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Day Four: Providing OUTSTANDING customer service

When I just started business travel, my dad gave me some really good advice. He told me when you're in a new city: find a restaurant, find a bar, and find a coffee shop. Only go to that restaurant/bar/coffee shop, smile, and tip well. My dad was teaching me how to make it easy to receive outstanding customer service. I have a theory that there are really only two ways to offer OUTSTANDING customer service, and both are challenging to accomplish. There are some baseline requirements for acceptable customer service: proficiency at your job, warmth/friendliness, eye contact, etc. Being proficient does not mean being outstanding. I think that to be outstanding customer service employees must be able to:

1. Go above and beyond- Now for those of you living in Boston, this doesn’t mean make eye contact with me when I check out at the grocery store. This means understand who I am and anticipating my needs. When I walk into my local Chipotle my burrito-istas starts my veggie bowl, when I stayed at the Fairfield Inn in Dunwoody GA the front desk guy greeted me by name every night, and my financial advisor at Meryll Lynch always asks me how my wife, Allison, is doing. You can read a number of case studies about amazing customer service providers going above and beyond, google customer service stories: Nordstrom’s or Zappos, or pick up Dan Heath’s book: Made to Stick. However, it is challenging for employees to surprise and delight you if they don’t know what you need.

This means that customer service representatives need to be trained in understanding user needs, and rewarded for going above and beyond.  The Nordstrom’s employee-or Nordie- who ironed a customer’s new shirt for him before a meeting would not have thought to offer that service if she was not making conversation with her guest. She was able to identify a user need and had the freedom to act on it.  

2. Grace under pressure- I think the second way that customer service can really be OUTSTANDING, is incredibly difficult to pull off. Grace under pressure means that customer service representatives are given the freedom to fix customer problems. Think about the last time you had a customer service or product issue…they happen all of the time. How stores and their employees react to those issues tells you a lot about the store and what they are willing to do to satisfy you as a customer.

I used to be a loyal Best Buy customer, mainly because I loved supporting Minnesota businesses, and partially because I had no idea where else to get my geek needs serviced. Unfortunately, Best Buy employees do not have the freedom or support to show grace under pressure. I bought a video camera from Best Buy for work, after using it once the charging cord no longer worked. I tried to return the camera, but had already submitted the expense report so I no longer had a receipt. By the time I got the receipt back from my company, I had owned the camera for 15 days…one day longer than the official Best Buy return policy guidelines. This meant I got to go through Geek Squad hell. After weeks of dealing with my broken camera, one of the employees told me that my camera had been lost…but there was nothing he could do about it. I spoke to a manager who told me he would investigate and call me the next day, I never heard back from him. I found the CEO’s email address and spoke to his administrative assistant who is probably still “looking into it.” This whole experience was completely terrible and could have been alleviated if that first customer service person has the authority to make a judgment call on the return policy.

On the other hand, I was recently at an AMAZING focus group facility in Atlanta (Schlesinger for those of you that need a facility reco). The employees at Schlesinger went out of their way to help manage our demanding bunch. They were proactive and super accommodating. They even let one of my clients hang out in the video editing room with them so he could get the perfect shots. Did things go wrong through-out the week? Of course they did, I can’t think of a week of testing where something didn’t go wrong, but the employees at Schlesinger had the autonomy to fix any problems that came up. In the end I (and my clients) don’t even remember the slight mishaps, but we do remember the awesome food recommendations and the help they provided to getting everything fedex-ed home.

Help your employees have grace under pressure by giving them the autonomy and authority to make things right with their customers.

Drawing by Cal Chan

My dad travels to China 10 times a year, and he always stays at the Sheridan in Ningbo. The reason: upon arriving at the Sheridan, he's greeted by name. The employees always ask him how he's been and how life is in Illinois, and ask if there is anything they can do to exceed his expectations. If there is a problem (who hasn’t had to draw a picture of a plunger in a foreign country?) it is fixed immediately.  

The best customer service experiences cannot be scripted, but require smart, sensitive employees to make good decisions.

What are some other examples of employees going above and beyond or showing grace under pressure?

Reader Comments (3)

Most of your examples for going above and beyond have to do with recognition by face or name. Also, as an innocent bystander to the Best Buy fiasco I noticed one of your big gripes was not being recognized by the manager that you had spoken with several times about the same problem. Perhaps you came across another need- If I am a loyal customer treat me like one.

December 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAllison Werner


I agree completely! I think rewarding loyalty is key but I think the gesture doesn’t have to be huge. I love getting free crap for being loyal, but am even more impressed when someone remembers me. I am especially impressed when someone I don’t see very often remembers me. I used to have a hair stylist who I would see every few months, she was amazing in that she not only remembered exactly how I like to have my hair cut, but she also remembered ridiculous details about me like I am vegan and I was shopping for a new food processor. The question is: how do we teach customer service employees how to recognize faces, remember names, and react accordingly to the “softer” information they gather during service transactions?

December 7, 2011 | Registered CommenterBeth Werner

This reminded me of my recent AT+T experience. I wanted to upgrade from my 'not so smart' phone to a smart phone but am 6 months shy of contract date. Been with them 14 years but that didn't sway them however as we ended the conversation the representative said "and thank you for being a loyal customer for 14 years!" I was disappointed that they wouldn't bend a little for me and the final comment angered me more than anything.

Now I'm looking at moving companies. Loyalty should go in both directions.

Loving the blog!

December 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBonnie Fraser

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