Should your company brand itself through customer service?

Ever since Tony Hsieh's book, Delivering Happiness, was published, many businesses have tried to also "deliver WOW through service." But that doesn't fly for my startup--which has nevertheless grown steadily by having a different core value.

Don't get me wrong.

Businesses should take care of their customers, and providing over-the-top customer service certainly wins life-long patrons and attracts new ones.

But the more I read about fanatical customer service--like the time a Zappos customer service rep helped a caller find places to order pizza in Santa Monica in the middle of the night--the more I knew it wasn't what my customers needed.

So Why Not Customer Service?

Customer service as a core value doesn't work for everyone. For some businesses, the customer is not always right. And sometimes you have to make a buyer unhappy... at least in the short term.

If you sell shoes, coffee, widgets, or something similar, then providing fantastic customer service should be paramount. I would expect nothing less of Starbucks.

But if you're in the business of transformation, of helping make people's lives better, then customer service isn't enough.

What Else Is There?

Take the case of an athlete and her coach. For the athlete to reach her full potential and perform at her best, she needs to listen to her coach and do the work: train hard, follow a nutrition plan, and get enough rest. The coach can't give in to the athlete's whims and desires for comfort and instant gratification. Doing so would make him a bad coach.

In this case, what's best for the athlete isn't customer service, but partnership.

And partnership, not customer service, is a core value of my business education company.

Partnership Is Not Customer Service

Different goals

The goal of customer service is to make the customer happy. In contrast, the goal of a partnership is for the customer to achieve their goals. Buyer and seller are both focused on a goal that's bigger than the buyer. The customer's happiness is a by-product of achieving that goal.

Sometimes this means pushing our students outside their comfort zone. They'll grumble at first, but they're grateful when they see the results.

Different responsibilities

Customer service is unidirectional. The seller does all the work, while the buyer makes all the demands. In fact, the worst customers are often the ones who demand the most.
Partnership, on the other hand, is a two-way street. Both buyer and seller have their own responsibilities.

In my business, for example, students who don't do their part get only what we promise in our terms of service. We'll respond to their emails on time, and give them good answers and advice.

So when someone emailed us saying, "I bought your course 11 months ago, but I never looked at it.... Can I get a refund?" not surprisingly, we said no.

But for those who invest their time, prioritize the work, and are committed to their desired outcomes, we have a different set of parameters. For them, we say, "To heck with the terms of service. We'll go above and beyond to help you succeed!"

Different allocation of resources

In a customer service paradigm, the most difficult buyers get most of the seller's time and energy. The squeaky wheel gets the grease: the most raucous, demanding, and critical customers get all the attention. Why do a lot of customer service reps resent their customers? Because it's hard to deliver good service and good outcomes for an obnoxious person.

In a partnership, the best customers--the ones who work hardest and show the highest commitment--receive the best treatment. So the seller invests their energies more fairly among buyers.

Think of it this way: If you were climbing Mt. Everest, customer service is your porter. Partnership is your Sherpa climbing guide.

What's Your Core Value?

Is your core value customer service or partnership?

Think carefully if you're in education, life coaching, business consulting, law, accounting, counseling, or similar fields. Sometimes, customer service is not what's best for your customers, but a partner is.