The ACES model of customer service

The A.C.E.S. model of exceptional customer service 
By Dr Robert Schwarz 

The A.C.E.S. model of exceptional customer service is a simple pneumonic and diagnostic tool that will help you evaluate your company’s ability to deliver service to the customer. Once you have your diagnosis, you then know where to apply corrective measures if needed. 

A.C.E.S. helps employees focus on the three component parts of customer service. This model complements my 4  laws of exceptional customer service. 

The ACES model is a simple formula 

A ttitude + C ompetence + E mpowerment = (exceptional) S ervice 

The first component, Attitude, contains the attitudes and beliefs that are required to provide excellent customer service. These include the basic imperative of providing service to others (as oppose to oneself), of improving the customer’s condition, that problems are opportunities to excel, that positive energy and good humor are essential, and so on. The attitude factor can be assessed at macro and micro levels including: the corporate culture, the overall workforce, the general tendency of a given person, or the specific communications during an interaction. 

The second component is Competence. A positive attitude is only a consolation prize when competence is low. Many decades ago I was a new waiter at an upscale restaurant. A patron asked me if there was mayonnaise in the Caesar salad dressing. I checked with the chef and was told there was no mayonnaise in the dressing. He ordered it and proceeded to have a tremendous allergic reaction. I had a great attitude, but I was less than fully competent. The dressing was made from scratch. No mayonnaise was added, but it was made with the same ingredients, eggs and oil! A competent food server would have known better. For that matter the chef should have known better as well. 

Employee competence is largely derived from intimate knowledge with all aspects of the product and/or services being offered. I live in Pennsylvania where you can only buy wine in state-owned liquor stores. While it has gotten much better in recent years, many years ago most sales people in these stores could not describe the difference between a Chardonnay and Ripple!  

In certain jobs, competence in the job also requires the ability to handle people. I was on a USAirways flight that was fully booked. A man a few rows behind was angrily attempting to jam his suitcase into the overhead bin. He was so aggressive, it looked like he was going to destroy the door. The other passengers watching him began to look a little nervous. The flight attendant arrived and, in the most perfect tone of voice (combining humor and boundary setting) said, ”Are you trying to break my airplane?” The man immediately stopped and allowed her to take care of his suitcase. Not wanting to miss an opportunity at friendly jousting with such an obviously talented person, I said, “ Excuse me, but are your planes that easy to break?” She smiled and retorted, “ Don’t worry honey. They give us lots of duct tape. You can use duct tape for everything.” (short pause) They even use it at the Miss America Pageant.” Now THAT is competence in handling people. 

The final component of A.C.E.S. is Empowerment. Generally this is a structural issue within the company. Employees must be empowered in terms of proper training as well as actual power to solve problems. The main question to answer here is, in what ways are employees able to resolve problems on the spot so that the customer feels like his or her needs come first (Dr Bob’s 2 nd law of exceptional customer service). Any employee at the Ritz Carlton is empowered to spend up to $2500 to solve a guest’s problems. The result is that a guest feels like he or she is a queen. 

As shown in the diagram below, there three possible situations where a person or company has only one quality. There are three possible intersections of two qualities, and one point where all three qualities intersect. The single quality points are self-explanatory. So, I will not describe them here. At intersection 1 we have a good attitude plus competence, but not empowerment. Here an employee knows how to do something and has a great attitude, but somehow is not empowered to do it. This situation can exist when there is a poor manager in charge of competent, motivated people. It is often depicted in movies of the hero who wants to do it, can do it, but is prevented from doing it by the system. In real life, this is the situation we have all faced when a service person says, “You are completely right, this is not fair, but the computer system will not let me fix your problem for you.” If it is a chronic problem, people in position 1 generally become demoralized. Another scenario is more personal. An employee may not be assertive (self-empowered) enough or willing to take an appropriate risk, even if he or she really does have the competence and authority to do so. 

