There’s a very old saying that instructs us to ‘treat others the way you would like to be treated.’ It’s certainly good advice and is undoubtedly very true for anyone who wants to be liked and respected. But if you’re involved in a business that requires you to deliver good customer service, you need to immediately forget it.

That’s because delivering consistently good customer service and experiences has nothing to do with how you would like to be treated and everything to do with what your customers actually want.

The quickest way to fail at service is to assume that you know what your customers want. Yes you need to try and anticipate their needs. Yes, you need to put yourself in their shoes. And yes, you need to always be proactive in your customer experience efforts. But thinking that you can build a great business based on giving customers what you’d want if you were them, is a one-way ticket to an empty cash register.

The reason for this is simple enough, but still many business owners and managers seem to get it wrong. No two people are alike. So while you may have been in your business for decades, you’ve always viewed it from opposite side of the service counter to your customer. Even when you’re out shopping, the way you want to be treated, is not necessarily the way customers of your business wish their experience could be.

Unfortunately, far too many businesses still make this assumption. And it’s at the heart of their often-dismal service failures. For instance, most customers don’t want to be accosted by a salesperson (usually poorly disguised as a service champion) the moment they walk through the shop door. Just like most restaurant patrons don’t want every employee in the establishment – from manager to busboy – to come by and ask how their food is, usually just as they take a mouthful of it.

And it’s not just overbearing service that’s a problem. Anything you do because you think it is what your customer wants – no matter how well intentioned – can backfire on you if it actually isn’t. To create truly unforgettable customer experiences, you shouldn’t be thinking what your customers want; you should be asking them.

And since the desires and needs of consumers change faster than the weather in Cape Town, you need to be asking these types of questions pretty regularly. By that I don’t necessarily mean fully-fledged customer needs surveys (although these will most certainly deliver invaluable insights), I simply mean engaging with your customers in a meaningful way and giving them every possible opportunity to tell you what kind of experience they want.

Of course, once you ask what your customers expect from you there’s really no excuse for failing to deliver it. But that’s an issue for another blog all on its own.