, the best brands at customer service have been throwing a party for their “guests” for years. “Treat [the customer] as guests when they come and when they go, whether or not they buy,” said Selfridge long ago. This still rings true with people like Jeff Bezos, an American investor, founder and CEO of Amazon.com. He believes in the value of customer services: “We see our customers as invited guests to a party, and we are the hosts. It’s our job every day to make every important aspect of the customer experience a little bit better.”

But it’s not enough to throw a “party”, it’s about what happens at the party. Shep Hyken, a customer service speaker, hit this idea home when he said "true loyalty doesn’t come because of an app. It doesn’t come because you have a punch card where after ten punches you get a free sandwich. It is about the relationship. Take away those “perks” and would the customer still be loyal?”

A good host in the 1900’s didn’t give their guest a punch card at a party and hoped they would come back, and that rings true today. Party “guests” won’t stay loyal to brands who haven’t built a solid relationship in the meantime.

 

What is evolving

Every tenant of customer service can’t remain unchanged– we are an evolving world with new and unexpected revelations and challenges. Here are a few ideas business leaders have tweaked over the years. 

 

Being realistic about “the customer is always right”

We all know that the happiness of your customer is paramount, and that sometimes the mantra “the customer is always right” is great advice. But even in the early days this quote evolved into a more realistic view, particularly from Field: “Assume that the customer is right until it is plain beyond all question he is not.” In short, use your judgement and set realistic (albeit high) expectations from your customers, but know that you may have to draw a line. 

This has evolved even further to help make sure your customer’s expectations of you are sustainable, as Richard Branson, Founder of Virgin Group, points out: “Setting customer expectations at a level that is aligned with consistently deliverable levels of customer service requires that your whole staff, from product development to marketing, works in harmony with your brand image.” Setting boundaries ensures consistency for your brand and allows you, your employees, and your brand to set a standard that can be on point, every time. 

 

Inspiring patronage vs. inspiring advocacy

We’ve heard a lot about brand advocates– how to attract them, how to keep them, how to empower them. And while the idea of “word of mouth” marketing is nothing new, it has evolved into something much more sophisticated with the advent of social media. 

“Get the confidence of the public and you will have no difficulty in getting their patronage.” This quote from Selfridge, which is part of a much longer quote, has given way to ideas that have even more widespread potential.  For example, Tony Hsieh, Founder and CEO of Zappos, explains that at Zappos, “we take most of the money that we could have spent on paid advertising and instead put it back into the customer experience. Then we let the customers be our marketing.” 

Rather than relying solely on marketing, making sure your most vocal customers have an overwhelmingly positive experience can create positive waves for your brand beyond simply getting them to come back. 

 

Catering to your customers needs vs. anticipating them

Technology has allowed us to cater to our customers more than any other time in history. There is a wealth of opportunity to reach out to customers and create positive experiences for them at a variety of touchpoints. This allows us to “sit up and take notice” of our customers, as Harry Selfridge once said in this tongue-twisting quote: “People will sit up and take notice of you if you will sit up and take notice of what makes them sit up and take notice.” 

But it doesn’t stop there. Because we now are able to pair data with creativity in incredible ways, we can also be more visionary than ever before. No one knew this better than Steve Jobs, former CEO of Apple. “Get closer than ever to your customers,” he said, “so close that you tell them what they need well before they realize it themselves.”

 

What is “new”

We know ideas like innovation and listening to customer feedback isn’t new, but the emphasis placed on these ideas, along with the investment in them, has brought them from novel ideas to some of the sharpest tools in the industry. 

 

Innovation is key

Dr. Gary P. Hamel, an American Management Expert and an international management consultant explains the long-term benefits of customer service:

“Most of us understand that innovation is enormously important. It’s the only insurance against irrelevance. It’s the only guarantee of long-term customer loyalty…It doesn’t matter much where your company sits in its industry ecosystem, nor how vertically or horizontally integrated it is—what matters is its relative ‘share of customer value’ in the final product or solution, and its cost of producing that value.”

Customer service is all-encompassing. Joseph Jaffe, founder at Evol8tion, touches on customer service’s prevalence in good business:

“Customer Service is everything and anything that touches a customer – directly or indirectly. Customer service means servicing customers, and it's so much more than just solving problems or addressing complaints. Customer service is part of a holistic customer experience that is capable of providing a critical competitive advantage in today's increasingly cluttered and commoditized marketplace.”

Taking this further, Marc Benioff, Co-Founder and CEO of Salesforce believes in joining the customer where they are:

“The future of communicating with customers rests in engaging with them through every possible channel: phone, e-mail, chat, Web, and social networks. Customers are discussing a company's products and brand in real time. Companies need to join the conversation.”

 

Listen to all customer feedback- positive and negative

Though it might be a pain point and isn’t as gratifying as positive feedback, many modern business thinkers argue that being a glutton for punishment has distinct advantages. 

Bill Gates, Founder and former CEO of Microsoft speaks to taking the negatives and turning them into positives for your company: “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” Learning from unhappy customers gives you a starting point for making a weak point in your company stronger.

Further, Elon Musk, former CEO of PayPal, SpaceX Founder and current CEO of Tesla believes in a cyclical approach, explaining that “it's very important to have a feedback loop, where you're constantly thinking about what you've done and how you could be doing it better.”

But it doesn't end with learning. Negative feedback can also give way to more opportunities for brands to win back customers, and even win new ones. Zig Ziglar, author, salesman, and motivational speaker said that “statistics suggest that when customers complain, business owners and managers ought to get excited about it. The complaining customer represents a huge opportunity for more business.” The time investment in giving negative feedback indicates that customers haven't given up on your brand. 

As Seymour Fine, the author of The Marketing of Ideas and Social Issues explains, “when a customer complains, he is doing you a special favor; he is giving you another chance to serve him to his satisfaction. You will appreciate the importance of this opportunity when you consider that the customer's alternative option was to desert you for a competitor.”

 

What does this mean for you today?

We know that it takes more than a few inspirational quotes from digital & marketing leaders to get your customer service process right.

Focus on the relationship you have with your customers and treat them equally; each with dignity, courtesy and honesty. Know that customer service is more than solving problems, it’s about knowing your customer expectations inside out. When you know what resonates with your customers, don’t just aim to meet their expectations, but exceed their expectations, preferably in unexpected ways.

If you achieve that (and have a good product), everything will fall into place for your business. Both Marshall Field and Richard Branson would be proud.

Check out this 20 Customer Service Best Practices e-book for more ways to deliver exceptional service.