How to please customers at scale

Lessons from a Missouri magician, customer service guru Shep Hyken

Ai in customer service

Shep Hyken fell in love with magic as a kid growing up in St. Louis in the 1970s. At 12 he started a business doing magic shows at birthday parties around town. After the first performance, Hyken’s parents gave him his first lessons in customer service.

Lesson 1: Write a thank you note. Lesson 2: Write another one. “My dad told me to follow up a week later and thank them again,” Hyken recalls. “He said I should ask what tricks they liked the best and start getting rid of the tricks they didn’t talk about. I had no idea that I was learning about feedback and process improvement.”

Magic led Hyken to a successful career as a customer service guru. Today he’s a sought-after motivational speaker and the author of several books, including “The Amazement Revolution” (2011), a best-selling collection of strategy tips for companies that want to create great experiences for their customers and employees.

Customer service evolution

Much has changed since Hyken sent that first thank you note. The digitization of customer service started in the early 1960s, with the invention of touch-tone telephones. Early computers could recognize and respond to the tones produced by these devices. This laid the foundation for the emergence of Interactive Voice Response (IVR) technology in the late 1970s, which allowed companies to torture their customers with automated phone trees.

The World Wide Web came along in the early 1990s, creating a host of digital ways for brands and customers to interact. Then came the rise of customer relationship management (CRM) applications that sales and service pros used to collect information about their customers. Armed with all these customer histories, they could provide personalized service at scale.

Customers no longer compare you to your closest competitor. They compare you to every company that has ever provided them with a great experience.

During the 2000s, the rise of smartphones, mobile apps, and social media upended customer service yet again. In the old days, customers had little recourse after a poor service experience. You could suffer in silence, complain to the Better Business Bureau or take your business elsewhere. With supercomputers in their pockets, customers could now share the highs and lows of their service experiences with a global audience.

Today we’re seeing another revolution in customer service, built on the rise of intelligent machines. AI algorithms chomp their way through vast datasets to help companies anticipate customer problems before they arise. Chatbots provide automated responses to routine queries, freeing service reps to focus on more complex issues. Digital workflows help companies break down internal silos, making it easier to track customer issues all the way through to resolution.

Craving convenience

Hyken points to one thing that hasn’t changed: “When customers have a problem, they want it resolved quickly.” That expectation has never been higher than today, when we can shop, hail rides, order a meal, and manage far-flung social networks with a few taps and swipes.

“Customers no longer compare you to your closest competitor,” he adds. Instead, they compare you to every company that has ever provided them with a great experience. That could be Amazon, Uber, Netflix, or a host of others across industries and around the world.

Another constant: Customers have always craved convenience. Hyken points out that 7-Eleven launched the world’s first convenience store back in the 1920s. Those stores were smaller than those of many rivals, he says. They offered a smaller selection of goods, and their prices tended to be a bit higher.

So how did 7-Eleven survive and thrive? In a word, convenience. According to the company, 7-Eleven was the first convenience store to stay open 24 hours a day, the first to sell gas, and the first to offer ATM services. Today there are 60,000 branches around the world.

The marriage of AI and mobile devices takes convenience to a new level. Hyken expects this trend to accelerate in coming years. “AI and interactive technologies will get better,” he says. “You won’t have to answer 17 questions about your Social Security number and your mother’s maiden name.” Instead, advanced voice recognition will enable frictionless experiences, while AI and machine learning finally deliver on the promise of personalization at scale.

As you’d expect from a motivational speaker, Hyken is generally optimistic about the future of customer service. However, he warns that companies shouldn’t become so enamored with machine intelligence that they lose the ability to connect with their customers at a human level. “That’s how you become commoditized,” he says.

To avoid that fate, companies must balance tech with human-to-human interaction. You need advanced tech to satisfy customer needs at scale, but it takes human contact to build the emotional bonds that turn customers into advocates.

“Satisfaction is a rating,” Hyken concludes. “Loyalty is an emotion.”