As everyone knows, myths have a way of becoming more than they are. The same is true for marketing and service. As the following list of conventional wisdom, beliefs and marketing clichés illustrates, while many myths may have a solid empirical basis, it is possible to carry them too far – and other common beliefs are just wrong.

Operational excellence professionals would do well to consider this list before making improvements to marketing or service processes.

Myth 1: The key to market success is to exceed customers’ expectations, delighting them whenever possible.

Fact: Delight customers only when cost is reasonable and payoff is significant.

Everyone wants to exceed customer expectations. While this is a nice general idea, all actions to produce delight do not cost the same and all delight experiences do not produce the same increase in loyalty. Many labor-intensive heroics will only result in a 12 to 14 percent increase in the percentage of customers who will definitely recommend a company, while other less labor-intensive actions (such as a friendly 90-second conversation or a hint regarding how to avoid problems) will result in two or three times more customers becoming advocates, according to research by TARP.

Lesson: Measure the cost and impact of different types of delighters and only exceed expectations where it is cost effective.

Myth 2: Answer the phone really fast – any time on hold makes people mad.

Fact: It is more important what happens after you answer the phone than how fast you answer.

TARP’s data shows that, in most environments, you can keep customers on hold or answer can be delayed for more than 30 seconds (and often up to a minute) if, when you answer the phone, you completely handle the customer’s issue. If the problem is completely handled to the customer’s satisfaction there is no discernable impact on satisfaction due to the 30-second delay.

Lesson: Answer in less than a minute and then make sure you handle the call to completion on first contact.

Myth 3: Everyone wants to talk to a human; web and automated service are always less satisfactory.

Fact: Web and automated service are preferred in some cases and by some customer segments.

For example, one investment company found a large segment of their wealthy clients never wanted to talk to a human being and always wanted to interact by web and email. Likewise, customers are often happy to check an account balance online or a package delivery via interactive voice response (IVR) system. If there is an unpleasant surprise, however, then they will want to talk to a human.

Whether companies damage customer relationships with self-service depends on who the customer is, what the customer is calling about or looking for, and the effectiveness of the tools and information provided to use the automated systems.

Lesson: Ask customers about their preferred communications channel for issue category and transactions. Provide a range of channels so they can pick. Provide good directions (e.g., printing the IVR menu wherever you print the phone number).

Myth 4: The customer is always right – don’t ever say no.

Fact: The customer is not always right, and you can say no.

It is alright to say no to the customer or give bad news as long as you give the customer a clear, reasonable explanation regarding why the request is not possible. For example, explaining that the flight will be delayed due to a leak in the hydraulic system will not make customers happy, but it will keep them safe – and thankful to be on the ground.

Lesson: Train your staff that it is fine to say no, but arm them with clear, believable explanations regarding why the policy is in place or why the situation occurred. Be flexible to take special action for valuable customers.

Myth 5: If complaints are going down, things are getting better.

Fact: Fewer complaints often mean fewer people are complaining because they have given up.

In the last three years, TARP has observed a significant decline in complaint rates due to customers feeling that complaining will do no good.

Lesson: Monitor complaint rates at least every other year – go to a random sample of customers and ask what problems they’ve had and if they told you.

Myth 6: The best way to improve service is to get front-line employees to do what they are told and to have a better attitude.

Fact: A majority of customer dissatisfaction is caused by other factors that often prevent employees from providing effective service.

TARP has found that more than 90 percent of employees come to work wanting to do a good job, but are stymied by product-related unpleasant surprises, incorrect marketing expectations, broken processes and even confusing directions. These types of issues cause 40 to 60 percent of dissatisfaction. Also, customers cause 20 percent of their own dissatisfaction by failing to understand the product limitations or making errors.

The solution is to identify customers’ key points of pain and, for the major points of pain, determine if the cause is employee error or attitude, a product with a built-in problem, a broken process, a marketing over-promise, or a customer error. Call monitoring is an excellent source of this diagnostic information.

Lesson: Execute a true root-cause analysis of dissatisfaction. In most cases, the process, product or customer is at fault and needs to be fixed.

Myth 7: Service is nice but price wins customers – look at Wal-Mart!

Fact: Some customers will always prefer price, but most prefer great service and will pay for it.

A majority of customers will pay more for higher quality. In fact, TARP has found, in most markets, that sensitivity to price in retail banking, for example, is strongly correlated with problem encounters. Fewer problems result in lower sensitivity to price.

Less sensitivity to price means that companies with better service can achieve higher margins. Customers may say, “You’re expensive but you’re worth it because I seldom have problems.” This is what we call the “Neiman Marcus effect.”

Lesson: Reduce problems to gain flexibility in pricing.

Myth 8: Once an organization is at 90 percent satisfaction and loyalty, the law of diminishing returns kicks in and they should declare victory.

Fact: Easily fixed points of pain still exist and damage revenue even at top performance levels.

TARP has worked with clients who have the very highest satisfaction and loyalty scores, but every company identified customer “points of pain” that, when fixed, resulted in even higher scores. For example, an East Coast power company asked customers, “Who provides better service than we do?” and gave its customers choices like Amazon and FedEx. This company learned how they could borrow service strategies from different industries to improve service beyond what people expected for “just” a power company.

Lesson: Don’t stop improving service when you rise to the top of your industry.

Myth 9: All that organizations need to measure is the net promoter score (NPS) and they will have all the data needed on customer satisfaction and loyalty.

Fact: NPS scores are a range that do not provide context.

There are two problems. First, organizations don’t receive diagnostics from the NPS. Second, two very different situations can result in the same score. Your customers could all be in the middle with 30 percent advocates and 15 percent detractors (to get a 15) or you could have a very polarized market where 55 percent are very happy and 40 percent are very unhappy. Both yield the same score.

Lesson: You need to understand the diagnostics behind the scores and estimate the revenue at risk for each month the status quo exists.

Myth 10: If an organization has a 100 percent satisfaction guarantee, they will hear all the problems and all of their customers are satisfied.

Fact: A majority of customers do not contact you about satisfaction guarantees.

In most cases, even with a high-visibility guarantee, only about 30 percent of customers will avail themselves of it because customers perceive that it will take too much effort to invoke the guarantee. Also, if the customer has encountered any limitations on the guarantee in the past, the rate drops to closer to 10 percent. In essence, a 100 percent guarantee does not guarantee that 100 percent of your customers will be satisfied.

Lesson: You must monitor the actual complaint rate by type of problem as well as the success of employees in satisfying customer when they do complain. Further, you must understand that those who invoke the guarantee are only the tip of the iceberg compared to what is happening in the marketplace.

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