by Steve Adubato, PhD

A few years back, my friend Jack Mitchell wrote a great book on customer service called "Hug Your Customers," which focused on showing your customers how much you appreciate them. Mitchell argued that you can’t "hug" your customers enough.

Said Mitchell: "A hug can be a bear hug, but it’s more a metaphor for any caring gesture or deed that shows we’re nice people and honest people, and we take pride in what we do. A hug is something that makes people feel warm and good. It’s what we try to do every day with our own people, and then they pass that on to the customers."

Much of great customer service revolves around exceptional communication, which sometimes plays out under the most difficult circumstances.

I recently talked to Bernie Flynn, CEO and president of NJ Manufacturers Insurance Company, which offers auto and homeowner’s insurance and handled a number of claims in connection with Hurricane Sandy.

(Full disclosure, NJM is also a supporter of public broadcasting and the programs I anchor on several regional PBS stations.)

Nearly 18 months after Hurricane Sandy, Flynn remembers it was a critical time for his team members to be "all in" on behalf of their customers.

No doubt there were challenges in delivering superior customer service under these circumstances, but according to Flynn, "We are selling a promise that we will be there for our policyholders when an event happens. On a typical day, we have a staff of 20 to 30 people taking calls from car accident or homeowner claims. The day after Superstorm Sandy, we knew the demand would be greater, so we had 400 people taking over 1,000 calls an hour. We didn’t have to force our team to come in, and even though many were dealing with their own challenges after the storm, they were there to do their job."

The ability to put aside one’s personal situation and focus on the immediate needs of the customer is just one way to communicate that you care about those you serve. Consider these additional customer service tips and tools:

Provide superior training and resources. Give your staff the tools to deal with any possible scenario — including a disaster. As a leader, observe an employee’s communication with a customer and then offer specific and immediate feedback on what worked and what could have been done better. Also, conduct customer service workshops where employees can learn through role-playing.
Jack Mitchell says every customer is different and therefore the cornerstone of creating a "hugging" culture is to really know your customer. Knowing about their family as well as their likes and dislikes. Knowing their personalities and knowing their business. Knowing whether they like the Yankees or the Red Sox. Knowing these and other personal traits will help you customize your communication.
Hire customer-focused people. Bernie Flynn says his best people have the "service gene" — possessing the empathy and compassion for customers as part of their personality. Flynn says the desire to provide exceptional customer service is "part of their DNA."
Constantly thank your customers and let them know how important they are to you and your business. This could be as simple as a "thank you" via phone, email or a handwritten note. Or, invite the customer for a purely social lunch and don’t talk about business — unless they bring it up. Rather, use this as an opportunity to learn more about your customer as a person.
It will make it a lot easier in the future to connect with him or her on a more personal and human level, and the "hugging" will be a lot more natural.