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Bentley Professor Shows the Marketplace has a New King: the Consumer
Bentley Professor of Management Mark Davis is an internationally renowned expert who has taught about customer service at Bentley for more than 30 years. Co-author of four textbooks, author of dozens of journal articles, and presenter at dozens of conferences, Davis helped put Bentley University at the center of service and operations scholarship by founding the annual Art & Science of Service Conference. He’s a leading authority on what keeps customers loyal to companies and how companies can provide customers with great experiences.
And when it comes to keeping his own customers satisfied, Davis puts his money where his mouth is: he pays students out of his own pocket if he doesn’t deliver on what he promises at the beginning of the semester.
“If your package isn’t there tomorrow morning by 10:30,” he says, “FedEx doesn’t make you pay for it. Why should my teaching be any different?” In his graduate “Customer Focused Management” course, Davis starts the semester negotiating a price structure with his students so that, for example, he would pay each student $10 for not having an assignment back as promised.
Davis estimates he’s paid out an average of $100 to 200 per semester with this service guarantee model. Often, the students vote to donate the money to a scholarship at Bentley in memory of one of his former students.
Customer Service in the Digital Age
Accountability is major factor for both customer and student satisfaction, and the focus on accountability has increased over the years. The reason, Davis explains, is that changes in technology have made companies instantly accountable to their customers—and to the public at large—for sub-par service experiences.
“We’ve all seen the ‘United Breaks Guitars’ video that has been on YouTube for a number of years,” Davis observes. “Mishandling that customer cost United Airlines both significant money and bad publicity in an age when every customer’s complaint has the potential to go viral.” In the age of Yelp, Google Reviews, Facebook Recommendations and Twitter,” Davis says, “you don’t have to be a talented, disgruntled musician to get your bad customer experience on the collective radar -- you just need a mobile device.” Customers have more power today than ever before to influence the service they receive, something that Davis sees as a democratizing effect that companies ignore at their peril.
“What’s truly amazing is that some companies never learn this,” say Davis. “There was a more recent episode with United where another customer was literally dragged off a plane while being recorded on iPhones by passengers. Settling this incident most likely also cost United significant money.”
“The good news for companies,” Davis says, “is that technology makes it much easier to deliver excellent customer service. He cites the real time “service inventories” that companies like Amazon keep on customer information as an example: the company knows what you want and can have it ready for you even before you order it. “The old-school example of this,” Davis says, is “walking into your local coffee shop and the server has your drink ready by the time you reach the counter; it creates more value for the customer, saving time, cementing loyalty, and creating competitive advantage.”
Many fast food companies, says Davis, are now shifting to Amazon-like service inventories, so that you can type or swipe in your name or account info and options based on your previous orders will appear. “Waiting times are becoming more and more critical in the customer experience,” Davis says, “but technology can help cut those down.”
Getting It Right
Davis and his students have studied the way that the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston now equips its doormen with Bluetooth devices that read the tags on arriving guests’ luggage and notify the front desk to start the check-in procedure before the guests have even entered the building.
“It’s about creating what is called ‘Service Legends,’ customer experiences that are so great, so seamless, that you want to come back, that you’ll review them very positively online, that you’ll become less and less inconvenienced by any given transaction,” Davis says. “Businesses of every size that do this well do better on sites like Yelp, and studies show that high ratings on Yelp and other social media equals making more profits.”
Customer service centers are another area Davis focuses on in his scholarship and teaching, and he’s often used Zappos as an example. “I’ve called them in the middle of a class to ask questions, and have students ask questions, about how they’d handle a customer service issue — and they have always respond pleasantly and thoroughly.”
Though a leading scholar and author and conference presenter on these issues —Davis recently won Bentley’s prestigious Mee Prize for a lifetime of scholarly excellence Davis--is a big believer in experiential, hands-on learning for his students as well. He often enrolls them in student competitions sponsored by companies.
“I took a group of students one semester to a Price Chopper supermarket in Marlborough, Massachusetts, because they were trying to determine how to cut down their checkout line waiting time during peak weekend and holiday shopping times,” Davis says. “The students developed simulation models and conducted their analyses before coming up with their recommendation.” The solution, Bentley students found, was to convert self-checkout lines to cashiered lines during peak times; self-checkout lines actually take 50% longer. “There were 75 or so submissions to this completion; Bentley’s student team won first prize, which was $8,000.”
The Future of the Age of Customer Service
Davis sees the emerging “sharing economy” as yet another cultural force that, combined with technology, will drive changes in customer service. “It’s all about managing excess capacity, excess inventory—in many cases, extra time and space—so that services like Uber, Lyft, Airbnb and TaskRabbit will empower customers even more.” On-demand services plus the ability to leave reviews “and be reviewed as a customer” will further democratize everyday transactions. “And,” Davis adds, “since these services are about deploying services and goods only when they’re needed, they’re better for both the environment and the economy. Excess capacity breeds waste.”
“The power of the marketplace has clearly shifted to the customer,” Davis says, “and there’s no turning back from this change.” Companies that want to be service legends, his research shows, need to embrace the idea that while the customer might not always be right, he’s always a few keystrokes away from exercising his new-found power.
Alison Davis-Blake, the former business school dean at the Universities of Michigan and Minnesota, was inaugurated as the eighth president of Bentley University in a ceremony attended by students, faculty, staff, alumni and other members of the extended Bentley community.