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Customer Service Excellence Examples

Customer
Service
Excellence
Examples

Josh Magsam

Ask most business leaders what defines an exceptionally good customer service experience, and they’ll likely talk about moments that “delight” the customer, an interaction that “wows” customers and proves that the company can deliver “knock-your-socks-off” service. And why not? These stories make everyone smile, they play well on social media feeds, and build great word-of-mouth referral networks.

What makes a customer service experience truly stand out and become a story that customers share over and over again, building brand awareness and driving repeat business, is the human element. Employees are human; customers are human. Automated scripts may reduce contact times and increase contact center success metrics, but let’s face it, they rarely solve most questions that people have. When customers have a problem, they need assistance from someone who has the ability to say “hey — I get it, this is frustrating. Let me take care of it!” That’s where the delight comes in, and where customer problems are turned into solutions that make them feel like they really matter to your company, rather than just representing a few dollars on the balance sheet.

Great Companies Create Great Experiences

Providing a human experience is  exactly what great companies do to win customer loyalty — they make every customer experience a delightful one, not through complex formulas or intensive reviews of contact center metrics, but through simple acts of generosity and assistance that make people’s lives easier. In this guide, I’ve compiled dozens of examples of customer service excellence, drawn from companies in sectors ranging from air travel and hospitality to apparel and indoor air quality. Some of these companies are nearly a century old, and others have appeared within the last decade. In every case, a constant theme emerges: when employees are empowered to put a smile on customer’s faces, great things happen.

Companies that know how to make customers happy and really deliver delightful experiences start by hiring enthusiastic people who truly enjoy working with customers, then empower them to solve any problem by having free reign to do whatever it takes to make customers happy. They build processes and systems and programs that are focused on giving employees the tools they need to make great moments happen, rather than focusing purely on the bottom line. And along the way, two amazing things come together — customers are delighted with their experience, then share their joy and bring in even more customers.

2.

Zappos and the Path
to Customer Happiness

Zappos.com has a well-earned reputation as a true leader in ecommerce customer service. Thanks to CEO Tony Hsieh, the company is a dominant force in the online footwear and apparel market, gaining even more steam following its acquisition by Amazon.com for $1.2 billion in 2009.

Zappos and the Path to Customer Happiness

Hsieh is a widely recognized thought leader in business strategy who truly lives his beliefs. After moving Zappos headquarters to downtown Las Vegas, he launched an experiment in urban living by creating a park with vintage Airstream trailer homes and tiny houses on a one-acre lot near the campus, dubbed Llamapolis, where he still lives (along with his Alpacas, Marley and Triton). When asked about his reasons for creating the park, Hsieh explained he did it because he “wanted to maximize serendipity and randomness” in his life, a phrase that could just as well describe the Zappos philosophy of delivering happiness by surprising customers.

Tony Hsieh, Zappos.com: 'Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose'

Delivering WOW Through Amazing Customer Service — The Zappos Way

So how do they do it? In his 2009 book, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose, Hsieh distills the formula for Zappos success down to a single word: culture. More specifically, a culture of happiness that is built on a mission to make everyone — customers and employees alike — happy. By focusing first and foremost on following their passion and spreading happiness, Hsieh believes companies can create customer experiences that build phenomenal brand loyalty, simply because customers are genuinely happy to engage with the brand.

At Zappos, the Customer Loyalty Team takes point in the mission to “deliver WOW through service” to their customer base. Numbering 600 strong, they handle up to 10,000 contacts per day (split between email, chat, and phone), with the phone team handling a significant portion of that volume. The efforts taken by Zappos Customer Loyalty Team members in their quest to make customers happy are nothing short of heroic. I’ve selected a few cases to highlight here, but could easily have covered a dozen other examples — and that’s just choosing from the most frequently cited examples. That just how good this team is. Customers have been singing their praises for over a decade, and there’s no sign that they’re slowing down.

In return, the team receives generous perks and compensation, and each employee has the ability to give up a $50 “co-worker bonus award” on a monthly basis. That’s in addition to an amazing campus designed to follow Hsieh’s preference for “serendipity and randomness,” such as housing the IT department in the cafeteria. Just how amazing is the campus? Enough so that campus tours are considered a noteworthy experience in Las Vegas, a city known for having more than its fair share of tourist attractions.

Zappos Delights Customers First and Worries About Metrics Later

Call center support is the heart and soul of the Zappos Customer Loyalty Team. Anyone who has ever worked phone sales or support can likely recall instances where a supervisor jumped in with an order to speed up the script or break off the call in order to keep average handle time (AHT) low across the shift. Not the case at Zappos. While they do answer 80% of calls in under 20 seconds, and they do track similar metrics for the purpose of volume forecasting and staffing decisions, they remain fixed on the goal to “deliver WOW” by making the customer happy, no matter how long the call takes.

In fact, call handlers on the Zappos Customer Loyalty Team are empowered to spend as much time as they want on each call, with the result that there have been multiple instances where a call handler spent their entire workday (or longer) on a single call. In June 2016, Zappos Customer Loyalty Team member Stephen Weinstein talked to a customer for 10 hours and 43 minutes — a statistic likely to send most call center managers into a panic. And perhaps the best part is that it wasn’t initially a Zappo’s service call. Weinstein spent the duration of the call just informing the caller about life in the Las Vegas area, although the call did eventually lead to the sale of a pair of Ugg boots.

Weinstein’s call did set a new record of Zappos, but the prior record-holder, Shaea Labus, wasn’t all that far behind — she had a 9 hour, 37 minutes phone call with a customer in 2012. In both cases, the Zappos culture was responsible for making this happen. Not only were both team members free to spend this much time on their calls, but they received support from their colleagues in each case, with co-workers bringing food and water and offering encouragement along the way.

Both phone calls showcase one of the central tenets of the Zappos support philosophy, which holds that team members can create great experiences by just listening to what customers have to say. “When it comes to creating great experiences, the number one tool any company can use is listening,” according to Zappos culture evangelist Jon Wolske. Listening carefully to the context customers provide can open opportunities to solve an additional problem or even just respond with a moment of kindness, turning the call into “an experience rather than [a] transaction.” That philosophy is key for creating experiences that turn into compelling stories and create brand advocates for life.

