John and I were in a bind. Recent grads with young families, recruiters said no — overeducated and under experienced. Lost, a colleague trained us to wash windows. We purchased supplies. Created flyers. Studied competitors. The only way to break a crowded marketplace was differentiation. “Men… who do Windows” launched. The high cost, high service alternative.
The waitlist started the second month. We hired help for the routine. Our focus was service. From first contact through payment, everything was first class. Driven to be the best, we were relentless in our pursuit of service excellence. The centerpiece: our happiness guarantee. We never asked for payment until our customers said they were happy with our craftsmanship. No exceptions. Our willing to recommend rate was 99 percent.
Customers felt respected and responded. We treated their home as our home. Removed our shoes. We stopped to ask how they were. Cleaned messes — ours or not. Yes Ma’am, yes sir. They fed us meals on their patios. Told their neighbors. Planted signs in their gardens. We called ahead when we were late. We fixed things we broke. Customer retention was nearly 100 percent. We stopped advertising. We made money — good money. Our cost of goods was 10 percent.
Two years later, with jobs landed, we gave away “Men.” We taught the art. We taught the business. We emphasized empathy driven customer service excellence. First year profits went down by 50 percent. Second year retention rates plummeted by 70 percent. Men would not see another year. We taught the business, but the empathy driven customer service was non-transferrable.
Empathy is a practical extension of the heart. Caught, not taught.
Ten years forward, I served on my university Alma mater advisory board. During break, a fellow board member asked if I remembered him. “I’m Scott Larrabee, you cleaned my windows a long time ago. They have never been so clean.” Years later, I returned to visit my hometown. A former client reached out and asked if John and I would clean his business windows for a fundraiser that evening. We did not need the money. We cared. We cleaned. We kept our promise. Customer was happy.
“Men” taught us important lessons. Service excellence is a strategic differentiator for success. We applied it to life. Relationships. Career. We experienced relationship and business turnarounds based on service excellence. With service-oriented teams, net promoter scores quadrupled (University Hospitals). Employee engagement scores doubled (Texas Health). Company performance metrics rose 25 percent (US Army, 244th Engineer Battalion). Married beyond my dreams, priceless (Simran).
Improving technical skills is good. Developing self and others is essential. Reinventing oneself, all good things. If limited to one area of focus, service excellence demonstrates the best rate of return. It has been a key to my team’s success. Excellence powered by empathy. The ability to understand and share the feelings of others manifests itself as a strategic differentiator. Washing windows, caring for people or leading technology. It is all about service. And just plain doing the right thing.
This piece was written by Ed Marx, CIO at the Cleveland Clinic. To follow him on Twitter, click here.