12 Lessons From The Best Customer Service Companies

Updated: March 02, 2010

One of the most common consumer complaints these days is the shoddy customer service they receive. Betweeen rude staffs, robotic phone systems, bait-and-switch sales tactics and general incompetence, it seems that few businesses are going above and beyond to truly satisfy and delight their customers. Fortunately, the business world is not completely barren of top-notch service. Today, we extract 12 practical lessons smart businesses can learn from the best customer service companies around - both what to do, and what not to do.

Keep It Personal

The worst thing a customer service department can become is robotic and impersonal. Yes, a certain amount of automation is necessary for efficiency, but customers should never feel like they are at the mercy of machines when all they really want is to talk to a human being. Perhaps no company takes this lesson to heart more than Amazon. In a Consumerist article entitled Amazon Sends Best Customer Service E-Mail I Ever Received, we see that one reader sent an impassioned plea for help to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Not only did Bezos read the note, he actually told a support rep exactly what to say on his behalf and personally saw to it that the complaint was addressed. While this particular response was somewhat on the humorous side, Amazon has continually been ranked high in customer service for their willingness to deal personally with complaints or problems.

Don't Make The Customer Work

Nobody likes calling up a company's support line and having to jump through hoops to get their problem solved. Yet sadly, many companies build friction into their support systems by forcing customer to remember arcane account or customer numbers, e-mail addresses and passwords (that were most likely forgotten moments after they were created) before being helped. Far better in this regard are companies like USAA which strive to make customer service as easy as possible on the customer. According to MySanAntonio.com, comments like "you guys are too easy" are made frequently to the company's 13,000 support representatives, which (not coincidentally) constitute roughly 60% of the company's work force.

Foster Relationships

When it comes to major, life-changing purchases, simply answering a customer's questions is not enough. To close large sales worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, a firm's customer service staff needs to build and foster relationships with customers. It was largely this practice that ranked Jaguar third on BusinessWeek's "Customer Service Champs" list in 2009. While car dealers often rush to have you sign, Jaguar prioritizes your comfort above the immediate sale. Even if it takes weeks or months, they would rather you walk off the lot feeling confident in your decision than spend money before you were comfortable doing so. Other companies can emulate Jaguar's approach by being supportive, proactively anticipating your customer's concerns, providing information you think will be helpful (as opposed to shamelessly promotional), and the like.

Go Above & Beyond

 

No small amount of customer frustration comes from the perception that companies are doing the bare minimum to satisfy them. Of no company is this less true less than Ritz Carlton. The luxury hotel chain "makes customer service an art form", according to BusinessKnowHow.com. Rather than seeing customer service as an incidental part of the business, Ritz Carlton views making customers happy as its entire foundation. One couple, for instance, recalls staying at a Ritz Carlton for a wedding anniversary weekend. Upon telling the staff of the reason for their stay, a freshly baked cake with the words "Happy Anniversary" frosted on top was sent to their room, free of charge. Actions like these make the customer feel completely taken care of, translating to lifelong good will and referrals for the company!

Be Enthusiastic

Another way to show customers that they're in good hands is to be really, truly, palpably enthusiastic about your products. Customers like to believe that businesses believe in the virtues of their offerings on a level transcending profit. They want to feel like you take pride in your brand and feel a personal connection to it. How Lexus chose to react to unforeseen technical problems with its Lexus 400 sedans is a textbook example. Rather than issuing some vaguely apologetic press release, LexusEnthusiast.com reports the company sent over 300 people all over the country who "visited the affected customers at home, brought them a gift, apologized for the glitches in person and, of course brought along a technician who fixed the problems. On the spot. In their driveways." Such enthusiasm suggests a company that goes above and beyond because it truly values the trust customers place in its products.