Take the case of an elderly woman who ordered six pairs of shoes from Zappos, hoping to find a comfortable pair after her feet began swelling painfully due to medical procedures. Her daughter was so impressed with what happened next, she wrote her own article about how Zappos “knocked her socks off” with their kindness. The story starts when the mother called in to return the pairs she didn’t want, and the Zappos team member took the time to chat with her, learning about her medical issues. The Zappos rep happened to have similar medical concerns, and the pair bonded through conversation.

The mother called her daughter to enthuse about the call and how special it had been to her — but it didn’t stop there. A few days later, a bouquet of flowers arrived at the mother’s home, and the whole family was moved. This led to the writer’s sister contacting Zappos to tell them just how much the gesture had meant to them all, and Zappos promptly responded by granting all three women VIP accounts.

The writer summed up her family’s experience by stating “I’ve seen [Zappos] employee videos about products in which their natural, unscripted delivery, and totally average looking appearances, make me trust them…But this bouquet of flowers delivered on the vision… Wow.” This is an excellent example of how taking a few more moments to let a phone conversation develop led to an opportunity to “deliver WOW through service” and spread true happiness to multiple customers, leading to three fierce brand loyalists and a great word of mouth story that reached thousands of people.

Happiness Happens on Every Customer Service Channel At Zappos

Not every great Zappos story happens over the phone. As posted on Reddit, a customer wrote an email to the Zappos team to ask about a return and possible replacement for a pair of shoes that fell apart shortly after delivery. The Zappos rep, Paul, recognized that the customer was understandably disappointed, and also knew that the shoes were discontinued, meaning a direct replacement wasn’t possible. In order to cheer the customer up, Paul took time to write a pitch-perfect response full of wit and emotion, casting himself as a superhero named Captain Anomaly.

Staying in character throughout, Paul sent a pre-paid return shipping label and gave instructions for re-packaging the shoes for a return, then included a $15 coupon to be used towards a different pair of shoes, all before closing with a humorous but genuine apology for the inconvenience. The customer’s exact response isn’t clear from the details, but given that his friend posted the entire email directly to Reddit, it’s fair to assume that he was very happy with the outcome and shared the story with others.

But the crown jewel of Zappos customer support stories is one that really showcases what happens when employees are fully empowered to take any action necessary to deliver happiness for a customer. As told by Rob Siefker, senior director of the Zappos Customer Loyalty team, the story begins with the kind of small mixup that happens every day in many households. While packing up their home to move, a husband took care to place his wife’s jewelry into a spare purse, which he then put in what he thought was an extra Zappos box. As you might guess, the wife actually intended to return the purse to Zappos, which she did — without checking for any contents. When she started to unpack in their new home and discovered the mistake, she reached out to Zappos immediately, hoping they could intercept the package and return it to her.

The Zappos rep she talked to immediately rerouted the package directly to his desk so he could send it back to her. However, he was still concerned that there was too much room for error in shipping the jewelry back through the mail. Instead, he bought a plane ticket and hand-delivered the items back to the very grateful couple. Now that’s “delivering WOW through service” in action!

Happy, Empowered Employees Lead to Delighted, Loyal Customers

There’s a common thread through these and every other Zappos story. Tony Hsieh’s vision of an empowering culture with a mission for spreading happiness is directly manifested in the experiences that the Zappos Customer Loyalty Team create on a daily basis. That’s thanks to a simple but powerful dedication to making sure the right employees are hired to do the job. One of the lessons Hsieh took from his first company, LinkExchange, was that it’s absolutely critical to take time in the hiring process, making sure to hire people who are the right fit for the company’s culture first and foremost. Christa Foley, Culture Adviser and Director of Insight at Zappos, emphasizes the need to hire people who care about customer service first and foremost. Every candidate goes through separate technical and culture fit reviews, and if there is any question about their commitment to making customers happy and living the Zappos core values, they are dropped from consideration, no matter their technical skills or experience.

But it doesn’t stop there. If a candidate accepts an offer but begins to have doubts during the training process, Zappos will pay them to quit — a radical concept that recognizes it’s far cheaper in the long run, to eliminate a bad culture fit early on than to sink resources into training and possibly lose customers while the employee struggles to fit in. And each Customer Loyalty Team member is trained to recognize that, as the employee who is closest to the customer when they need help, they are fully empowered to take any action necessary to make that customer happy, as the examples above clearly show.

Delivering WOW Pays Dividends in Customer Loyalty

There’s no question that the Zappos approach to finding profit by pursuing passion and delivering happiness is a winner. Their fanatical customer base is only too happy to return to Zappos time and time again and are quick to evangelize about their experience with friends and family. That leaves Zappos with an astonishing retention rate of up to 75%, with as much up to 44% of new customers making their first purchase based on word of mouth recommendation from existing customers. That’s kept revenues hovering close to $1 billion for nearly a decade, even as recent experiments with radical management structures raised eyebrows in leadership circles. But there again, the company’s dedication to making customers happy first and foremost cut through the chatter, and customers continue to rave about their experiences with Zappos.

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Warby Parker and Morton’s Steakhouse Empower Employees to Create Unforgettable Experiences

Other companies are also delivering on unforgettable experiences by empowering employees — Warby Parter and Morton’s Steakhouse have both seen recent buzz for amazing customer service. In order to be an exceptional, truly unforgettable experience, a customer service interaction has to deliver something that the customer never would have expected, let alone dreamed of. When this happens, there’s no doubt in the customer’s mind that the company really just wanted to see them smile more than anything else — and as you might guess, that feeling creates customers for life. Consider the case of Warby Parker executive Anjali Kumar, whose seatmate on a train journey left behind a pair of Warby Parker reading glasses. Kumar took the glasses and was able to match them with the customer’s order for a replacement pair. When the customer opened their new glasses, they were stunned to find their original pair (with new lenses) and a copy of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road included as well, along with a note directly from Kumar explaining how it all came together. The customer took to Facebook to share the experience, and the story went viral.

