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The future belongs to us all

Fujitsu executives Marc Silvester and Mohi Ahmed recently co-authored a book about delivering service. Tom Brown talked to the authors ...

By Tom Brown 01 December 2008

Fujitsu executives Marc Silvester and Mohi Ahmed recently co-authored a book about delivering service. Tom Brown talked to the authors about how far one can take the concept of “living service” and where their own passion for the subject first began.
The future belongs to us allZappos, a US company that sells shoes over the Internet, is a good place to start. Five years ago, it had around $70 million in sales; this year, it projects over a billion dollars. It offers customers a stunning selection of shoes – in the millions – but what it really offers is service. Every shoe purchase comes with free shipping, both from Zappos and back to them, if you’re not happy with your purchase. You can order online or you can call them at a toll-free number. When you do, you get a real voice on the other end of the line and that voice has been trained to spend as much time with you as you need. One never feels rushed talking to a Zappos salesperson.

Moreover, should you elect to return a purchase and fill out the quick online form (they save your data to speed up future purchases or any returns), one of the last questions asked by the seller is whether there was anything Zappos could have done to make your buying experience better. Zappos is so intent, so driven, so relentless in providing superb service to customers that new employees are – after their initial training regimen – actually offered a bonus to quit. Online business journalist William Taylor (Harvard Business Publishing “Discussion Leaders”, May 19, 2008) answered the question you’re now asking:

Why? Because if you’re willing to take the company up on the offer, you obviously don’t have the sense of commitment they are looking for. It’s hard to describe the level of energy in the Zappos culture – which means, by definition, it’s not for everybody. Zappos wants to learn if there’s a bad fit between what makes the organization tick and what makes individual employees tick – and it’s willing to pay to learn sooner rather than later. (About ten per cent of new call-center employees take the money and run.)

But whether talking about customer service from an online or from a bricks-and-mortar store, Zappos is the exception, not the rule. And that bothers Marc Silvester and Mohi Ahmed. A lot.

Silvester is the Chief Technology Officer for the services division of global computer maker Fujitsu. He is a software engineer by training. With the company since 1986 and based in the UK, he now leads the company’s global services programme.

Ahmed came to Fujitsu by joining its corporate Human Resources strategy unit in 2001. Prior to that, he worked for other major industrial organizations in Japan, Canada and the US; he also began working and was involved in the company’s executive development programme. Today, he’s Director of Strategic Development for Fujitsu’s service organization.

These two executives from the computer industry have done a rare thing. They set a course to both define the essence of great customer service in the 21st century and explain how it’s achieved – for all companies, not just their own. The result is Living Service: How to Deliver the Service of the Future Today (FT Prentice Hall, 2008), a book they wrote after spending a great deal of time thinking about the reasons why service is poor in so many companies and how it could become, if you will, the ultimate competitive edge. (See related story: Business Strategy Review, Spring 2008.)

In their book, they assert that the modern standard for customer service must embrace three words: mind, body and soul. To do this, companies must transition from static service to “living” service; they need to change the game and redefine the state of the art of customer service for their own industry. This means that companies must engage customers in revolutionary ways, accelerate the opportunities a customer has to utilize a company’s products fully, deliver on any and all service promises and work with customers to co-create each other’s future. In sum, this comes down to maximizing the collective energy that can only happen when a business and a customer “click”, whether that interface be online, over the phone or face-to-face.

Silvester and Ahmed cite the Japanese parallels to mind, body and soul: kokoro, karada and tamashii – but the book is a healthy blend of Eastern and Western thinking. In fact, the prescriptions the two men provide for delivering the service of the future today come down to a list of to-dos that make sense in any culture:

Focus on people Customer service must be designed and operated to meet the needs of the people it serves.

Optimize technologies/processes and empower employees As society evolves, methods for interacting with customers change; service agents need to be capable of doing their jobs by having the right technology and by being able to use it to boost customer satisfaction.

Make service transparent Processes and technologies should be made open so that those responsible for delivering services can spot the weakest links in the service chain.

Deliver invisible excellence Customers take the greatest delight when they can’t see the mechanisms of customer service.

Focus on elegant simplicity There is nothing complicated in urging employees to do more than they’re required to do, perhaps even more than they’re asked to do. Such service is elegantly simple.

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