Be Helpful Without Being Annoying

Anyone who has ever set food inside a store knows that it's a fine line between helpful and annoying. The overzealous floor clerk might think he's helping by following you from aisle to aisle, but in truth, he is actually getting in the way. The challenge (especially for retailers) is to assist customers without stepping on their toes. One company that exemplifies this better than anyone in its industry is Publix grocery stores. According to RFFRetailer.com, Publix does "so many little things incredibly well that it builds into a store experience." In fact, so widely recognized is Publix's ability to help without irritating that "All Other Supermarkets" ranked a distant second during a 2008 survey.

Even Online Retailers Need Phone Support

An all too common mistake of online retailers is to assume "since we're online, we don't need a support number." In leiu of phone support, web retailers typically direct all questions or concerns to an opaque form that most people, perhaps rightly, assume will never get answered by anyone. Refreshingly, clothes and accessories retailer Zappos.com gets it right in this regard. In addition to online support, Zappos not only provides a phone number, but displays it prominently on its contact page and encourages customers to call no matter what their problem is. Such forthrightness shows customers that the company has nothing to hide, and is in fact eager to assist in any way necessary.

Unabashedly Seek to Out-Serve Competitors

Arguably the best customer service lesson to absorb is deliberately and unapologeticaly striving to out-serve your competitors. Take stock of how the other companies in your industry interact with customers and seek out specific ways to do a better job of it. T. Rowe Price has taken this lesson to heart, and was rewarded by being the only financial services firm in BusinessWeek's Top 10 list of Customer Service Champs. Remarking on receiving this award, company chairman Edward C. Bernard stated "providing the kind of service that our customers not only appreciate but seek out is a core objective of our firm, and one that we continuously pursue." Here as with other lessons, we see the importance of taking customer service seriously in its own right, rather than as an afterthought.

Be Prompt

The reason so many people prefer phone support to online is not that online support is inherently awful. Rather, it's because most companies treat problems or concerns submitted online as less urgent. Let's be frank - who really expects to hear back from "support@someretailer.com" anytime soon? Consequently, the stereotype of sluggish online support plagues all companies that offer it. In this regard, Hewlett-Packard is a role model. Last year, the Association of Support Professionals ranked as HP among the top 10 companies in online support, chiefly because "e-mails are routinely answered in about an hour and customers can chat in real time with a support professional."

Train Rank & File Employees in Your Customer Service Philosophy

Great customer service is not commanded down from the top by written edicts and policies. Every company referenced in this article has made a conscious decision to train its rank and file employees in how to properly assist their customers. Equally important as whatever job-related skills must be learned are certain customer service principles that the company has decided to emphasize. Ace Hardware exemplifies this lesson. MyAce.com quotes an Ace Hardware owner named John Arterburn who captures the idea in one sentence: "they really live their philosophy of customer service." Customers know the difference between a pompous sign on the wall claiming that they are valued and an entire workforce that has been trained to make good on that promise.

Always Innovate

Contrary to some assumptions, customer service isn't all about direct business to customer interactions. Even the most courteous and professional staff can't rescue a stagnant company selling the "same old same old" year after year. A shining example to emulate in this respect is Trader Joes, which, in addition to having helpful (but not annoying!) employees, constantly turns out new, innovative and desirable products at low prices. Sandy Skrovan, head of food research at TNS Retail Forward, proclaims that "when you think Trader Joe's you think of innovative products." Perhaps this is why Trader Joes generates an average of $1,300 in sales per square foot in its stores - double the industry average.

Create a Desire to Belong

Finally, among the most powerful customer service techniques is creating a desire to belong. Take Apple, for instance. It's well-known that Microsoft Windows dominates the operating system and computer technology market. Step into any office building, school or home and you're more likely to see Windows than anything else. Apple knows this, but rather than trying to fight with Microsoft for computing dominance, it relishes its underdog role. By turning out products and services that are distinctly not like Microsoft's, Apple has built a loyal and growing following of people who wish to be identified as Apple customers, irrespective of anything Microsoft produces. No small part of Apple's 2009 ranking as the top PC customer service company owes to their hard work at creating a desire to belong. Customers with a desire to belong are fiercely loyal and provide positive testimonials and word-of-mouth advertising money can't buy.