[This post is our first guest post at Neuromarketing, and is written by branding expert Denise Lee Yohn. Feel free to leave a comment, either to welcome Denise or to add your thoughts to her provocative hypothesis!]

At the heart of the intersection of brain science and marketing lie customers’ needs and motivations, right? After all, the customer experience is essentially the laboratory where companies’ theories about consumer psychology are tested. If a company understands what motivates customer behavior, it has a better shot at influencing that behavior by meeting their customers’ needs.

This became clear to me as I navigated through three different reads about customer service in the past few weeks.

Simple Promises, Strong Delivery

The first tidbit appeared in last month’s Harvard Business Review. Some Corporate Executive Board researchers issued a provocative point of view based on results from a study they conducted. Their research shows that “Loyalty has a lot more to do with how well companies deliver on their basic, even plain-vanilla promises than on how dazzling the service experience might be… When it comes to service, companies create loyal customers primarily by helping them solve their problems quickly and easily.” (emphasis mine) This is a distinct departure from the “surprise and delight” aspiration which many companies hold when it comes serving their customers.

Getting Emotional


In the same HBR issue, there was another article that seemed to counter the point. Tony Hsieh the CEO of Zappos and the author of the recently released book, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose, described his company’s customer service philosophy:

We don’t have scripts, because we want our reps to let their true personalities shine during every phone call, so that they can develop a personal emotional connection with each customer, which we refer to as PEC. When one of our reps found out that because of a death in the family, a loyal customer had forgotten to mail back a pair of shoes she’d planned to return, the rep sent her flowers; now she’s a customer for life.” (emphasis mine)

Hospitality

What helped me understand the juxtaposition of these two points of view was this quote from Susan Reilly Salgado, managing director of Danny Meyer’s learning business, Hospitality Quotient: “What many people refer to as ‘great service’, we call hospitality. Service is all about the technical delivery of the product, while hospitality is about how guests feel during that transaction. Hospitality happens when guests believe you are on their side. For people to rave about their experience and become repeat customers, you need to have both – but what surprises customers and makes them feel genuinely cared for is the hospitality.
(The quote appeared in a release from American Express, announcing their new Global Customer Service Barometer, a survey conducted in the U.S. and 11 other countries exploring attitudes and preferences toward customer service.)

Maslow, and a New Hierarchy of Service


It helped to distinguish between service as “technical delivery” and service as “fantastic experience.” And the distinction reminded me of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs which suggests that people have different levels of needs which need to be met — and needs at the bottom of the hierarchy must be fulfilled before needs higher up can truly be met.

The points of view I had been reading suggested that a similar hierarchy exists when it comes to meeting consumer needs and motivations with customer service. There are different levels of service which companies may provide, but the ones at the bottom of the service hierarchy need to be delivered before the ones higher up can be meaningful and have impact.

Here’s what I’m thinking:

If Maslow’s level 1 = physiological needs — literal requirements for human survival
Then Service level 1 = basic delivery – simply delivering the requirements. For a fast food restaurant, this would mean the food is hot, the drinks are cold, the service is fast and accurate.

If Maslow’s level 2 = safety needs – needs that express a yearning for a predictable orderly world in which perceived unfairness and inconsistency are under control, the familiar frequent and the unfamiliar rare.
Then Service level 2 = commitment and consistency – This is about doing what you say you do (no brand promise:reality gap) and doing it consistently.

If Maslow’s level 3 = love and belonging — emotionally based relationships – friendship, intimacy, family
Then Service level 3 = personal and personable service – Calling people by name, showing appreciation for their patronage, attending to their personal needs are some examples.

If Maslow’s level 4 = esteem – needing to be accepted and valued by others
Then Service level 4 = making customers feel accepted and valued – By rewarding high value customers, offering ways to connect with others in the brand community, and being transparent, companies deliver this service level.

If Maslow’s level 5 = self-actualization – needs to realize a person’s full potential — to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming
Then Service level 5 = helping people feel good about who they are
This last area is a little of a stretch but I do think this is where the right kind of service can make the most difference. This is about making people feel smart rather than stupid because they had to ask for help; helping them feel like they’ve made a good choice by supporting their purchase decision with added-value services; making them feel like they’re important, not only to you, but to others in their lives or in the brand community.

With Maslow’s theory as a model, the Service Hierarchy explains why a company can’t expect to truly fulfill its customers’ service needs if it skips over the fundamentals at the bottom of the hierarchy and only focuses at the top – e.g., giving me a special “thank-you” gift is pretty meaningless if my order was incorrect in the first place.

Resolving Problems – The Hierarchy

This is particularly true when it comes to resolving problems, which was the topic of the Conference Board’s HBR article. Their findings make a lot of sense when viewed through the lens of the Service Hierarchy: you can’t compensate for the lack of basic service resolution by “wow-ing” the customer.

So in regards to resolving problems, I’d suggest the Service Hierarchy looks something like this:

Level 1 (basic delivery) – delivering a sincere “I’m sorry” (yes, that’s a basic) and a quick and easy resolution to the problem

Level 2 (commitment and consistency) – honoring the promises you made (e.g., “satisfaction guaranteed or your money back” means just that – it doesn’t mean your money back less a service fee, nor only if you jump through hoops, nor let me try to fix it first.)

Level 3 (personal and personable service) – tailoring the problem resolution and the way in which it’s executed to the customer and what’s convenient to him/her

Level 4 (making customers feel accepted and valued) – showing your regret for the problem by doing something extra

Level 5 (helping people feel good about who they are) — demonstrating your appreciation for them bringing the problem to your attention and your commitment to addressing that which caused the problem in the first place

Levels 4 and 5 are truly satisfying and fulfilling to customers when Levels 1 through 3 are being delivered. The reason why Zappos can concern itself with making a personal emotional connection when people contact their serve reps is because they’ve got the basics down – they offer free and easy returns, and they pay the shipping costs. The basics may not be exciting, but they’re the basics nonetheless – so companies should deliver on them brilliantly before moving on.

An understanding of the Service Hierarchy is important now more than ever. According to the aforementioned American Express study, a majority of Americans report that quality customer service is more important to them in today’s economic environment (61%).

Or to quote Maslow: “Man is a perpetually wanting animal.
Images via Shutterstock

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