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When luxury customer service is no longer a luxury, but the norm

If you own a private jet, you likely also use a scheduling and concierge service, and it's that service's responsibility to make sure your flight is perfect. The service might hire the crew, get clearance to land at any airports you intended to visit, and arrange for luxury ground transportation so you are whisked from door to plane without a moment’s discomfort. (No TSA search here.) The service might also hire a chef to cater the flight, bring you a tie or any item you may have forgotten at home, or tip a delivery person $150 to bring the pizza right to the plane.

Lindsay Dyer, president and founder of LDAviation, has arranged all of this and more. Her clients include CEOs that need to fly under the radar, perhaps to negotiate international deals without triggering activity on the stock market, and movie directors who want to scope out locations without attracting media attention. Dyer gives them aliases, like “Cucumber,” on the flight manifest so that no one but Dyer and her business partner, and those on the plane, know who is traveling. This is customer service for the super wealthy. Or, as they sometimes like to be known, the affluent, or high net worth individuals (HNWIs).

Different service dimensions

Historically, customer service for the affluent was another dimension compared to customer service for the rest of us. The affluent invented personalization in customer service. They were the only ones who could expect the thing they wanted to be delivered yesterday. And they were the only ones who could expect customer service reps to adapt to their mood. But the lines between luxury customer service and customer service are beginning to blur.

The affluent invented personalization in customer service. They were the only ones who could expect the thing they wanted to be delivered yesterday.

These days, most customers want what they want, delivered almost the minute they want it. They want it produced by a company that shares their values. They want it to be tailored to them and offered by someone who responds to their moods. And that’s creating an interesting conundrum and opportunity for everyone who deals with customers.

Over the next few decades, roughly $30 trillion is expected to pass from a generation of Baby Boomers to Generation X and Millennials. That’s three times the U.S. GDP for 2017. In addition to these heirs, another group within these generations is earning its way to the top. Deloitte’s Luxury Goods Report 2019 calls them HENRYs: High-income Earners, Not Rich Yet. If you think this group is going to put all their money into trust funds and investments, think again: seventy percent of that transfer, about $21 trillion, is expected to go toward buying stuff and experiences. And not just rich people stuff either—unlike previous generations, who mostly bought luxury brands like Prada, this group has different criteria. The new rich, Deloitte says, “only care about the brands that have created value for them in the last 24 hours.”

[Read also: Not all great customer experiences are convenient]

Deloitte reports, “To secure greater modernity, while enabling stronger competitiveness with... fashion houses most popular with millennials, some high-end brands such as Louis Vuitton x Supreme, Manolo Blahnik x Vetements, and Jimmy Choo x Off-White—are countenancing brand contamination by collaborating with streetwear firms.”

Imagine that, countenancing brand contamination.

That means companies don’t have to be Rolls Royce or a Danish yacht designer to see some of that $21 trillion cast their way. But in selling to this group, companies are dealing with customer expectations on steroids. In the value paradigm of this group, customer service ranks second only to quality.

Companies don’t have to be Rolls Royce or a Danish yacht designer to see some of that $21 trillion cast their way. But in selling to this group, companies are dealing with customer expectations on steroids. In the value paradigm of this group, customer service ranks second only to quality.

Super service

In a 2015 article by Vincent Bastien, author of the book The Luxury Strategy, Bastien laid out some of the counterintuitive marketing rules that differentiated the way he believed luxury brands should comport themselves compared to other brands, including:

  • Don’t pander to your customers’ wishes.
  • Don’t respond to rising demand.
  • Dominate the client.
  • Make it difficult for clients to buy.
  • Protect clients from non-clients, the big from the small.
  • Communicate to those whom you are not targeting.
  • Do not sell.
  • Keep stars out of your advertising.
  • Do not sell openly on the Internet.

But that’s apparently an old-school view for a different generation of affluent people. In a more recent article in The New York Times about how customer service for the wealthy is creating new types of jobs, Nicolas Sala, omni-channel and client experience director at the luxury French jewelry house Boucheron, said, “My objective is not a sale but the story we are going to create with the customer.” Customer service for the wealthy, he said, is about building relationships, not dominating or controlling customers. And that’s new.

