Rising Above Mediocre-To-Bad Customer Service

I recently received two emails from friends containing links to tales of extraordinary customer service. Make no mistake, the individuals in both stories go beyond the normal call of duty with responses that could not be looked up in any employee manual. But the reason stories like these wend their viral way into so many mailboxes is because people believe this is the way things should be done. And, all too often, they're not.

Consumer Traveler blogger Christopher Elliott tells the heart-rending story of an email be received from one of his readers whose 3-year-old step-grandson had been murdered by her step-daughter's live-in boyfriend in Denver. The woman's husband was in Los Angeles on business. She worked with Southwest Airlines to arrange what looked like a seamless transfer for him from L.A. through Tucson to Denver but the plans went awry when long lines at LAX caused her husband to miss his initial flight. He'd explain his plight to anyone he thought might move things along, but they all seemed oblivious. But when he finally arrived in Tucson, he discovered that the plane that was supposed to have taken off at 11:50 was still waiting for him at the gate at 12:02.



Said the pilot to the husband: "They can't go anywhere without me and I wasn't going anywhere without you. Now relax. We'll get you there. And again, I'm so sorry."

The other story will seem pale by comparison, but perhaps will dry those eyes. A call center rep at a pizza joint gets an online order that includes the note "please draw a unicorn fighting a bear on the box." He emails back that "unfortunately our stores are not equipped to fulfill such a request. They lack the required skill. However, I took it upon myself to draw out the picture you requested on a Post-it note." And damn if he didn't.

There are entire sites, or sections of sites, devoted to customer service stories. One of the better ones is Best and Worst Customer Service Stories at Walletpop.

We can all relate to these tales because they've happened to us. Well, not literally. But we so feel empathy for the woman at Victoria's Secret who says, "They should make this in our size" and has the manager respond, "Maybe if you lose some weight, we would have things that fit you."

Then there is the woman who heads back to a department store with some clothes her deceased mother had bought. They still have the tags on them, but she doesn't have receipts. When she explains to an inquisitive clerk why her mother cannot come up with the proof of purchase, she's told, "Well, you don't look too sad about it."

But countervailing those tales is the clerk at B. Dalton who searches diligently for a book for a customer and then calls a nearby Borders to have one set aside. And there is a story about Home Depot, of course, but surprise! It's a good one. "Atwaterlouise" writes that most of the cost of a malfunctioning baseboard heater was sent to her months after the 90-day warranty had expired. "By UPS," no less.

And Neal Levene of the blog Simple Complexity offers 10 stories of excellent customer service with the hope that "one of them triggers an idea." It includes a link to a 2008 story about a Zogby International and MSN Money poll that turned up 10 companies that treat you right.

You are not going to be surprised, I surmise, by names like Nordstrom's, Trader Joe's, Google, Amazon, Apple, Whole Foods, Publix, American Express, Marriott and Hilton. That suggests, of course, that good service is part of their culture. It can be passed along.

Forrester Research recently released the results of its latest Customer Experience Index, which compiled responses from about 7,700 consumers in the U.S. about their interactions with 154 brands in 13 industries. It then calculated a Customer Experience Index (CxPi) score. You'll have to pay $499 for the data, but the top-line results indicate that things are getting worse.

"Only six percent of the brands were ranked as excellent (score 85 or more out of 100) while two-thirds were rated "okay" to "poor," writes Josh Bernoff, svp, idea development at Forrester in an Ad Agepiece. "Eighteen percent were ranked as poor. Social technology is going to hammer these brands."

Harley Manning, another Forrester executive, points out in a blog entry that 10% of brands earned excellent ratings last year.

"What this tells us is that mediocre-to-bad customer experience is the norm, and great customer experience is really hard to find," he posits. "That should bother all those companies in the 'okay' to 'very poor' ranges because, as I pointed out in a previous post, going from a so-so customer experience to a good one can add hundreds of millions of dollars to a large company's annual revenue."

The best performers in the Forrester study includes some repeats, as well as some other names that aren't very surprising: Borders, Barnes & Noble, Kohl's, Costco, Amazon, JCPenney, Walgreens, Target, BJ's Wholesale Club, and USAA (credit cards).

As for me, I've been so impressed overall by Costco's service over the years that when my wife suggested that we take advantage of a free trial at a Sam's Club, I recoiled as if she had dissed a member of the family. And I was recently tempted to give a piece of my mind to a large and overbearing guy who was vociferously complaining about the long returns line. But as liberal as the returns policy may be, and as chirpy and efficient as the checkout clerks usually are, I'm not quite at the point of risking life and limb.

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