5 Questions for Chip Bell — 9 1/2 Principles of Innovative Customer Service

One of our top customer service authors Chip Bell has just added an excellent new book to his collection.

Here are five questions I asked Chip in an email interview, regarding customer service and The 9 ½ Principles of Innovative Service. Enjoy!

1. Providing good customer service seems so basic. What’s the number one reason that companies struggle?

Senior leaders, particularly in challenging economic times, seek the predictability and control of cause and effect. Thin margins in a global economic tend to bring out the “command and control” style of some leaders who feel the pressure of investors demanding a return on their investment. Convincing the board to open a new branch is much easier than talking them into adding ten more operators to the call center. Invest in a new branch based on solid market research and revenue almost always goes up; manage branch overhead wisely and profit go up as well.

But, good customer service is more correlation than cause and effect. To use an admittedly dark analogy, it is less like drinking arsenic and more like smoking. We all know if one drinks arsenic, death is guaranteed. However, smoking is different. Smoking adversely impacts the body in a way that yields a probability, not a guarantee, of cancer, heart and lung problems and the higher potential for death. Yet, I have an 93 year old uncle who has smoked two packs a day since he was 14! He knows smoking is not good for him. But, he has proven he can cheat death!

The correlation challenge means we need to help leaders see the probable benefits of investing in customer service. When leaders are directly involved in talking with customers as well as the front line employees who serve them, their faith in a return is strengthened. When leaders visit organizations famous for great service (particularly those with strong bottom line performances), they become more convinced. When they observe customer focus groups, sit with call center operators, ride with service techs, or spend time on the face-to-face counters, they are more willing to believe that great service has a likely bottom line payoff.

2. What prompted you to write your latest book The 9 1/2 Principles of Innovative Service?

The main reason is the change in the customer. Customer today demand high value for their hard earned bucks. And, that includes a great experience, not just an okay, ho-hum, adequate, satisfactory experience. Plus, customers today are bored. Part has to do with their elevated standards for all customer experiences. They look at every website through Amazon or Zappos eyes; every retail outlet through Nordstrom or Apple lens. Part of their boredom is driven by their overstimulated, hyper-entertained daily lives. Many retail outlets have become sensory theater; TV and the Internet are as vibrant as theme park. We get great service experiences in pockets of our lives and generalize them to every service provider.

The largest culprit driving customer boredom, however, may be the absence of random surprise in customers’ experiences. Surprise is not really a surprise if it is predictable. What is random about getting upgraded to first class as a frequent flyer in a coach seat? You have the miles, the seat is available and the computer delivers an upgrade. When randomness is gone, the well-intentioned value-adds become a standard customer expectation, adding almost no value. Attraction of loyalty has become programmed and apparent. The book is about the need to return to supporting the generosity and ingenuity of the frontline. If the Ritz-Carlton Hotels can empower even the housekeeper to spend up to two grand to ensure a guest leaves happy, organizations can figure out ways to make certain employees make smart decisions that balance great service with responsible stewardship.

3. Does great customer service have to be expensive? Can you share an example?

The most innovative service is simple and inexpensive. What was the financial worth of the free prize inside the Cracker Jack box? But, the emotional value made it a sought-after product for a generation! Here is an example. When a customer traded in her Lexus for a newer model, she was surprised a week later. Turning on her radio for the first time, she discovered the service tech had programmed her radio stations from her trade-in. First Watch Restaurants provide a free umbrella at the front door for customers if it unexpectedly starts to rain while customers are enjoying their meal. On the umbrella is a happy note that says, “Return for a free cup of coffee.” Almost all umbrellas are returned…and, the restaurant covers their overhead with major word-of-mouth (and word-of-mouse) from delighted customer advocates.

4. What’s your favorite example of a company providing truly innovative customer service?

Miller Brothers men’s clothing store in the Buckhead section of Atlanta has a giant colorful gumball machine on the entrance foyer table. Beside the machine is a dish of bright shiny pennies. Guess where Junior goes while daddy is trying on trousers? But, there is more. Miller Brothers did not simply provide comfortable seating; they provided cushy, melt-into-the-cushions comfortable seating with a wide screen TV on ESPN. The free beer is not just cold; it is super ice cold, like it was pulled right out of a barrel of ice cubes. And there is a bar stocked with premium brands. They combine a seasonal trunk sale with low country barbeque and brew. They not only invited legendary University of Georgia football coach Vince Dooley to stage a book signing in the store, they held the late afternoon-early evening special event on the Wednesday before Father’s Day.

“We wanted our store to be a great place to hang out and have a beer with the boys but also be the best store in Atlanta. The goal was a place that was sophisticated but fun,” Robby Miller remarked. “We care about customer comfort just as much as we care about the cut of a jacket or the superior quality of a dress shirt,” adds Greg Miller. Miller Bros. Men’s Store knows its customers intimately and have innovatively providing unique offerings that keep their customers loyal!

5. How would you like your new book to be used?

The book was written for every person who serves a customer, client, colleague, guest, patient, member or passenger. The book is short (112 pages) but jam packed with inspiring stories, simple-to-implement ideas, great pictures and memorable quotes. Some of my clients have already purchased copies for all their employees. Others have purchased copies as gifts for key customers. With National Customer Service Week coming up the first week in October, it could be a way to remind everyone of the power and importance of a great customer experience. The book publisher, www.simpletruths.com has made the book available with deep volume discounts to encourage large bulk buys. As someone whose life goal is to elevate the nobility of service, I hope the book inspires, instructs and invites readers to share the book.


Chip R. Bell is the founder and senior partner with the Chip Bell Group, a firm that specializes in helping Fortune 500 companies create and implement customer innovation strategies. A highly popular keynote speaker, he is author of several national bestselling books including Wired and Dangerous: How Your Customers Have Changed and What to Do About it (with John Patterson), Take Their Breath Away (also with John Patterson), Customers as Partners and Managing Knock Your Socks off Service (with Ron Zemke). His newest book is The 9 ½ Principles of Innovative Service. His work has been featured in Fortune, Business Week, Fast Company, Inc. Magazine, Forbes, Entrepreneur and Harvard Business School Management Update. He has appeared on CNBC, CNN, Fox Business, ABC, Bloomberg TV, CBS Radio and NPR Radio.

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