Customer's story

Then there’s the story of author and customer service guru Peter Shankman, who found himself getting hungry while waiting at an airport several years ago. On a whim, he Tweeted his favorite steakhouse: “Hey @Mortons — can you meet me at newark airport with a porterhouse when I land in two hours? K, thanks. :)”

Customer service guru Peter Shankman Tweeted his favorite steakhouse

To his absolute surprise, a tuxedoed Morton’s employee showed up at the airport a short while later with a porterhouse and a full complement of sides, having driven 23 miles to deliver his favorite meal.

Both stories are great examples of the kind of good vibes that are generated when a company delivers extraordinary service just to show they really do care about taking care of customers to the fullest extent possible. Kumar had no way of knowing that the customer would take to social media to share their story and generate positive buzz. Her determination to match the customer with their glasses and include a few surprises came from a genuine desire to do something fun that would delight a particular customer. And there’s no doubt that Shankman was delighted with Morton’s service, which highlights a keen social media program that was able to pick up on his comment, then tap into an employee network that was empowered to do something unique.

Alen Air Purifiers Delivers Safety and Happiness in the Middle of a Crisis

It’s tempting to wonder how the Zappos model of listening to customers and empowering employees to take extraordinary measures fares outside of an extremely profitable megacorporation. Can smaller companies still deliver moments where extraordinary experiences can — or perhaps need to — happen, without the expense accounts and seemingly limitless resources?

The answer is a resounding “yes.” That’s because supporting a mission of empowering people and prioritizing customer happiness isn’t simply a profit vs loss question — it’s sometimes just the right thing to do. During the recent wildfires that devastated southern California, social media feeds everywhere overflowed with examples of heroism and selflessness on the part of friends, neighbors, and first-responders.

One amazing story that surfaced on Reddit involved unexpected heroism from a man named Mark Caddell, VP of Sales and Customer Relations at Alen Air Purifiers, who manufacture several models designed to filter out particulates common to wildfire smoke. It seems that a family in California had purchased one of these units to help clean the air in their home and make it safer for their young son, but the company explained that their delivery was stuck in the UPS system due to the wildfires.

But before they knew it, Mark reached out to them by phone to express his own concern for families needing their products in California and gave them a personal commitment to wards getting the unit delivered. The next afternoon, Mark responded to one of their texts with a picture of an airplane wing — that’s right, he was en route from his home in Texas to hand-deliver a unit to them. And it doesn’t stop there — when he landed, Mark offered to pick up a meal from In-N-Out Burger to top off the experience.

Mark Caddell, <abbr>VP</abbr> of Sales and Customer Relations at Alen Air Purifiers

The family was understandably blown away by Mark’s incredible effort and obvious sincerity, and contacted a local ABC affiliate, who quickly got Mark in front of a camera to share his story. From there, they asked friends and family to take to social media to boost their signal and share good vibes about Mark and Alen.

There’s no doubt that Mark acted here as a person first and foremost. He recognized the parents were concerned about their child’s health and desperate for a solution. He also recognized that he was in a unique position to do something extraordinary to solve their problem, delivering both happiness and safety (and cheeseburgers) in the process. It wasn’t the only option available to him — he could have contracted a different shipping service, provided immediate refunds or even free units, and stuck to posting his best wishes for those near the wildfires on social media. Instead, he chose to take significant personal action, and it paid off with an incredible story of exceptional dedication to customer service.

Cotopaxi Makes Gear for Good a Cornerstone of Service Excellence

Tony Hsieh’s philosophy of following personal passions and spreading happiness before profitability continues to resonate through the startup world. Many companies are also recognizing that they can make customers happy not just by solving problems for them, but also by spreading happiness to other people through the power of social good — such as revenue sharing, supporting local suppliers and using sustainable materials, or dedicating time and money to helping people in need. In closing this section, I’d like to share a personal story about a company that did both and earned a dedicated customer and brand evangelist as a result.

A couple of years ago, I learned about then-new outdoor gear supplier Cotopaxi (the name comes from a mountain peak in the Ecuadorian Andes). I was initially drawn in by their colorful designs and the eye-catching image of a llama that serves as their icon, but I was even more intrigued when I learned that they donate 2% of their revenue to organizations fighting poverty around the world. In other words, they really do live up to their motto of “Gear For Good.”

A few weeks later, I placed an order with Cotopaxi during a Black Friday sale for a new backpack for myself, and a sweater for my wife (a Christmas present). Knowing how busy the holiday season is, and that the company was relatively new at the time, I wasn’t surprised when there was a brief delay in shipping. But I eventually began to be a little concerned when no shipping notice arrived, so I reached out to their support team with a brief email inquiry. I noted that as a customer support manager with an ecommerce company at the time, I understood how frantic things could be during the holiday season.

I received a friendly and detailed response back in just a few minutes. As it turned out, they had already tried to contact me by email with an update — their sale had been so successful that they sold out of the color of the sweatshirt I had ordered and they were offering a refund or a replacement in a different color. After checking my spam folder (sure enough, there was the first email), I wrote back a few hours later to pick a different color. I received another prompt and apologetic reply — stocks were dwindling fast, and they had sold out of that color as well.

Again, the offer stood — I could take the last color available, or they would be happy to process a quick refund. With Christmas bearing down and no gift yet available for my wife, I decided to have them ship the sweater that they had in stock, feeling sure my wife would still be happy with the color. I received shipping confirmation soon after and felt confident everything would go smoothly, thanks to their great customer service.

When the package arrived, I was in for a surprise. In addition to the backpack and sweater, the Cotopaxi rep had included a stocking cap, a llama icon decal, and a handmade tree ornament in the shape of a llama, as well as a note apologizing for not being able to send the color that was originally ordered. I was hooked, and the deal was sealed when my wife loved her sweater. I promptly put the llama decal on my truck and ordered another sweater and backpack, the first of several repeat purchases. And when neighbors stop and ask me “what’s the deal with the llama on your truck,” I’m always excited to evangelize on behalf of the brand, knowing that I can recommend their customer experience with confidence.

