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The A.C.E.S. Model Of Exceptional Customer Service
The Exceptional Customer Service Model ACES is a simple lung and diagnostic tool that helps you assess your company’s ability to deliver customer service. Once you have a diagnosis, you know where to take corrective action if necessary.
ACES helps employees focus on three components of customer service. This model complements my 4 (and 7) Laws of Exceptional Customer Service.
The ACES model is a simple formula
Attitude + competence + ability = (exceptional) service
The first component, Attitude, includes the attitudes and beliefs needed to provide excellent customer service. These include the basic requirement to provide services to others (as opposed to oneself), to improve the client’s condition, that problems are opportunities to overcome, that positive energy and good humor are essential, etc. The attitudinal factor can be assessed at the macro and micro level, including: company culture, the general workforce, the general tendency of a particular person, or a specific interaction during an interaction.
The second component is competence. A positive attitude is only a consolation prize when competence is low. Decades ago, I was a new waiter at an upscale restaurant. A patron asked me if there was mayonnaise in the Caesar salad dressing. I checked with the chef and was told there was no mayo in the sauce. She ordered it and had a massive allergic reaction. I had a great attitude, but I was less than fully competent. The connection was made from scratch. Mayonnaise was not added, but it was made with the same ingredients, eggs and oil! A competent food server would have known better. Even the chef should have known better in this matter.
The competence of employees derives largely from intimate knowledge of all aspects of the product and/or services offered. I live in Pennsylvania where you can only buy wine at state owned liquor stores. Although it has improved somewhat in recent years, most of the sales people in these stores could not tell the difference between Chardonnay and Ripple! That’s why I do most of my wine shopping in another state.
In certain jobs, job competence also requires the ability to deal with people. I was on a USA Airways flight that was fully booked. A man a few rows behind was angrily trying to stuff his suitcase into the overhead bin. He was so aggressive that it looked like he was going to break down the door. The other passengers watching him started to get a little nervous. The flight attendant arrived and in the most perfect tone of voice (combining humor and boundary setting) said, “Are you trying to wreck my plane?” The man immediately stopped and allowed her to take care of his suitcase. Not wanting to miss an opportunity for friendly competition with such an apparently talented person, I said, “Excuse me, but are your planes that easy to break?” He smiled and replied, “Don’t worry, dear. They give us plenty of duct tape. You can use duct tape for anything.” (short pause) They even use it in the Miss America pageant.” Now THAT is a competency in handling people.
At the macro level, it is important that the company’s systems and procedures are competently designed to provide exceptional service. Netflix is an example of an incredibly competent DVD rental system. You don’t have to leave your house. They come by mail, they are returned by mail. If there’s a problem, just contact Netflix online and it will be taken care of (at their expense). The system is designed so that the incentive to get the most for your money actually supports the efficient return of DVDs.
The final component of ACES is empowerment. In general, this is a structural problem of the company. Employees must have both the proper training and the real power to solve problems. The key question to answer here is how can employees solve problems on the spot in a way that makes the customer feel like their needs come first (Dr. Bob’s 2nd Law of Exceptional Customer Service). Each Ritz Carlton employee is authorized to spend up to $2,500 to resolve guest issues. The result is that the guest feels like a queen.
As shown in the diagram on the right, there are three possible situations where a person or company has only one characteristic. Two qualities have three possible intersections and one point where all three qualities intersect. Individual quality points are self-explanatory. So I will not describe them here. At Junction 1, we have good attitude plus competence, but not empowerment. Here, the employee knows how to do something and has a great attitude, but somehow can’t get it done. Such a situation can arise when a poor manager is responsible for competent and motivated people. In movies, this is often portrayed as a hero who wants to do it, can do it, but is prevented from doing it by the system. In real life, it’s a situation we’ve all faced when a service person says, “You’re absolutely right, it’s not fair, but the computer system won’t let me solve your problem for you.” If this is a chronic problem, people in position 1 generally become demoralized. The second scenario is more personal. The employee may not be sufficiently proactive (self-motivated) or ready to take the appropriate risk, even if he really has the competence and authority to do so.
Position 2 is a situation where the employee’s attitude is great and the system actually empowers him, but the employee is not competent enough. My recent tech support call to Dell is a good example. The technician had a wonderfully pleasant attitude and had many technical resources at his disposal. But he couldn’t solve my problem in time. It ended up taking 2 hours to solve a problem that a more competent person could have solved in 20 minutes. I have been a loyal customer of Dell largely due to their technical support, but their competence is declining and I am beginning to reevaluate that position.
If the employee is new, it may simply be a matter of training. If the training is completed and the employee does not become more competent, it is probably a bad job fit.
Position 3 is common for people who are often labeled as having low emotional intelligence. In fiction, it’s often the gruff engineer who can fix everything, it just keeps him away from other people. A person who is often in this position may not be the best person for customer service. These types of people can benefit from personal coaching to help them change their attitude about the importance of attitude. When someone is stressed and having a “bad day” they are often in the 3rd for a short period of time.
At a macro level, position 3 describes a company that values competence and empowers its people to succeed, but does not value customer service enough to ensure that people experience exceptional customer service. Many companies now talk about the importance of customer service, but don’t go beyond the basics. My colleague worked in a big city hospital. There were many signs around the building that indicated the importance of the patient and how the hospital is committed to providing the highest quality of service. Unfortunately, this was often an empty promise. For example, in the oncology department, doctors were rarely direct with patients. Nurses had to go behind doctors to communicate more openly with patients and families. There was little teamwork, etc. Hardly top notch in maintenance.
In the end, we only achieve truly high-quality customer service at position 4. On a personal level, each person must give himself the opportunity to develop a positive attitude towards service and competence. Empowerment also means being willing to take some reasonable risks. The flight attendant I mentioned earlier demonstrated personal use of all three dimensions.
At the macro level, position 4 describes an organization that has a true cultural attitude of service to others. Moving to this level often requires significant corporate courage. It requires facing the truth about how the organization is not implementing important values. IT requires spending short-term money to achieve longer-term goals. The organization ensures that its employees and systems have the competence to act on the attitude and that people are actually empowered to exercise their competence. Moreover, the interplay of these factors’ convergence is strongly self-reinforcing. Working in such an environment fosters an even more positive attitude. Employees are motivated from within. Company morale is high. Companies that engage and empower their employees typically raise the bar for competency higher and higher. Companies that could be examples of this are Disney World theme parks, Costco, and Enterprise rental car (see my article comparing and contrasting the recent experiences of Enterprise and Sears)
If the level of customer service does not meet the desired goals, the ACES analysis provides a quick way to zero in on the problem. You might ask yourself, “Where am I mostly on this chart?” Do I need to update my competence in something? Am I so focused on selling to make money that I’m not focusing on the customer relationship? Do I feel like I don’t have the right to provide great service? A manager or executive might ask, “Where is my sales force most of the time?” What has changed in the ACES model due to the decrease in customer service in XYZ department? Is there a change in the marketplace such that people are no longer competent? Is there a new leader who will disempower the people? Did we have a huge turnover of people so that now 34% of the department has not completed company training? Are we talking about an attitude of taking great care of our customers but not taking great care of our employees, so that a company’s attitude of customer service excellence is not reflected in its hiring practices? Customer service is not rocket science. But it’s not necessarily easy to execute at a high level. It takes courage and honesty to look at where you are. And if you know where the problem is, you’re halfway to a solution.
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