As competition continues to separate the service champions from the pretenders, you cannot be complacent with your customer service approach. Finding ways to stand apart from others is one way to ensure your ascension rather than decline.

Last year, an entrepreneur friend proposed a theory about customer service that he had been thinking about for a while. Together, we conducted a yearlong deep dive that resulted in what we call “The Unexpected.”

Simply put, rather than strive to meet or exceed expectations by going above and beyond, you must build cultures where your team knows how to identify opportunities to deliver what’s not expected and create surprise and delight in your customers when it is appropriate to do so.

This philosophy won’t replace an existing focus on customer service. Rather, it enhances what you’re doing in every facet of the customer’s experience. Implemented correctly, team members are empowered to find ways to take world-class service to the next level.

The Unexpected comprises four key components, and properly delivered, it becomes:

Memorable: People remember something that is experiential. The extraordinary experience, itself, is ingrained in their memories, becoming inclusionary parts of the stories they relate to others. In essence, this is the what of The Unexpected. Think of it as the moment when the legend was created.

Distinguishable: Because The Unexpected is memorable, people remember the organization — or person — who delivers it as uniquely qualified to do so. This serves to boost a brand and acts as a differentiator when it comes to comparing two companies that provide similar services within the same market space.

Viral: Everybody loves a story. The Unexpected offers a great opportunity to tell one. Technology has changed the rules, and instead of telling the story to small groups or one-on-one, people spread the word in an instant.

Profitable: As we move toward an economy where standard — or even world-class customer service — is your price of entry, only those companies that deliver The Unexpected will be able to command premium pricing for their goods and services.

My co-conspirator and I have outlined specific and detailed methodology in a soon-to-be-published book, which any organization can follow to deliver The Unexpected — without breaking the bank and by training existing team members — but that is a story for another day.

Dustin Klein is publisher and vice president of operations for Smart Business Network Inc.

Published in Akron/Canton

Despite co-founding the successful WeddingChannel.com, Jessica Herrin found herself re-evaluating her personal and entrepreneurial priorities. In 2004, she decided to align the two with the founding of Stella & Dot, for which she also serves as CEO.

Herrin’s main goal in the creation of the social selling company was to alleviate barriers to women entering the entrepreneurial realm. The San Francisco-based company now has more than 10,000 entrepreneurs selling a boutique-style jewelry and accessories line through in-home “Trunk Shows,” giving women the chance to work around busy schedules and still earn a living.

“I was really driven to create a company whose mission I felt soulfully connected to,” Herrin says.

“Our company isn’t about accessories, it’s about giving women economic opportunity. So I’m not interested in just selling product. I’m interested in giving the modern woman a way to love her life — because they deserve it.”

Smart Business sat down with Herrin at the 2011 Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum to discuss how Stella & Dot’s direct, consumer distribution channel benefits its employees, its product line and its customers.

Q: How do you find the inspiration for new products?

Our business is so intimate with our customers — where we go into living rooms and help style women — that I now, after doing thousands of trunk shows myself, can see a woman across a room and be like, ‘OK. I know what’s going to work for you. I can tell what your lifestyle is, how to dress, how to accessorize. I know what you need to feel confident and beautiful. Something that you’re going to wear and you’re going to love, and that’s going to express your style.’ So it becomes something that by doing it, you get to know people. And by focusing on how to please them and delight them, that’s the inspiration for the design.

It’s a marriage between true innovation, creativity and design, and then making sure that that fits into price points and fits that work commercially.

There’s a lot of invention in terms of what’s new, and then it’s about saying, ‘OK, but if someone’s going to wear that comfortably, it needs to be 17 inches with a 2-inch inset,’ or, ‘It needs to be in this price span.’

Q: How do you determine what will please and delight your customer?

With this business ... there’s really not a lot of mystery between you and you customer. You can just go ask them. And our business model is to go into someone’s home, put out our product and a table and chitchat about it.

We are in person talking to our customers about what they think all the time. Our sales team of 10,000-plus active entrepreneurs that sell our line, we’re in touch with them every single day. They’re in living rooms every day, and I go with them all the time. ... I can bring the new spring collection and ask them, ‘What do you think?’ and we give them two colored Post-it notes so they can say, ‘Love it’ or ‘Lose it.’

I think that people think that it’s harder than it is to ask your customers what they want. You can always just ask.

Q: What filters do you then put that information through?

We’re a very mission-driven company, so our filters are very clear and outlined for everyone. Our No. 1 and most simple filter is dollars per hour for our stylist. Because we’re in business to give them a great business, we then say, ‘All right. Is this product going to cannibalize something else that’s already in the line?’ in which case it’s a substitute, it’s not really adding to it.

Imagine if your wife had a trunk show. We’re not just interested in selling to her, because during this season, imagine that her friends coming over are buying for their mother-in-law in Florida and for their teenage daughter that lives in L.A. So stylewise, we try to have a lot of breadth in our line because it makes for a better business.

Q: Once you come up with the product, how do you then align it with your price points?

One of the things that we focus on in this business is adding more value to the customer with better design, better quality and very good pricing. We do that because as a company, we invest heavily in our design process and in our manufacturing process.

So this necklace, for example, is one that in that same production artisan workshop where people in India are hand sewing this piece, they’re sewing pieces ... that will sell for $1200. Ours is sold for $295 ... but ours is exclusively designed for Stella & Dot by our designers, because we invest in having that staff and team.

Then, we work with the scale and the production where we go into those artisan places and say, ‘OK. Here’s how you can do things efficiently. Here’s how we source materials to help.’ We operate it like supply chain experts.

We do believe that you have to deliver affordable luxury. The consumer wants something where they’re going to get a lot of bang for their buck, so we design into it. It’s more than just price — it’s about use and value. Then, if the price is justified by versatility, wearability and emotion, you earn it.

Q: What do you do to go above and beyond to deliver unexpected service that surprises and delights customers?

We have a manifesto that we share with every stylist. We’re more than a company; we’re a tribe with a very strong culture. And it’s a culture of service to our customers. We always say, ‘We’re not in sales; we’re in service.’ And we work very hard to earn our customer, but we work even harder to deserve her continued devotion, and so we do things where we always make it right. We always return it and give a credit if something goes wrong with a product. We ship incredibly fast in emotionally beautiful packaging. We build joy into everything we do. Our packaging has a hidden heart inside with a little message that says, ‘My, you look gorgeous!’ It’s the details that make the difference in surprise and delight. It’s not enough just to make something.

How to reach: Stella & Dot, (800) 920-5893 or www.stelladot.com

Published in National