3.

Disney and the Magic
of a Consistently Excellent
Experience

Given that Disney is nearly a century old and has evolved from a family animation studio into an entertainment media titan, one might assume that the theme parks and their associated resorts represent a dwindling segment of their overall revenue. But in reality, the theme parks and resorts represent 31% of their total revenue, and demand for park experiences continues to grow. This fact is not lost on Disney, which continues to raise the bar for the levels of service and experience they provide, from the ultra-exclusive, VIP-only Club 33 locations to increasingly immersive hotel experiences that extend further into the realms of virtual reality.

Disney and the Magic of a Consistently Excellent Experience

Magical Service Experiences are Built on Attention to Detail

The roots of the Disney approach run deep. On the surface, the parks and resorts appear to be “magical” places where “anything can happen” — but there’s a complex and well-oiled machine working in the background to make this seamless experience possible. Every employee at Disney (officially called cast members), from ticket-sellers and tram drivers to ride operators, shop attendants, and actors, receives extensive training on tone, posture, and word choice, so that specific interactions become muscle memory. Management strategist Gregg Ledermann points out that even maintenance workers are trained to help guests navigate the park and can orchestrate unexpected encounters that put smiles on faces.

Every system is ruthlessly scrutinized for inefficiency — even if it takes place in the parking lot. Take an example from the book Be Our Guest: Perfecting the Art of Customer Service (written by Theodore Kinni on behalf of the Disney Institute). When it was determined that happy but tired guests were having difficulty locating their cars at the end of the day, a system was introduced that synced tram driver schedules with arrival times, so that each driver could help guests find their car quickly. Disney even works to perfect systems that aren’t intended to be noticed, such as the ambient sound system throughout the park — it’s designed so that volume remains constant and never intrudes on a guest’s experience.

A Simple Mission Creates Magical Service Experiences

Much like Zappos and the mission to “deliver WOW through service,” the Disney approach is focused on a single common purpose - to “create happiness by providing the best in entertainment for people of all ages everywhere”. This focus is the foundation for every interaction between a cast member and a guest at Disney. It’s much simpler to create magical moments from otherwise mundane circumstances when all you have to do is “create happiness,” rather than memorizing a handbook of policies or requesting that a manager provide permission before taking action.

As an example, consider a story shared by Bruce Jones, Senior Director of the Disney Institute, about a visit by a family with an autistic child. Knowing that a full day of interaction with other guests and cast members would be difficult for their son, they encouraged him to select an item that they would purchase as a reward when leaving the park if he were able to make it through the day. Queue close of day and the family, having had a great time, stopped at a shop to purchase his item, a clear balloon with a purple mickey mouse figure in it (purple was his favorite color). However, they learned that the last of these balloons had already been sold.

In most circumstances, that would be the end of the matter — the family would have faced disappointment and, at best, been offered an alternative item as consolation. Instead, the well-trained cast member immediately recognized that this balloon was very important, and quickly enlisted another cast member to step into a back room and prepare a new balloon which was happily offered to the family — the perfect end to a perfect day.

What a great example of how a seemingly insignificant item — a specific balloon, out of the thousands of balloons available throughout the park — is recognized for the important detail that it is! For the family in this example, getting that balloon was the key element in ending their day on the happiest note possible. That’s the real “magic” of Disney, and the driving factor in their 70% return rate for first-time visitors. In fact, Disney even has a program specifically designed to identify first-time visitors and guests who are having a birthday, providing them with a special badge that cast members are trained to recognize, so they can greet the guest by name as they wish them “happy birthday” or comment on their first visit.

Dennis Snow, who spent 20 years in leadership at Walt Disney World, reveals that the idea is to combine each of these little moments of ‘wow’ into a cumulative experience. Guests aren’t intended to remember each moment or interaction, but instead leave with a deep impression of a “magical” experience unlike anything they’ve experienced before

Disney Experiences Drive Retention Across Generations

The Disney magic brings families back again and again, year by year and decade by decade. Grandparents bring grandchildren to watch them experience the magic for the first time; parents bring children so they can share the joy of their own Disney encounters. Family stories are the heart of the Disney experience — after all, Walt Disney’s original motivation for creating Disneyland was to provide families with a clean, safe theme park that could bring his animated movies to life. Small wonder, then, that so many stories about Disney service experiences revolve around parents and children.

One father describes the visit that helped him realize the true power of the Disney magic through his then-five-year-old son. Flush with “Disney Dollars” provided by his grandparents, the little boy searched a Disney shop looking for just the right item to spend it on, finally locating a toy that fit the bill, a Buzz Lightyear doll.

When the father went to purchase the toy and asked the son for his wallet, a cast member took over, creating a micro-experience that was pure magic for the boy. The cast member called the child by name and proceeded to carry on an in-depth conversation just as he would with an adult customer — chatting about where he’s from, remarking on the toy and discussing its features, then moving on to payment, an explanation of sales tax, and a careful accounting of change due at the end of the transaction. The little boy left with an enormous sense of accomplishment for making a purchase all on his own, with his own money, which added a new, deeper layer of meaning to the toy long after they brought it home. The magic of that experience brought the family back twenty times over the following decade.

Of course, there are times when magic takes a back seat to simply solving a problem. That’s the case for one family, whose Disney adventure looked to be going off-course when the father discovered that he had forgotten to appropriately tag their baggage so that it could be transferred from the airport to their room at a Disney resort. Knowing that this was a complex problem (and his own fault) involving Southwest Airlines and the Orlando airport baggage system in addition to the Disney resort machine, he was worried that the vacation was about to be ruined.