[Read also: From shopkeeper to "customer keeper"—how retail is shifting its focus]

The article goes on to say: “Luxury brands today are focused — obsessed, some headhunters and luxury insiders say — on building personal, emotional relationships with clients. And to deliver on that strategy, many have created jobs with titles like chief consumer officer, chief experience officer, and chief digital and client officer. Such consumer-centric positions have been around for years in industries like banking and hospitality but they only recently started popping up in the luxury sector.”

So is there really any difference in providing customer service for the affluent versus for the non-affluent. Micah Solomon, a consultant and speaker on customer service, says yes. He explains in an article for Forbes, those providing customer service for HNWIs have to adjust for the difference in frame of reference between the agent and the customer. When the agent recommends something based on their own financial framework—a bargain option, for example—they’re not speaking the same language as their customer. For the customer, the importance of convenience may completely eclipse the price.

And for most of us, Dyer said, one rude customer service encounter won’t cause us to switch providers. But for the affluent, it will. The reality that customer service is improving everywhere means Dyer needs to get even better at customer service for her clients.

The reality that customer service is improving everywhere means Dyer needs to get even better at customer service for her clients.

“In the past, I would sometimes get ‘Hey thanks, that was an awesome job,’ whereas now [the service I deliver is] the norm,” Dyer said. “I have to keep upping the game for the client to notice.”

Fortunately, technology is providing new, easier options for service. In the past, for example, searching for a personal chef could take tons of time. Now Dyer can use a site like hireachef.com or sometimes even a delivery service like GrubHub.

The important thing, though, is that the service is to the customer’s liking. One customer doesn’t want Dyer to cater at all; the client brings peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from home, underscoring the idea that great service in Dyer’s role is all about personalization.

[Read also: Did GDPR kill the personalization movement?]

The pinnacle of personalization

“Do you know who I am?” … This is the standard line of VIPs throughout cultural history. But these days, good customer service for everyone includes greeting customers by name, creating “custom” recommendation engines, and automatically sending customers to particular agents or communication channels depending on their history. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning have democratized personalization, and now that digital transformation has hit the luxury goods industry, there are likely to be more crossovers.

AI and machine learning have democratized personalization, and now that digital transformation has hit the luxury goods industry, there are likely to be more crossovers.

“‘Market of one’ might sound utopian and science fiction, but it already exists,” said Ian Rogers, chief digital officer at LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton in an article in The New York Times. “Now, with A.I…even mass-market brands can practice ‘market of one,’” he said. “We have to think about, how do we retain that advantage of that personal customer interaction, when literally anybody can behave that way or give that level of experience to a customer?”


Nike, for example, is not a luxury brand. But it has launched Nike by You which lets customers design their own shoes. It’s Nike’s way of “staying close to customers,” according to John R. Hoke III, Nike’s chief design officer.

Dyer has a personal relationship with each of her clients, and recognizes her job is to get them whatever they want, within reason, which may include: Dungeness crab to be served in-flight, a particular kind of blanket, or the kind of “water with the red top.” One client gives Dyer only a few hours notice to get everything together for the flight—this is to maintain secrecy. Another client usually wants the flight to include a chef from the hottest restaurant in his or her destination city. Some clients need Dyer to hire dog walkers so that they can travel with pets and be assured that the dog is cared for while they conduct business.

It’s Dyer’s job, along with the crew, to make the plane’s owner is the center of the universe. There is no chance of taking a selfie with the client, and flight attendants are expected to “read” the clients’ moods and adjust their behavior accordingly. Bottom line: personalization is still key, and pandering is definitely on the menu.

“Still, they are just regular people who happen to have a lot of money,” Dyer said. They don’t want to be treated well just because of their assets. They want to be treated well, as the rest of us do, because everyone wants to be treated with kindness, as someone who matters. In other words, Dyer said, “Just be nice!”

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