We usually know great customer service when we experience it. And we may notice it, in part, because it sometimes may seem so rare. No business owner wants to offer shoddy customer service, but as many consumers may have noticed, plenty of companies may end up doing just that.
On the other hand, there are plenty of companies that seem to truly get it, developing reputations for having excellent customer service, from Nordstrom to Zappos.
"If a customer has a good experience, they may tell [someone] about it. If they have a bad experience, they will tell their friends—and probably post something online. It's very important for us to keep our customers happy," says Jon Abt, co-president of Glenview, Illinois-based Abt Electronics.
—David Scarola, vice president, The Alternative Board
So what are companies that offer incredible customer service doing right?
Of course, the formula and outcome may be different for every business, but there are several strategies you might learn from these examples of great customer service on how to make your own customers happy.
Sometimes customers are in a jam, and to give the best customer service, you may have to go that extra mile—or maybe several extra miles.
"[Recently], a bride placed a last-minute order after our shipping providers had already picked up our packages for the day. This order was intended for her wedding, so it was very time sensitive," says Igal Sapir, founder and CTO of 100Candles.com. "Instead of waiting for the next day, our warehouse manager drove personally to the UPS hub at 10 p.m. to drop off the package, to ensure the bride would receive the items for her wedding centerpieces with time to spare."
That type of above-and-beyond service can help a company stay competitive. As Sapir says, "it's not lost on us that there are other companies that sell candles."
Empower Employees to Fix Problems
If your company is a rule-oriented business and employees are hammered over the head with that mindset, don't be surprised if one of your employees ends up making you look bad. For example, an employee who isn't apparently empowered to think for himself may refuse service to a customer and her service dog.
Sean Steeves, assistant general manager for Torrey Pines Town Car, a private town car company based in San Diego, says the company avoided what could have been a disastrous smelly dead fish story. But fortunately, the company's president, Najib Paghmani, has created a company culture where the staff knows if something out of the ordinary happens, to prioritize customer service.
Steeves says one of the drivers picked up a client who had come back from an Alaskan fishing trip with his prized collection of wild salmon. It was semi-frozen in a cooler, all 100 pounds, but the salmon still reeked.
Rather than refusing to let the client bring the cooler into the car or subjecting subsequent clients to the dead fish smell, the driver knew he should accept the ride—and then afterward went to a car wash and then home to change his clothes before picking up the next client.
The Right Temperament
It's one thing to hire a brilliant hothead who never comes in contact with your customers, but that type of work personality may matter more when you have employees working with the public.
"With customer service, the number-one skill set to have is not taking issues personally," says David Scarola, vice president of The Alternative Board, an executive peer advisory board in Westminster, Colorado. Scarola was recently impressed by the customer service at a busy sandwich shop. When they mistakenly handed him an order to stay rather than to take out, an employee offered to make him a new salad. He declined, and they quickly wrapped up his order to go.
"They were calm and collected—a huge feat for a team facing lines of hungry people every day. It's a rare skill to maintain composure when something goes wrong," Scarola says.
"Instead of feeling personally attacked, an effective customer service rep will exhibit empathy toward the customer," he adds. "Great customer service begins with maintaining a level of maturity to listen to customer complaints and productively resolve the issue."
Make Good Customer Service Your Mantra
Consider baking customer service into your business model. When Jeff Gilbert, CEO of Direct Rush, founded his logistics business, he knew it would specialize in "solving last-minute problems."
So while his business does regular deliveries, Direct Rush will also do things like deliver roasted pigs.
"The call came in on a Saturday night. The client was going to have a pig roast, and the supplier of the pig bailed on them," Gilbert explains. "So they needed somebody to travel 175 miles to New Jersey, to this special place and purchase and then deliver a fully roasted pig."
Gilbert tells of another call from a company in Orlando that needed a 5-pound machine part delivered immediately. The company told him that until it received the machine part, it would lose $100,000 an hour. Gilbert sent one of his employees to deliver the part. It was a drive that took about six hours, and it cost the client $1,800, but Gilbert probably saved his new client $500,000.
Gilbert adds that whatever a client requests, "the answer is always yes."
Give the Customer Service You Would Want
You don't have to go crazy and lose money on an order, but good customer service may sometimes mean looking at each customer and noticing when they need a little extra service.
"A customer ordered a handbag and provided a note that they needed to receive the order on or before August 18. We offer free ground shipping, but not wanting to take any chances on delivery, we automatically upgraded the shipping to priority at no additional charge," says Todd Heyboer, owner of ClosetBarcode.com, which sells clothing and handbags. "Sure, the shipping cost more, but at least the product was received on time, and it was something we did without even having the customer ask. Hopefully, the customer will come back and purchase more in the future."
Meanwhile, Lori Saitz, a voice-over professional in Washington, DC, is a member of the franchised kickbox fitness gym, 9Round. One day when she left the gym, her knee inexplicably swelled up like a baseball, and the manager called her the next day to see how she was feeling.
She sounded genuinely concerned, Saitz adds.
"She also sent me a personalized email on my birthday," says Saitz. "I thought it might have been automated, but she said, no, she sends them individually. All small gestures, but they add up to a big impact on customer experience."
Read more articles about customer engagement.
A version of this article was originally published on August 15, 2015.