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Why, after investing so much effort in customer service, is your company still not achieving customer loyalty?

Accessing products and services has never been as easy as it is today. Customer convenience has never been so prolific. Yet customers wander from one supplier to the next in an endless search for that elusive quality they call “service.” You, on the other hand, are confounded by your customers’ fickleness: What more could you be doing for them?

In desperation you incentivize loyalty. At great cost you offer discounts, bonuses and vouchers. Your competitors do the same. Your margins narrow as do those of your competitors. To remain efficient, you downsize, working your remaining staff a little harder. Amid shrinking margins and expanding workloads, you pursue customers as relentlessly as they pursue a service offering they can’t quite define.

Customers may not quite be able to define what specific service they seek, but they can most definitely identify the service they reject. You see, customers have uncovered the insincerity of “customer service excellence.”

Companies project themselves as “caring for the customer” and “putting the customer first.” But customers do not feel that they are treated with dignity. Even the most unsophisticated customer knows that vendors do not really value customers. They value their customers’ money!

Being called a “customer” rather than a “passenger” or “patient” may give you a sense of having more rights, but not of being more cared for. Airline captains often bid farewell to their passengers by telling them “how much our airline values your business,” but note the subtle difference: They don’t say how much the airline values you.

Most Asian airlines never tell you how much they value you, your business or your money. They don’t need to. They greet you with respect, and serve you with honor so you feel valued and valuable every moment of the flight. That is the difference.

Compare those airlines that have mastered the service ethic to those that have not. Those that have not, for example, tend to throw food packaged much like a child’s school snack at their coach-class passengers.

This goes beyond the porcelain, silver and linen to an efficient graciousness present throughout. Airline attendants who have mastered the service ethic anticipate your needs with an apparent delight, rather than responding to your request with noticeable irritation. All of these things differentiate airlines that offer convenience from those that truly serve.

When will businesses realize that throwing around coupons, discounts, vouchers and bonuses does not buy loyalty? On the contrary, the most effective strategy to achieve customer loyalty entails no financial cost at all. It only requires that all employees learn to view service not as a corporate strategy of expedience but as central to a genuine corporate ethic.

When a customer believes that he is served not because the salesman is trying to manipulate him but because the employee identifies something within the customer that is worthy of service, he will delight in spending and will return to do so again and again. People crave the feeling of being valued. There is no marketing gimmick in the world that can satisfy that craving.

Feeling valued and valuable is what service is all about. People are driven in almost everything they do by their quest for the security that results from feeling valuable. In our society, this feeling of being valued can stem from many sources: family, friends, and often, work. People will pay a premium for a service or product that makes them feel valuable not just as customers, but as human beings.

However, making someone feel valued entails the communication of feeling, not the communication of information. Informing customers that they are valued does not quench their thirst for feeling valued. The more corporations focus their attention on communicating information, the greater is the opportunity for corporations that know how to communicate feeling.

People feel cared about when they are differentiated, in some way distinguished and elevated from the crowd. Thus, central to a service ethic is the delight the server gains from elevating people. This delight is rare in a society that seeks equality above all else and is willing to find it even in the lowest common social denominator.

David Lapin is president and founder of Strategic Business Ethics, a West L.A.-based business consulting firm.

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