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Four Reasons Your Association Should Bring It Back

Not-for-profit organizations may be more tech-savvy than ever, but customers (i.e., members) still crave old-fashioned service (albeit with a modern spin). Customer experience thought leader Joseph Michelli says that if you want your organization to thrive, you’d better go retro in your service delivery.

As the tech industry has exploded over the past couple of decades and millennials have risen to power, private, public and not-for-profit organizations have innovated wildly to keep up with relentless customer expectations. Better, faster, easier! is the battle cry. Oh, and make sure there’s an app for that! It’s no surprise that sleek, streamlined, lightning-paced organizations abound these days. Yes it is what customers wanted—but isn’t there something cold and impersonal about many 21st century transactions?

You’re not imagining it, says Joseph Michelli. Yes, customers (again, think: members) still demand the speed and efficiency. But what they really crave is that feeling of an old school organization that takes the time to really know them, engage them, nurture them.

            “No matter how high tech your service becomes, you’re still serving human beings,” says Michelli, best-selling author of Driven to Delight: Delivering World-Class Customer Experience the Mercedes-Benz Way (McGraw-Hill; December 2015; ISBN: 978-0-07-180630-5; $27.00). “Humans don’t want to feel like a URL or a Twitter handle or even a consumer. We want to feel like we matter. We’ll always choose companies and organizations that give us that feeling.”

            Michelli—who worked with Mercedes-Benz USA to positively and radically transform its customer experience and who has written books on service giants like Zappos and Starbucks—knows how crucial it is to know your customers and show them how much you care.

“It may seem counterintuitive to ask a 2016 dot-com to bring back mom and pop, Main Street values,” he says. “But really, it’s not a conflict. You can providecustomized, on-the-spot service and still make people feel like they just had an authentic, deeply personal experience.”

             HOW you create this experience will vary depending on who you are, what you’re selling, what your current roadblocks may be. (HINT: You might have culture problems that shape your practices, processes, and priorities in ways that sabotage service.) Yet as you seek to go more “retro” in your service delivery, Michelli suggests you start by knowing the WHYs:

Customers crave a connection to simpler times. Life is so frantic and complicated, due in large part to technology. And people don’t want to get rid of technology, because it lets us attain goods and services quickly and efficiently. But when we need to get on the phone with a person, or when we’re face to face, we want to know we’re talking to a human being who has our interests at heart—not a machine. We long for the days when the shopkeeper would open the store after hours for a customer in need.

“Customers want the organizations that service them to be part Silicon Valley, part Main Street,” says Michelli. “There’s this tension between our age of incredible technology and the retro, connected, heartwarming, Norman Rockwell-y type of customer service people really want, and I think too many organizations have gone too far in the space-age direction.

“A culture of compassion and empathy still has to come through in your person-to-person interactions,” he adds. “There really is something about sharing a smile—sharing a moment together—that becomes increasingly important in the cluttered world. We want people to pause and take a moment with us.”

Customers find comfort in “the familiar.” No one likes to spend their valuable time dumping less than stellar companies or organizations only to start all over again in the search for better ones. People enjoy predictable organizations they’re used to and comfortable with—as long as they deliver great service. An effort to remind valuable stakeholders and members that they are valued goes a long way in ensuring that you retain your customer base. 

“I still go to my doctor in Colorado for second opinions—and I live in Florida!” muses Michelli. “I don’t have to tell him a huge backstory, because he’s known me for years. And the fact that he does great work to serve me, as the customer…that’s a big part of it too.”

He suggests you find ways to remind your customer how far back you go and that you strive to foster a lasting relationship. Whether that means logging notes about their particular needs in your database so you can follow up or offering “anniversary” discounts honoring their patronage or long term membership, you can earn their loyalty and keep them coming back by treating them like they genuinely matter.

Old school service fits with the burgeoning artisanal movement happening now. For many years there’s been a lot of mass-produced junk out there. Customers everywhere are conditioned to expect less thanks to millions of disappointing products coming from across the globe. No wonder we’re in the middle of a full-fledged consumer backlash. More and more, shoppers are choosing products and services that are unique, customized labors of love.

“Look at the craft beer craze that’s everywhere today,” comments Michelli. “For generations, people drank pilsner—they were conditioned to do that. But now, more and more people are falling in love with the amazing craft beers available, because microbrewers have reclaimed the art of beer making.

“Organizations such as associations will delight members when they pride themselves on their craftsmanship and skill level,” he adds. “There’s something uplifting about watching well-crafted skills and just appreciating that ability. There is an artisanship of service at the Ritz-Carlton. Watching those professionals in action just makes you go, Wow, that’s a lost art!”

Your service style helps you stand out from the pack. Obviously this is the most compelling reason to adopt an old school approach to service. It will draw customers/members to you and maybe even keep you alive. There’s so much competition out there today that the way you treat and relate to your members may be the only thing that makes you you.

“You can bring things to market very quickly today,” says Michelli. “Speed and global distribution sometimes make for product ubiquity, so it is all the more critical that you differentiate yourself by putting your customers first and really owning a certain style of old-fashioned service.”

Here’s the bottom line: Even though the times have changed and technology has leapt into the foreground, basic human needs have stayed the same.

“There’s NEVER going to be a time when people say, I don’t really care if you hurt me. I don’t really care if you appreciate me. I don’t really care if I belong. You know, as far as I’m concerned, I just want to buy your stuff,” concludes Michelli. “And I think because of that, we have to anchor ourselves to the timeless truth of humanity, even as we customize the delivery in line with the cultural trends.

“Successful organizations are the ones that really get that,” he adds. “They figure out how to integrate technology but still truly connect to the customer face to face or on the phone.  They instill it in their training. Team members learn to make sure customers know that they matter—that they are always heard and appreciated.”