Think of the last noticeable interaction you had with a business? Was it pleasant? The odds are high that the moment you will recall was not pleasant. It’s a safe bet that the one you first recall was not a positive experience. As business leaders, we must content with that reality. Every time a prospective or actual customer interacts with our businesses we stand to gain or lose points in their experiential calculus. It is like a bank account in the customer’s mind, and our social credit is growing or shrinking based on how the customer perceives his treatment. Clearly, businesses want the bank account to grow and earn interest. In the 1985 book, Service America, authors Albrecht and Zemke coined a term for interactions that shape the customer experience. They called them “moments of truth”. As customers, we are forming opinions based on the emotional impact of our collisions with businesses. Whether a clerk smiles, looks into our eyes and seems interested, or when a customer support rep mispronounces a name multiple times after being corrected; when a grocery cashier smashes the eggs by carelessly bagging or when the plumber remembers to wear booties before walking through the freshly cleaned house; all of these leave lasting impressions. As contrasted with the moments in which we are treated well, served promptly or competently assisted, those poor experiences stay with us. That’s because we all have an innate psychological bias to more heavily weight and recall negative stimulus. That negative bias has been well-documented and it explains the power of, for example, negative political campaigns. “Going negative” works for politicians because our brains are primed to be more deeply affected by negative than positive stimulus and beliefs. Once a negative experience has reached our conscious attention it is extremely difficult to “un-do” the damage. So it’s really important for a business to try to avoid having any negative moments with its customers.
In business, our prospects and customers experience thousands of moments of interaction with us. Most of those unique moments are unmemorable, and will not have any lasting impact on the customer’s decision-making or overall opinion about the business or those working in it. But some fraction of the moments become, for the customer, moments of truth. By definition, a moment of truth is an individual instance when the customer’s experience is resonant enough to stand out, to the customer. If we think of a single customer and her developing relationship to our businesses, that relationship emerges from the collection of moments of truth that she has. And each moment of truth is like an individual silken thread, that when taken together with all the others, creates an indelible design. What that design turns out to be is determined by the tenor of the moments of truth. And of course, the negative moments of truth are sort of like 5 threads-in-one, where the positive ones are but a single fiber.
The most notable feature of moments of truth is their unpredictability. Regardless of how tight our procedures or how well-trained our employees, an individual customer’s personal experience can end up in a moment of truth at almost any time. As a business owner, you have no idea when the moment of truth will happen or how, exactly, to prepare for the arbitrary set of circumstances that will determine whether it is positive or negative. That’s both their beauty and their challenge. So how can you master this most nebulous of phenomena? One place to start is by understanding how seamless the customer experience is. Look at your own behavior as you move through life and sort through the moments that matter to you. They are arbitrary and can happen anywhere. In our approach to serving our customers we have to assume just as much randomness. It’s not possible to eliminate every potential negative moment of truth, but you can mitigate against them by understanding how they occur. Here are some tips:
- Set an overall customer service tone for your business. What are your principles where customer service is concerned? Are you building intimacy and long-term relationships or are you simply performing transactions. There isn’t a right answer, but the consistency of your ability to deliver requires you to decide it.
- Weave your mission through your whole business. Design your operations, procedures, pricing, marketing and training based on your basic customer service principles. Nothing should be unexplored.
- Become a mind-reader. Are you anticipating your customer’s needs or just waiting to respond to them when asked? That can be the difference between an unmemorable moment and a positive moment of truth. Anticipating needs requires you to know your customer well. That means asking, learning and listening – all the time, at every opportunity.
- Train staff in principles not rules. There is a great deal of evidence that employees make better choices when they understand the underlying mission and principles of the organization. It makes sense because all of us are better at applying general principles than rules. This is a “spirit” vs “letter” of the law kind of distinction. Ensure that your entire team has a deep understanding of the spirit of your business and they will treat your customers the way you would want them to be treated.
- Go big on cleaning up messes. Every business falters from time to time. You will ring up the wrong amount, or have a repair go wrong, or fail to deliver on time. When something goes wrong it will take a much bigger positive gesture to undo the negative consequence. Go big! Become extraordinary at being gracious, apologizing, compensating and never making the same mistake again.
Mastering moments of truth is an ongoing journey not a final destination. The moments continue to occur as long as you have customer interactions. View your mastery of them like practicing an instrument – the violin perhaps. You may eventually become a virtuoso. But even virtuosos practice every, single day.
Are you interested in mastering the moments of truth in your business? Our consulting services and executive coaching can bring you far closer to that goal! Contact me for a complimentary initial consultation.