When his first call to Disney customer service left him unsure if a solution was possible, he turned to a cast member at the resort. After helping them check in and pointing the family towards dining options, the cast member took charge and managed to locate the bags, then bring them to their rooms, in just a few hours. And that’s the magic here — as the kids were lost in their excitement about the adventures to come, Disney cast members quietly solved a problem that could have derailed the entire trip.

And their story doesn’t stop there. A few days later the family attended a late night campfire event in the Fort Wilderness area of the resort. Facing a long, multi-stage journey back to their hotel room, disaster struck: their oldest son suddenly became sick. Cue a cast member to the rescue — noticing their plight, he stopped by with a golf cart and drove them to a restaurant parking lot, where he dashed in to call up a private van ride directly back to their hotel.

While the family waited, the cast member brought supplies for the sick child, including a toy — and he remembered to bring a toy for the younger son as well, cutting off any sibling jealousy at the pass. To top it all off, the van delivered them back to their hotel in plenty of time to catch the nightly fireworks display from their balcony.

Setting High Standards for Customer Experience in a Competitive Market

Disney certainly isn’t the only organization in the hospitality and entertainment field with a reputation for exceptional customer service. While it’s true that they may outshine competitors in delivering concierge service concepts at a daunting level of scale, other organizations also have great stories to share about their dedication to making customers happy.

Some of the most amazing stories come from niche-oriented hotels and resorts that flip the Disney script in their approach to the marketplace, focusing on a narrower customer demographic. In many ways, that makes the following stories all the more impressive, since these organizations are already expected to deliver a customer experience that far exceeds the offerings at mid-market hotels and motels. In other words, when these customers are impressed, that speaks volumes about the lengths these companies go to in order to make sure each customer has an exceptional and worry-free stay.

Five Star Hotels Go to Great Lengths To Solve Any Problem

Micah Solomon highlights a selection of examples of truly jaw-dropping customer experiences, ranging from unexpected attention to minor details all the way up to the effortless resolution of seemingly insurmountable problems. These stories come from world-class, five-star hotels, where incredible service isn’t just expected — it’s demanded. But as these examples prove, even in the competitive world of concierge hospitality, it’s still possible for companies and empowered employees to astonish and delight customers in powerful ways.

The first example comes from The Inn at Little Washington, a Forbes Double Five Star and AAA double Five Diamond rated resort in Virginia. A couple arrived at The Inn from Pittsburgh, a four-hour drive, for a three-day stay celebrating their anniversary. As their bags were removed from the car, the wife suddenly discovered the hanging bag with all of her clothes had been left in their garage at home. While employees huddled to determine what they might do, a senior team member asked for the couple’s house key, then jumped in a company car and drove round-trip, eight full hours, to deliver the clothing — just in time for the couple’s 9 PM dinner reservation.

Two more stories, this time from Solomon’s personal experience, jump out. The first comes from the Five Star Montage Palmetto Bluff near Savannah, Georgia. Solomon was there on a visit with his wife and young son, who was learning to ride a bike at the time. As he struggled to stay balanced on the bicycle they had borrowed from the resort, a nearby house attendant noticed his precarious position and returned to the main office to see what she could do. Just a few minutes later, she returned with a bike that now had training wheels attached, and with the manager of the recreation department in tow to make sure that everything went smoothly from there.

Of course, not every story of customer service excellence involves an employee going above and beyond expectations — sometimes, as with the previously discussed case of the Zappos Customer Loyalty agent who wrote a witty email, it’s enough just to have a sense of humor about things.

The next story starts with a phrase common to anyone who has contacted a call center for support, or booked a reservation by phone — “is there anything else I can help you with today?” When asked this question by an employee with a company known for great service, Solomon often tests their limits by responding “yes — I would like a pony.” While he’s received witty reactions from a few places, the concierge at the Four Seasons in Austin, Texas won the prize. Her response? “I’ll see what I can do.” A few minutes later, she slipped a four-page portfolio under his door, highlighting a selection of horses for sale within a twenty-five-mile radius, and an offer to pick up any horse that he selected, provided his credit card were able to cover the purchase.

Ritz-Carlton Spares No Expense To Deliver Gold-Standard Service

No review of customer service excellence would be complete without highlighting a few cases from the world-renowned Ritz-Carlton hotels and resorts. A significant part of the reason for their outstanding reputation for customer service comes from their famous strategy for empowering employees to spare no expense in solving problems for customers. Every employee is authorized to spend up to $2000 per incident to help a customer out. Again, that’s per incident, not per year or month. And — this bears paying close attention — employees not only have access to this fund entirely at their own discretion, with no prior approval needed, but they are encouraged to spend the money whenever they feel it’s appropriate.

The reason for this commitment? Ritz-Carlton knows that the average customer will spend $250K with the company during their lifetime, and as a result, they see no reason why employees shouldn’t be prepared to solve any problem in order to retain those customers. As a result, Ritz-Carlton employees are not just well-trained and empowered to do whatever it takes to build such incredibly strong relationships, they’re also equipped with the resources needed to make miracles happen.

One great example comes from the Ritz-Carlton in Bali, where a family checking in discovered that they had left behind specialty milk and eggs for their son, who had numerous food allergies, and replacements weren’t available in the area. But the executive chef recalled a grocery store in Singapore that carried these items — so he reached out to his mother-in-law, who agreed to pick them up and then fly to Bali.

Another example, again shared by Micah Solomon, comes from the Dove Mountain Resort near Tucson, a Ritz-Carlton property. As a family prepared to leave the resort following their stay, the mother couldn’t find her son’s favorite Thomas the Tank Engine toy anywhere. She reached out to two employees at the resort and explained that her son would be devastated without this toy. As any parent knows, a child’s favorite toy is not easily (or possibly ever) replaced; it’s an important daily companion, part of countless eating and sleeping and bathing rituals, and its loss can throw an entire family’s schedule out the door for days or weeks at a time.

