Customer Service? Here's Where It Really Gets Good

What’s your definition of great customer service – the kind of customer service that would lead you to recommend the business to your friends, not to mention give it additional work yourself? Mine, if I defined it a week ago, would have been something like this: Make sure the customer has what she needs, when she needs it, with as little hassle as humanly possible. Now it includes a postscript: And, when possible, throw in a little surprise.

Let me explain. I just returned from a week’s vacation – a little tanned, a lot rested – ready to tackle the list of things that come with taking a week off: grocery shopping, many loads of laundry, opening and answering the pile of real mail that seems to be shrinking every year and opening and answering the stack of e-mails that seems to be growing. Oh, and I had to follow up on the car.

The week before I left, I hopped into my relatively new Volvo wagon to drive my kids to school. We’d gotten some snow, but the roads were cleared, the white stuff piled on the side. As I rounded the corner from my street to the next, I hit the curb on the passenger side. Boom! went the right front tire. I heard it. My kids heard it. I didn’t even have to get out of the car – or look at the dashboard indicator – to know that it was totally flat.

Was I pissed off? Absolutely. At myself. But I kept my cool, pulled this car back into the driveway, took the kids to school in my husband’s car and called Volvo roadside assistance and my dealership. The former showed up within an hour to put on the spare (technically, I know how to do this, whether or not I could actually do it is debatable). The latter scheduled an appointment the following week to replace the real tire and to take a look at whether I’d done any other damage. My assistant would take it in. I was relieved to know that it would be handled, but bummed at the thought of $200 – or whatever – for the new tire on my vacation-laden credit-card bill.

I got home and the car was in the driveway. It was washed and there was an envelope under the visor. I opened it to check the damage. Labor: $0. Parts: $0. I looked again. Labor: $0. Parts: $0. The labor, I’d half anticipated. When I bought the car it came with five years of free maintenance; I wasn’t sure if my mistakes would be covered. But parts? There was a note below: As a “goodwill gesture,” per the “service manager,” the tire had been replaced for free.

On my way to the grocery store, my mind wandered. My 15-year-old would be driving fairly soon and we might need to add another car to the family. Should I ask my Volvo sales rep to keep his eye out for a good, small, used one? And wasn’t my friend Debi in the market for a Volvo? I should make it a point to tell her to go to my dealership and to ask for Rick.

In the scheme of gestures, what this service manager did for me was relatively small. I’m sure the tire cost him $100 at wholesale. Maybe less. But the fact that it came out of nowhere engendered (at least in the short term) a feeling of loyalty in me that I don’t often feel even to providers of excellent, but anticipated, service.

Case in point: The vacation I just returned from, a Royal Caribbean cruise, was a seven-day exercise in great service. Filling out our customer satisfaction survey, my husband and I gave the crew top marks in almost every service category. And yet, if I were to plan another cruise vacation, would I make sure to go on another with this company? I don’t think so. Instead, I’d pick the itinerary that was most convenient, check out the service ratings of the line on the Internet, and as long as there were no red flags, I’d book it. What’s the difference?

Aside from the animals sculpted nightly out of bath towels by our stateroom attendant, there was no surprise. I paid for great service. I expected it. I got it. It was part of the package.

Researchers who study consumer behavior have documented this phenomenon. When consumers receive a surprise coupon, an unexpected discount, they spend more money in the store. When they receive a surprise incentive, it means more to them than one they knew was coming. I had read this in bits and pieces before, but don’t know that I understood it until I experienced both in such a short time frame.

What qualifies as excellent customer service for you?

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