ACES model of customer service

Position 2 is a situation where an employee has a great attitude and the system actually does empower him or her, but the employee is not sufficiently competent.  I remember a tech support call to Dell many years ago that was a good example. The tech had a wonderfully pleasant attitude and was empowered with wealth of technical resources close at hand. But he could not fix my problem in a timely manner. In the end, it took 2 hours to solve a problem that a more competent person could have solved in 20 minutes . I had been a loyal customer of Dell largely because of their tech support, but their competence was deteriorating, and I am began to re-evaluate this position. 

If the employee is new, it may just be a matter of training. If training has been supplied and the employee is not becoming more competent, it is most likely a poor fit with the job. 

Position 3 is common with people who are often labeled as having low emotional intelligence. In fiction, this is often the crotchety engineer who can fix anything, just keep him away from other people. A person who is often in this position may not be the most appropriate person for customer service. This type of person may benefit from personal coaching to help shift his or her attitude about the importance of Attitude. When someone is stressed and having a “bad day” they are often in position 3 for a brief period of time. 

On a macro level, position 3 describes a company that values competence and empowers its people to succeed, but does not value customer service enough for people to experience Exceptional Customer Service. Now many companies talk about the importance of customer service, but go no further than platitudes. A colleague of mine worked at a major metropolitan hospital. There were many signs around the building touting the importance of the patient and the how the hospital was committed to delivering the highest quality of service. Unfortunately this was often an empty promise. For instance, on the oncology unit the doctors were rarely forthright with patients. Nurses had to go around doctors’ backs to communicate more openly with patients and family. There was little teamwork and so on. Hardly the state-of-the-art in care. 

Finally only at position 4 do we really attain high quality customer service. On a personal level, each individual must empower themselves to cultivate a positive attitude of service and competence. Empowerment also means being willing to take a few judicious risks. The flight attendant I mentioned earlier demonstrated a personal use of all three dimensions. 

At the macro level, position 4 describes an organization with a true cultural attitude of service-to-others. It often requires significant corporate courage to move into this level. It requires facing the truth about how the organization is not implementing important values. It requires spending near term money for longer term goals. The organization makes sure its staff and systems have the competence to act on the attitude, and that people are actually empowered to use their competence. Furthermore, the interaction effect of the convergence of these factors is highly self-reinforcing. Working in such an environment cultivates an even more positive attitude. Employees are motivated from within. Company morale is high. Companies that inculcate and empower their employees usually raise the bar of competence to higher and higher levels. Companies that would be examples of this are Disney World Theme Parks, Costco, Enterprise rental car (see my article on comparing and contrasting recent experiences with Enterprise and Sears) 

If customer service levels are not at the desired goals, the ACES analysis provides a rapid way to zero in on the problem. You can ask yourself, “Where am I on this chart most of the time?” Do I need to update my competence in something? Have i gotten so focused on making the sale to make money that I am no longer focusing on the customer relationship? Do I feel dis-empowered to provide great service. The manager or leader can ask, “Where is my sales force most of the time?” What has changed in the ACES model that accounts for the drop in customer service in the XYZ department? Is there a change in the market place so that people are no longer competent? Is there a new manager that is dis-empowering people? Did we have a huge turnover of people so that now 34% of the department has not had the company training? Do we talk about an attitude of taking excellent care of our customers, but fail to take excellent care of our employees so the corporate attitude of excellence of customer service is not manifested in its employment practices? Customer Service is not rocket science. But it is not necessarily easy to execute at high levels. It takes courage and honesty to look at where you are. But, once you know where the problem is you are half-way to home to a solution. 

Dr Robert Schwarz is a consultant coach and speaker. He is passionate about improving the performance of individuals and companies. His mission is to sponsor and promote the creative potential and generative powers of individuals and organizations to maximize sustainable performance and well-being. CEOs, managers, business owners and line workers who are inspired perform better. Organizations and individuals that perform up to their true potential in providing value and service to others are more fulfilled and more profitable. 

With 35 years of experience as a businessman, psychologist, consultant and coach working with thousands of people, Bob brings a wealth of experience in improving human performance. His trainings are full of energy, humor and thought provoking content for immediate use and long-term sustainable growth. 

He presents trainings internationally on topics including, leadership, creativity and gender communication differences, customer service, advanced approaches to stress management and work life balance to government agencies, businesses, and associations. 

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