Child’s favorite Thomas the Tank Engine toy

Realizing the importance of the toy, the two employees drove to a toy store and purchased a replacement — but instead of shipping it directly to the family, they returned to the store, opened the package, and proceeded to photograph Thomas traveling around the Sonoran desert. Then they sent the toy on to the family, including the photos and a note written in Thomas’ own voice, describing his adventures. The family, understandably blown away, thanked the resort and declared that Ritz-Carlton had earned their business for life.

Just as with the Disney model, Ritz-Carlton recognizes that exceptional experiences only happen when people take care of problems or provide an extra touch based on personal understanding. As former Ritz-Carlton COO Stephen Cooper puts it, “It’s all about people. Nobody has an experience with a thing.” The goal isn’t “just” to make customers happy but to go so far beyond even the highest level of expectations that customers feel an incredibly close bond with hotel employees.

Their mission is “to develop such a strong emotional engagement between the hotels' staff and their guests that a guest will not consider staying anywhere else, even if they have an option.” It makes sense: the reason guests keep coming back and are eager to spend as much as they do isn’t thanks to the view from the balcony or the amazing thread count on the sheets, it’s the employees and their dedication to sparing no expense to make each visit perfect.

Of course, small companies and startups can’t afford to spend thousands on each customer service interaction, but just being helpful and empathetic can do wonders. Implement Chatra on your website and show your customers that you care.
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4.

JetBlue Commits
to Customer Service
Excellence

While the hospitality and entertainment marketplace may be crowded with companies that really do lavish attention on customers and provide exceptional customer service, the air travel industry is another matter.

JetBlue Commits to Customer Service Excellence

According to the University of Michigan’s Customer Satisfaction Index, airlines in the bottom 30% of major industries for U.S. customer satisfaction ratings, with a 2.7% drop in ratings from 2017 to 2018. With such dismal industry ratings, and personal news feeds awash with horror stories about awful passenger experiences that range from discomfort and rude employee behavior all the way up to forcible involuntary de-boarding (an Orwellian turn of phrase if ever there was one), you might think major airlines would be eager to improve their ratings and make easy gains in customer loyalty.

Guess again. Writing for Forbes, customer service expert Christopher Elliott sums up the reason why airlines don’t have to care about customer service thusly: “no matter how much airline passengers complain about ridiculous fees, indifferent cabin service, or lengthy delays, they’ll keep buying tickets… until passenger threats translate into lower ticket sales, the airline industry has a green light to continue mistreating its customers.” That’s right — airlines typically don’t worry about customer service because they know they have a captive market that is willing to accept shabby treatment in exchange for meager saving on flights.

With airfares seemingly always on the rise, customers often find themselves backtracking on threats to boycott a specific carrier when facing a need to travel on a limited budget. That means executives at the major U.S. carriers see little or no need to invest in improving customer experiences and instead focus on reducing basic perks and trimming amenities while raising seat prices in most categories.

United Airlines Doesn’t Care About Customer Service — and it Shows

I’ll be the first to raise my hand and admit that I’m guilty of returning to a carrier I swore never to fly again, out of necessity. I vowed never to fly with United Airlines again after a thoroughly awful experience several years ago, involving a gate agent deliberately closing the doors on myself, my pregnant wife, and a group of other arrivals from a delayed flight. This was followed by openly hostile service from a ticket counter rep who grudgingly provided a multiple-connection replacement route that delivered us back to Portland just in time to race through traffic to arrive late to an appointment.

I managed to avoid United for nearly two years, until this fall, when I needed to travel to Boston for a conference. I reluctantly purchased tickets through United when faced with fares on other carriers that were hundreds of dollars more and less convenient for my schedule. While my flights went fine this time, I had the opportunity to witness a perfect example of just how little major airlines like United care about customer loyalty.

I was seated in the rear of the aircraft on a Basic Economy ticket, which these days means little or no complimentary in-flight service (drinks, snacks) are available. A man seated across the aisle from me flagged a stewardess a couple of hours after takeoff, wondering if he could have a snack. He informed her that he was a member in good standing of the United Airlines loyalty program, but had booked his flight last minute and found only Basic Economy was available.

The stewardess brusquely informed him that his seat number prevented her from giving him a snack, although he could purchase something if he were hungry (which he did, vocalizing his frustration through the entire process). And that was on top of a wifi issue, which resulted in the passenger having to contact United customer service to get a small refund for the non-functioning wifi signal over much of the flight.

Now to be fair, cabin crew members have a difficult job — they’re tasked with looking after hundreds of people at a time, navigating small spaces and monitoring broad safety concerns while making sure they don’t spill a cup of coffee or soda. But the issue here wasn’t really the crew member who charged the man for his snack — it’s that the airline cared so little about retaining customers that they enforced a policy where snacks are awarded based on seating position in the airline, rather than actual loyalty.

My fellow passenger was clearly a loyal, longtime flyer on United who had probably spent tens of thousands of dollars on their services — yet his loyalty literally didn’t even earn him a sandwich. And for all of his grumbling, it’s likely that he still booked his next flight on United, due to a lack of options and probably a desire to continue stacking rewards through the loyalty program.

JetBlue Decides to Fly the Friendlier Skies

Given the fact that airlines really have no incentive to care about customer service, it’s all the more extraordinary that JetBlue has made it their mission to invest in customer experience and make it their mission to put smiles on faces, both in the air and on the ground. When former CEO David Neeleman founded JetBlue in 1998, he realized that airline customer service was widely ridiculed, and recognized an opportunity for a competitive advantage.

Safe to say, they’ve been successful — JetBlue was ranked Highest in Customer Satisfaction Among Low-Cost Carriers in North America by J.D. Power &Associates from 2014 to 2016. And just like Zappos and Disney, the investment in customer experience pays dividends, with JetBlue reaching #1 among all air carriers in customer engagement and customer loyalty in 2016. Much of the credit is given to their incredible rewards program: points never expire, customers can earn additional points for purchasing upgrades such as increased legroom or bringing a pet, and customers can even donate their points to a charity of their choice.

Happy Lead to Happy Customers

As we’ve already seen with Zappos and Disney, great customer experiences happen when companies empower to take care of the details in the service of making people happy. That starts with something as simple as just being nice and taking care of minor inconveniences, as JetBlue customer and leadership consultant Erika Andersen shares.

