COMPANIES that stand out for their service quality invest in their people, human resource management and compensation policies because these are linked to how their employees interact with customers.

The core of service excellence lies in service employees' belief in the value they create when serving customers. It focuses on the "thinking, feeling, seeing, speaking and doing" of customer service.

Excellent service providers display the service micro-skills of tuned-in service language and non-verbal language.

The power of words

Engaging customers requires that you pay attention to specific words, that is, by using tuned-in service language. There are five messages in what you say: what you mean to say, what you actually said, what the other person hears, what the other person thinks he heard and what the other person says about what you said.

Requests that sound like giving orders make customers upset and defensive. Stop and think for a moment about what happens when a service provider talks to you and uses such words.

Consider this example: A cashier at a supermarket brusquely tells customers to place their groceries within her reach as the conveyor belt is not working.

Customers are surprised by such rudeness at first, and then, they become irritated. Although they cooperate, they are thinking: "Is it my problem?" and "Why should I make your job easier when you clearly have no idea how to treat customers?"

How things are said is important. People resent being ordered about and being given no choice. Positive service language engages a customer's goodwill. If the cashier in the example had asked customers to do the same thing politely with a smile, most reasonable people would have been happy to help her - without any loss of goodwill.

Mind your body language

When you first meet a customer, a multitude of information is gathered in a short space of time that will make or break a good impression.

Besides saying the right thing, you must be aware of your body language. It is a constant, non-verbal flow of communication.

Without saying a word, your body language can reveal what you are feeling and thinking. For example, you can guess what the bank teller is feeling when she rolls her eyes in exasperation when you bring in the loose change you have collected over the past two years.

A study was done at a major university on how people receive messages from other people. It showed that 55 per cent of what we learn from others comes from their body language, 38 per cent is from the tone of their voice (para-language) and 7 per cent is from the words they say.

When you are serving a customer, the trick is to adjust your body language and project your tone of voice positively. An appropriate amount of eye contact indicates the interest you have in the customer.

You must look around actively for signs that may reveal that the customer is in need of something - do not wait for him to ask. Eye contact lets the customer know that you are interested, receptive and attentive to what he is saying.

People can always tell when service employees are listening impatiently or want to end the conversation by simple body language clues such as turning their bodies away, gathering up papers or looking at their watches repeatedly.

To show that you are intently listening to and interested in a conversation with your customer, display tuned-in non-verbal language cues such as nodding, facing the customer, maintaining eye contact, leaning forward slightly and making open-palm gestures.

Lastly, the tone of your voice affects the meaning of words and reveals your emotional state - whether you are genuine, impatient or disrespectful. For example, saying "Would you please...." with a strong emphasis on "please" conveys annoyance rather than politeness. As a service provider, your tone should be pleasant and positive.

Your ability to read your customer's body language and project your own in a way that says "I'm here to serve and value-add" is one of the least expensive and most powerful skills you have. Remember, we speak with our voices but communicate with our bodies.

A service workforce equipped with tuned-in service language and non-verbal language micro-skills will be a greater source of competitive advantage. These service micro-skills enable service staff to "wow" (win-own-woo) and offer value-add to customers.