The Tao of Customer Service

Jesse He, CSOFT International Ltd.

If you’re looking for a concrete explanation of Tao, you’ve come to the wrong place. In fact, I’d challenge you to find a practical explanation anywhere, because Tao is by its nature unknowable. You could scour the Earth for its most brilliant philosophers and engage in the most heated rhetoric for 10,000 years, only to find that, in trying to identify Tao, you’ve taken the most ineffectual approach to enlightenment. Unlike the pizza place around the corner, seeking to define Tao will not make you one with everything.

Tao can be loosely translated as “the Way.” It represents the natural order of the universe as a whole, and also the path for synchronizing or aligning yourself with that order. As noted, the Tao itself is nameless and unidentifiable, but it can be understood to a degree by adopting certain virtues (in Chinese, these virtues are known as Te or De) that derive from Tao.

Like the Tao, “good customer service” can’t be defined in a strictly coherent manner. Because good customer service isn’t a process. It’s more of an attitude or disposition that can only be achieved in reflection of certain virtues you adopt in your day-to-day work.

It’s these knowable virtues that we will focus on today. By understanding the following five virtues of good customer service, you can incorporate them into your own service model and, like a cobbled path that runs alongside a river, they will lead you toward the river’s end—the Tao of Customer Service, a combination of the right attitude with the right amount of effort that will stimulate success.

The First Virtue: Maintain an unwavering focus

In the realm of customer service, maintaining focus is of the utmost importance. While the word “focus” implies a single point of attention, as incongruous as it might sound, there are several types of focus you have to maintain. First and foremost, your main focus must be on your customer.

It seems elementary, but in practice, service providers often lose sight of the simple fact that the customer and his or her needs are what matter most. This means that you aren’t serving someone merely to maintain your relationship, or “going the extra mile” just to impress them and keep their business. You aren’t even serving your customers to make them happy. These are secondary, distracting pursuits that often lead to misunderstandings and the misapplication of your energy.

By focusing on what your customer needs—and afterward focusing on how you will react to those needs—you will foster a habit of listening first, and reacting second. Actively listening to what your customers want enables you to better interpret their needs in a more objective fashion. Only after you have identified a given problem or requirement should you focus on your own role in the equation. In this way you can attain the freedom and presence of mind to construct an individual and targeted resolution. Focusing on anything else isn’t service, but procedure and ambition.

Your customer’s happiness, positive experience, and willingness to continue doing business with you will naturally follow your unwavering focus on listening to, interpreting, and meeting their requirements. And they will exist in a form more enduring than had they been your goals in the first place.

The Second Virtue: Acknowledge the varied nature of perception

Your customer’s perception counts for everything. That is, doing what you think is best for your customer isn’t necessarily what they think is best. Granted, sometimes you might feel that what the customer wants isn’t good for them, but the point is that regardless of how well or accurately you execute a project, the only thing that matters is whether or not your customer feels that their needs have been met. After all, it’s a safe bet that they’re more familiar with their needs than you are. And learning to appreciate that fact is a natural repercussion of properly applied focus.

Acknowledging the varied nature of perception isn’t the act of duping your customers or trying to make an act of service seem more important than it actually is. It’s a focus on value.

Take quality, for example, a selling point for many organizations—something that we try to measure and prove with quantifiable, objective metrics, which we often brag about willy-nilly as if no other service provider had ever taken quality into consideration. Quality is perceived. It’s subjective. As a service provider, you can have all of the documented procedures, ISO certifications, quality metrics, and best practices in the world, and if the results don’t resonate with your client’s specific quality requirements—or perception of quality—then they won’t be your client for long.

It’s essential to understand where your customer’s values lie, and construct your service model—and attitude—around those values. By doing this, what you deliver will better align with your client’s concept of value per dollar spent, and, without fail your services will be perceived as good, if not great.

The Third Virtue: Adopt a responsive attitude

Everyone hates a slow response. As people, we’re not bred to be patient, especially in the business world where deadlines are always looming behind us like an angry boss. To make sure that this aspect of your customer’s requirements (whether tacit or not) is always met, responsiveness is a must. If you receive a question or request, respond right away. Better yet: based on a little foresight and understanding of your client’s needs, reach out to them before they feel the need to ask. This will help your clients save time and better meet their deadlines. But a responsive service attitude doesn’t stop with timeliness.