Comparing her experience on a JetBlue flight with that of another carrier, Andersen highlights JetBlue’s simple approach to treating people kindly and being cheerful while helping customers get seated as a crucial distinction. Whereas on the other carrier slowed the boarding process by arguing with passengers and failing to communicate with each other, the staff on her JetBlue flight radiated calm and helped everything go smoothly.

That may not seem like much of a difference, but as Andersen comments, it speaks volumes about the emphasis JetBlue places on hiring, training, and retaining great. “JetBlue didn’t spend more money 'serving' me. The difference in my experience was 100% in the attitude of the customer-facing employee. Somehow, the management of JetBlue has figured out how to build a positive, friendly, respectful way of interacting with customers into the DNA of their company.” She’s right on the money, of course — JetBlue operates one of the most unique and extensive cabin crew training programs in the country, with new hires spending their first month at JetBlue University, working through classroom and simulatortraining before starting live supervised trials. John Layton, one of the first crew members to join the company in the late 90s, confirms that the training program has only continued to double down on a customer focus over the years.

But the folks at JetBlue know that even happy passengers still have to make decisions about their next flight, and they recognize the importance of starting their customer experience on the ground — even before customers make a decision and book a flight. A few years ago, they booked an empty storefront in New York and created one of the most delightful marketing experiences ever. Inside a vacant storefront, they set up a giant screen resembling a hologram, displaying questions with “buttons” for entering answers and a smiling stewardess to greet passersby. Curious people couldn’t help but interact, and ended up spending 10-15 minutes pressing the “buttons” to answer seemingly generic questions, only to have the “hologram” begin speaking to them, goading some to dance or laugh.

Jetblue marketing experience

Eventually, the “hologram” stepped out from behind the screen, revealing herself to be an actual JetBlue stewardess, handing out vouchers for free travel.

The ecstatic reaction from recipients and onlookers alike echoed across JetBlue’s social media feeds, generating marketing buzz while giving the company a chance to showcase their amazing social media customer service team. JetBlue’s Manager of Advertising, Philip Ma, explained that their social media strategy combined marketing tactics with customer service goals to create an efficient channel that prompts customers to tell the company “they really feel cared for,” thanks to the dedication of the staff responding to questions.

Translate Social Media Mentions Into Real-World Experiences

A great example is seen in the case of a JetBlue customer who was headed for Boston’s Logan airport with a short window to catch his flight, and tweeted that he was disappointed he wouldn’t be able to get a cup of Starbucks first. The customer only mentioned JetBlue via hashtag, rather than a direct mention, but a member of their social media team caught the reference and contacted staff at the airport. As the man took his seat, a cabin member handed the completely surprised customer his fresh cup of Starbucks coffee, leading to weeks of viral shout-outs after the interaction.

Let’s pause for a minute and unpack the giant steps that were taken to make this small moment happen, one that generated an exponential return in word of mouth buzz. That kind of connection takes dedication, training, and empowerment — the same sort of empowerment we’ve already seen in examples from Zappos, Disney and others. Much like those companies, JetBlue empowers customer service team members and gives them the options they need in order to deliver amazing service. It’s no coincidence that a social media team member noticed the Jetblue reference in the customer’s tweet — the company clearly trains team members to be on the lookout for such small opportunities.

From there, a connection was made to staff working in the terminal at Logan airport, who were able to identify the flight and the customer in question. Next, one of those team members had to acquire the cup of coffee — likely only a few steps away, but still an action that took them away from a busy ticket counter. Then the coffee had to be delivered onto the plane, likely passing from a ticket agent to a cabin member, who knew which seat the customer was in.

And bear in mind that the customer would probably still have been amazed if someone handed him a cup of the coffee available on board the plane already, mentioning that his tweet had been spotted. But that still wouldn’t have the same impact as actually getting the brand of coffee he mentioned. It’s a small story with a big message — JetBlue proves they care about their customers by dedicating people to creating moments like this that mean so much more in the “couldn’t care less” world of air travel.

SouthWest and Alaska Airlines Join the Customer Service Revolution

JetBlue has seen stiff competition in the customer service area of late, most notably from Alaska Airlines, which recently earned a #1 ranking from U.S. News & World Reports for their rewards and loyalty program. And Southwest Airlines, founded in 1971 by legendary rogue business leader Herb Kelleher with the philosophy that employees come first”, has recently edged JetBlue out of first place in the J.D. Power & Associate rankings, earning first place in 2017 and 2018.

But credit goes where credit is due here, and that’s back to JetBlue — without their entry into the market and a commendable twenty years of focusing on customer service, these other carriers may well have opted to settle on less exceptional customer experience targets in their own business models.

Customer service and experience expert Shep Hyken tells the story of how Southwest Airlines was able to turn a frequent but unpleasant situation — damaged luggage — into a moment of delight. When his daughter’s suitcase arrived with a broken handle, he dutifully went to the onsite office, expecting a long line to fill out a form and a drawn out process to get reimbursed for the damage. Instead, he was greeted by a short wait to speak with a cheerful Southwest employee, who gave him two options: either fill out a form and wait for assistance with a repair on the suitcase or select a new piece of luggage then and there.

Yes, that’s right — no vouchers, coupons, or rebate forms. Shep was taken to a room filled with brand new suitcases, where he selected a model similar to the damaged one, transferred his daughter’s belongings, then completed a form acknowledging the exchange and went on his way. Southwest understands that customers will be inclined to book their next flight based on price and that they will expect issues like this (damaged or lost luggage) to occur on any carrier. But when they know that Southwest will resolve the issue quickly and effectively, the scales tip in Southwest’s favor when the customer ponders options for their next trip.

Meanwhile, Alaska Airlines has taken the air travel world by storm in the last few years, growing from a regional Pacific-Northwest carrier into a cross-country contender, following the parent organization’s acquisition of Virgin America. Their aforementioned loyalty program is the last to reward flyers purely based on miles alone, rather than weighting the perks towards customers who purchase more expensive seats. That’s earned them a loyal following amongst “road warriors” who fly frequently but tend to stick to coach.

