Great — or at least not bad — customer service has become table stakes for top companies. Businesses can no longer survive by providing inadequate service, no matter how great their products may be. But what does good service actually look like, and why do most companies unwittingly fall short? Field Service Digital spoke with customer service expert and New York Times best-selling author Shep Hyken about why most companies overestimate the quality of their service, why they should re-think the cost of service — and why it all matters, anyway.

Why does customer service matter so much these days?

Shep Hyken: Customers are no longer basing what you do on your competition. They’re basing your customer service to what they experienced last night at a great restaurant, or the last time they stayed at a nice hotel on vacation.

At the end of the day, delivering great service does a couple of things: The company will have a competitive advantage in an industry where service is not at a super-high level, or great service is entry to get into the game. If you don’t have great customer service, you’re not going to even be able to compete.

Companies can focus on promising things other than just being the lowest price in town. Instead, companies can give consumers enough value to make them realize that it’s worth doing business with the company. Delivering great service is simply entry into the game. If you don’t come in with that, there’s a good chance you’re going to lose.

And it’s so important because great — or at least above-average — customer service is expected at this point?

shep_picture_in_suit__1_.jpgEmployees aren’t just an extension of your company. When they are out in the field, they are the company. When people walk away from a bad experience with a company, they say, “I don’t like doing business with that company.” They don’t say, “I don’t like doing business with that one person in the company.”

When these guys or gals are out in the field, they’re on stage.

Now that service techs are expected to do so much more than fixing problems, training is especially critical. Do you have any recommendations for how companies can better handle training?

Training comes in several forms: One is technical training, which is important. But that’s not the only kind of training they need. They also need soft skills training. There’s an old business cliché: “Hire the attitude, train the skills,” which a lot of times is true. Companies can always hire the attitude that already has the skills.

Some companies want to change the culture because they haven’t been focused on service, so they start getting rid of who they don’t want in the field. That’s not fun to do. My suggestion is to try to train people to be the best. If they’re not right, put them in a different position or let the competition have a crack at them.

I work with a lot with technically oriented people, and we get them to identify their behavioral style. We do a simple exercise that allows them to discover whether they’re analytical, a socializer, etc. Once they understand who they are and who they best interact with — which is people like themselves — they start to understand when people aren’t like them, and we teach them how to adapt to other personalities so they can deliver the service experience that is needed.

At this point, do most companies realize that they can’t get by with a great product but inadequate service?

I think they think they’re on board. I see companies fall into three categories. There might be more, but I’ll generalize.

The first is the category that decides it’s in trouble, that they don’t have the culture and that they need to change. Those companies often recognize it and hire a speaker for one hour, thinking he or she will change everything. Unfortunately, it’s a band-aid. That’s not big enough. It has to be ongoing.

The second category is a company that recognizes that its pretty good, but that it needs to fine-tune its approach to service. The company already has a good culture in place, but it’s trying to supplement it.

Then there’s the great company. All it wants is reinforcement, to be reminded over and over again that it is doing well and to hear it in different ways.

As you could guess, most companies think they are in one of the last two categories, even those that are having a rough time. Many times the executives say, “We’re great,” and the customers say there’s a lot of room for improvement.

What are a couple of companies that come to mind that do customer service really well, and why?

It isn’t so much about “wow,” it’s just that they’re above average all the time. And that’s pretty cool. If you can consistently be above average, you’ll almost always be on top. You’ve got pleasant personalities working the front lines. You have a good system behind the scenes. Everything has to work together.

The obvious are companies like Nordstrom’s, Ritz Carlton, and Four Seasons — companies that are known for great service. By the way, even the best have problems. Somebody will have a bad experience with any of these organizations, but they’re the best equipped to deal with it.

There’s one company that you probably haven’t heard about, called Enterasys. They’re a division of a pretty big company, Siemens. Their mantra is, “There is nothing more important than our customers.” They put it on their business cards and make sure everybody knows. They do everything they can to make sure they are totally customer-focused.

Another company that I just ran across is Simplicity Sofas. What they do to stand behind their product is unbelievable. Every time they spend a little bit more money than the average company would spend to take care of the customer, they don’t view it as a cost of customer service, but rather as a marketing expense, which is pretty cool.

More: Why 5 Percent Is the Difference Between Good and Great in Field Service.