An indispensable facet of responsiveness is the acknowledgment of mistakes and proactive provision of solutions. When issues occur between a client and service provider—and they will—it’s an unfortunate truth that any reason or explanation proffered will sound like an excuse. But a truly responsive service person offers a specific solution alongside their reason (or excuse). And in the instance that a suitable solution is not readily available, expressing your personal resolve to fix a problem can make the difference between “my dog ate my homework,” and “my dog ate my homework, but I will rewrite it this instant and give it to you before class is over. Is that okay?”

If you can embrace the virtue of responsiveness and all that it entails, it will shine through in your attitude and bring you one step closer to harmony with the Tao of Customer Service.

The Fourth Virtue: Force yourself to innovate

Innovation tends to be nothing more than a buzzword in business, but it does have its place in the sense that it’s an introduction of and reaction to new things. Often times, when companies speak of innovation, they’re referring to technology, or something strictly within the confines of research and development. However, in a broader sense, personal innovation across your entire organization is what brings your business—and service—to life.

Innovation is a personal responsibility. You could always try to point an almighty boss-finger at someone and demand that they innovate, but you’ll probably only end up with a nervous, disgruntled employee. True innovation comes from within. And because innovation is an internal force, it requires self-awareness and humility. You have to take a close look at what you’re doing and ask yourself, “Am I doing this right?” or “Can this be done more efficiently?”

Your reaction to these questions doesn’t have to be a drastic solution or complete about-face; it can be a focus on incremental improvement. A healthy dose of self-doubt mixed with the aspiration to perform better is one of the keys to improving your efficiency and, in the end, providing your business associates with superior customer service.

More often than not, innovation is stunted by each person’s aversion to change. People are creatures of habit, and we relish in maintaining the status quo. But the fact of the matter is that the world is in a constant state of flux, and if we don’t challenge ourselves to fight the current and gain a bit of upstream momentum, sooner or later we’ll find ourselves getting swept away to staler waters.

So be fresh, treat change as an opportunity, and innovate to stay ahead of the competition.

The Fifth Virtue: If nothing else, have a sense of humor

Having a sense of humor is perhaps the most overlooked yet essential virtue that reflects the Tao of Customer Service. And humor in this sense isn’t the ability or willingness to tell jokes, although that helps. In a fast-paced, stressful business environment, humor is a core attitude of looking at things in a positive light. It’s maintaining a sense of proportion and levity.

Humor is especially necessary during moments of crisis or tension. When you approach a problem with a positive attitude, you’ll find that your ability to think clearly increases many times fold. Not only that, but the old cliché of “service with a smile” actually has some merit: even over the phone, you can hear when someone is smiling while they’re talking to you. Not for nothing, smiles are infectious—as is positivity.

As a service provider, from time to time you’ll inevitably butt heads with unreasonable clients. In instances when you’re dealing with domineering behavior, part of having a sense of humor is the ability to step back and recognize the fact that your customer isn’t going out of their way to deliberately torture you. In many cases, they just had a bad day or are merely projecting the heat that they themselves received from their own boss. And when this happens, sharing emotional burdens is part of being an attentive service provider.

Humor, when employed in all its forms, results in openness towards, acceptance, and even appreciation of the unexpected. It will make you enjoy your job more, and it’ll certainly make your customers more willing to come to you for help.

The Unknowable, Unnamable Tao

In any business, competing over price alone is not a sustainable model—someone can always produce things cheaper. If you’re selling new gadgets or newfangled technology, another company might come along and copy or reproduce your products. Strong customer service, however, is nearly impossible to duplicate. It’s a visceral asset of your company’s culture that your competitors can never outright undersell or destroy.

For sellers who can benefit from its application in their own business, for buyers who are looking to better define service-related requirements for their vendors, and for those who just plain enjoy the philosophical ramblings of old Chinese men … though I can’t help you understand the Tao of Customer Service, I can assure you that adopting these five knowable virtues into your daily attitude at work will help you one day grow to become the de facto yin to your client’s yang.

About the Author
Jesse He is a customer service guru with over 15 years of experience in the localization industry. He is the Executive Director of Global Services at CSOFT International, a leading provider of multilingual localization, testing, terminology management, and software development services for Fortune 500 companies and organizations of all sizes around the globe. Based in the company’s Beijing Headquarters, Jesse is the architect and mastermind behind CSOFT’s culture of fanatical customer service. And yes, sometimes he puts his hands on his hips, but rarely in an overly threatening manner.

 

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