The secret (as if you haven’t guessed by now!) is an employee empowerment program that includes a “toolkit” of perks and other offerings, such as free miles, meal vouchers, and fee waivers, that employees can use to resolve situations based on loose guidelines. Employees are coached to “find [a] story and create a personal connection,” as COO Ben Minicucci puts it. Customers feel the difference between employees at Alaska and other airlines, often commenting on the way Alaska employees seem to be happier in general while doing their jobs, making light work out of the tedium of air travel — checking bags, printing tickets, boarding the plane and stowing luggage all happen just a little more smoothly than at many other airlines.

As a recent Alaska customer myself, I can attest to this. I’m still trying to figure out how the boarding process for two full flights was accomplished so quickly and with so many smiles, as opposed to the often demeaning and demoralizing process I’ve experienced at most other airlines. As a customer, I do know that while I may not understand exactly how they accomplished it, I do appreciate it — and I’ll be giving them my business again soon!

5.

Customer Service Excellence
Drives Repeat Business

As the examples from Zappos, Disney, JetBlue, and the other businesses discussed here clearly show, the strategy of building strong repeat business through consistently delightful service experiences really does work. That conclusion is also backed up in an extensive Customer Acquisition Study from Hubspot, where it’s noted that happy customers share positive experiences at a 77% rate. A whopping 90% report that they are likely to purchase more with a good experience, while as many as 93% plan to purchase again. The same study also determined that word of mouth is the leading factor for a customer’s decision to make a purchase, at 55% — while only 22% decide to purchase after speaking with a salesperson.

The High Cost of Mediocre Service

On the other hand, it’s equally clear that when customers have a poor or even mediocre experience, they’re quick to disengage and switch brands. More and more, it’s just not enough for companies to promote their efforts to improve service — they have to actually deliver. As many as 91% of customers are likely to refuse to give a business a second chance after a negative service experience, and 82% of customers report deciding to switch brands after a negative customer service experience. According to Forrester’s 2018 CX Index report, the U.S. market has seen negative overall trends in customer experience ratings across industries for the last three years, with most individual company scores largely stagnating or even dropping.

The picture gets even darker when you consider the projected revenue loss that results from brand-switching. According to a report from New Voice Media, U.S. companies will lose over $75 billion in revenue due to customer-switching in 2018 alone, representing a 17% increase over the $62 billion lost in 2016. Looking at the bigger picture, Accenture has previously estimated that the total annual cost of customer-switching could be as staggeringly high as $1.6 trillion. It’s likely that those numbers will only continue to trend in that direction, given that a study by Walker indicates that customer experience will outweigh factors such as price and even product as the primary factor in brand differentiation by 2020.

Customers Are Skeptical That Companies Really Care About Great Service

Company leaders routinely promote initiatives to improve service experiences and attempt to reassure customers that their feedback is being heard, with a recent Forrester report indicating that 72% of business leaders and senior executives claim to prioritize customer experience improvements. But customers are more skeptical than ever when it comes believing that companies actually care about them, and for good reason. The report also notes that only 63% of marketers actually prioritize implementing technological solutions for customer experience problems, while research by Zendesk indicates that 87% of consumers feel businesses need to step up their efforts to create a more consistent, seamless experience.

The truth? Customers appear to be correct. In a wide-ranging, just-released Customer Service Benchmark Report from SuperOffice, it’s noted that a majority of companies surveyed failed to meet customer expectations in service interactions. In fact, 62% didn’t even respond to customer service emails, while 90% of the companies didn’t even issue a standard response to assure customers their service inquiry had been received.

Customer Service Benchmark Report from SuperOffice

Small wonder, then, that customers also report being widely skeptical of company claims about their own products or services. 69% of customers don’t believe company advertisements, and 71% are not persuaded by company ads on social media networks. The bottom line is this — while advertisements, marketing campaigns, and sales outreach programs may be effective at gathering initial interest from customers, they have little positive effect in persuading those customers to take action and commit to a purchase.

Having a live chat widget on your website makes your company look more trustworthy. Chatra also adds a personal touch to your service by showing agent photos in the widget, so your customers can see the faces behind the brand and know that they can get support if they need one. Try out Chatra today.
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6.

Conclusion

Companies that know how to make customers happy and really deliver delightful experiences start by hiring enthusiastic people who truly enjoy working with customers, then empower them to solve any problem by having free reign to do whatever it takes to make customers happy. They build processes and systems and programs that are focused on giving employees the tools they need to make great moments happen, rather than focusing purely on the bottom line. And along the way, two amazing things come together — customers are delighted with their experience, then share their joy and bring in even more customers.

Meanwhile, businesses that expect to build a loyal following with average customer service programs need to pay attention, because the truth is that they simply cannot afford to ignore customer complaints. In fact, customers perceive that service is generally worse than it used to be, with a 2017 study from the University of Arizona’s W.P. Carey School of Business revealing that 56% of American families reported having a problem with a company’s customer service. And hang on, it gets worse — 91% report feeling frustration, 84% reporting disappointment, and 64% experiencing anger as a result of their customer service experience. Those are sobering figures, and businesses need to be taking these indicators seriously. It’s not enough to promise great service — business have to really deliver a great service experience to improve customer perceptions.

But as Zappos, Disney, JetBlue, and all of the other companies here have proven, great customer service experiences aren’t actually all that complicated to deliver. The formula is simple — train your employees to put the customer’s needs first, and the rest will follow. Thank back on a favorite experience of your own — one that really “wowed” you — and odds are you’ll realize that it was the effortlessness of everything that made it so special. You had a problem, you reached out — maybe fearing a complicated or convoluted process — but were delighted when the matter was resolved quickly and painlessly. And you’re probably considering rewarding that company with more business in the future. When you make the customer’s day easier, you make them happier, and happy customers come back again and again!