This post is sponsored by the Smarter Services Executive Symposium, a conference organized around a combination of workshops, roundtable discussions and presentations, creating an experiential learning environment and emphasizing a case study-driven approach. The symposium is on May 1-2 at the Intercontinental Hotel on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. SmartVan readers get a 40 percent discount off single registration and a 50 percent discount off team registrations when they use the code “smartvan” to register.

From increasing customer goodwill and maintaining your reputation to spotting new sales opportunities, service plays a truly vital (and sometimes overlooked) role in business. But what does great service look like, and how can smaller service firms get there? We spoke with Ron Kaufman, customer service expert, consultant, author of Uplifting Service, and keynote speaker at the Smarter Services Executive Symposium, about simple ways firms both large and small can better serve their customers.

SmartVan: How can field service firms use great service to set their businesses apart?

Ron Kaufman: Any investment you make in improving the service you provide is going to lead to greater sales. Let me give you an example: If someone has a problem with a computer, and they take it into a repair center and the repair is done effectively, who do you think the computer owner trusts more, the person who sold them the computer in the first place, or the person who just repaired the computer? … It’s always going to be the service person.

The second point is that any time somebody completes a repair, a fix or a software patch, don’t ever let it stop there. You have to use that opportunity to help the user or the consumer get more value from what they’ve already purchased. Don’t just fix the problem. Teach the customer how to get more value from what they already own.

The third point is to do a better job on arrival. Remember: when customers contact someone in field service, that person is only in touch because they have a problem. Service folks should immediately thank the customer for the opportunity to be of service, put them at ease, assure them you are here to help solve he problem. And you need to be impeccably polite because you only get one chance to make a first impression.

How do you convince businesses to see service as a real competitive differentiator that can — and should — be a huge boon to business?

Years ago, value was just how good is the product and what is the value-for-money that I’m getting from that product. That’s really changed now. In today’s world, people are asking much more, “What should I invest in next? What really is the right thing for me, not just for today, but what will set me up for what I’m going to need in the future given how quickly things are changing and how many options are available?”

In field service, when a customer is having something installed or repaired or upgraded, the technician should not only be addressing the customer’s current needs. Every customer also hopes that the company will take care of his or her needs in the future. So giving great service opens the opportunity to become the trusted advisor for the customer, not just the guy who shows up and fixes the problem.

You work with a lot of large organizations. What are some strategies that smaller service firms can appropriate to improve their service?

Actually, I think it’s easier for smaller firms. The smaller firms have a better opportunity to create more personal, people-oriented relationships with customers — the personal things that provide that human touch.

A really easy way to do that is to learn something unique about every customer. How are they using the equipment that you’re servicing? What do they need it for? Learn something about a customer, and then refer back to what you’ve learned in subsequent communications, whether they’re over the phone, through email, or face-to-face. Even if you’re not the same person who’s later communicating with that customer, the fact that your company knows something about the customer and refers to it, that’s a personal touch.

What’s the most common failure that prevents companies, large or small, from providing great service?

It’s whenever anyone in any company thinks that customer service is not their job. The entire organization is what’s serving the external customer. Internally, you may have a lot of people who don’t talk to the customer, but their job is to do everything possible to provide a great service experience to their colleagues. To create a culture of what I call “uplifting service,” every person in the organization must be focused on creating greater value for whomever it is they serve, internal or external. The fundamental definition of service is taking action to create value for someone else. And you can see that this definition applies to the HR department, the finance department, the facilities department, and the legal department. In our working lives, everyone should be taking action to provide service for someone else.

Do you have examples of companies that get it right?

I’m not an Apple computer user, but I have an iPhone. I was at a Genius Bar trying to get something to work between my PC laptop and my iPhone. As the gal at the bar was working on my iPhone, she gave me a compliment about the way I’ve got my Outlook folders set up. Nobody’s ever given me a compliment about how I have my Outlook folders set up. It made me feel good, and that was the point of giving me the compliment. It had nothing to do with what I’d bought, or even to do with solving my problem. But it’s an example of how Apple provides a great experience by providing great service. They weren’t there to do anything except give me a great experience — and that’s great service.

The second example I want to share is Singapore Airlines. Aside from the impeccable standards that they have, aside from the rigorous recruitment they have and aside from their amazing training programs, the point I want to make is that whenever somebody works for that airline and they’re in uniform, they’re always “on”. Whether they’re in the airport, or in the taxi, or in a hotel overseas, or whether they’re providing the actual passenger service they’re responsible for when the aircraft is in the air, when you meet someone from Singapore Airlines who is wearing a uniform, they are “on”. It’s like at Disney. The moment someone puts on that Mickey Mouse costume, they go into character.

The third example I have is Xerox in the Middle East. When a service person goes to do an onsite repair, one of the things they carry in their bag is a can of lemon furniture polish. When they’re done with the repair and have the paperwork signed from the customer, before they leave the customer’s site, they take out the lemon polish and a clean cloth, and they polish the exterior of the machine. So not only does that leave the machine looking great, but it leaves behind a lovely, fresh lemon scent. This has nothing to do with the number of pages per minute. It has nothing to do with the cost of ownership of the machine. It has nothing to do with the quality of the print. But, oh boy, it has a lot to do with people’s impression of Xerox as a brand because of that unique step taken by people in field service.