The return of customer service

Any business school worth its money has taught its students that attention to customer service can get your company through some lean times. In recent years in the U.S., it seems, this simple point has been lost on most students.

Now, in the face of a crippling recession, some corporations are starting to “get it.” Some aren’t.

Act 1: A writer on the blog AdMelee hasn’t been in a Ford automobile in years, he writes. But he’s been hearing more testimonials on Twitter lately about Ford, so when he lease is nearing an end, he test drives one.

Now Ford, like many companies, is on Twitter and the writer sent a “tweet” to the Ford account.

“I’m test driving an Edge for the second time this week. Have Alan Mulally (Ford CEO) call to tell me I’m not crazy.”

You can probably guess what happened next:

If you know me you know that was me just joking around like “ha ha I know you and Alan are hanging at a BBQ this weekend so why don’t you guys ring me up when you have a few in you?”. Something funny happened. Scott send me a direct message on Twitter asking for my phone number that following Saturday morning. “Hmm” I said. “That can’t be. He’s not going to have Alan call me”. I honestly figured Scott was going to call to give me some insight into the Edge. When my phone rang with a Michigan number during my daughter’s birthday party I let it go to voicemail. I would call Scott back after. When I finally checked the voicemail it was not from Scott Monty, but rather Alan Mulally. He was singing the praises of the Edge and what I thought was looking like a cute PR stunt ended up being a sincere message with the request to call him back. Let’s pause for a second and process this…

Read the whole story here. (h/t: @tbrunelle via Twitter)

Act 2: A couple of weeks ago, my wife had to fly back to New England to visit her ailing father. She flew Northwest Airlines (actually, Pinnacle, but you know it’s all one happy family, right?).

She got stuck in a smaller jet next to a large man who spilled over into her seat, and had to jam one of his legs under the seat in front of hers. She got to fly for three hours in half a seat.

When she got back to Minnesota, she wrote a letter to Northwest (dubbed “Northworst” by many over the years). Last week she made reservations for another trip (for the same reason, unfortunately) back East and referenced her letter to a more-than-helpful Northwest reservations agent. A voucher for half a round trip showed up in the mail and when she checked in on Sunday, she didn’t get charged to check her baggage.

“What’s up with that?” I asked the customer service agent.

“She has ‘elite status,'” she said, whatever that is.

She also ended up with an aisle seat in an emergency exit row.

But her biggest prize was the opportunity to spend the five minute walk to the security checkpoint, reminding her husband that he rolled his eyes when she said she was going to complain, and suggesting she “pick her battles” better.

Act 3: A swift reaction doesn’t always save your bacon, however. As I indicated in this morning’s Five at 8 (you read that, right? I’m not wasting my time with that?), Continental Express left passengers sitting in an aluminum tube in Rochester for 9 hours, in defiance of all common sense.

Unlike Northwest, Continental initially took little responsibility for the actions of its little-brother airline, referring all questions to the little-brother airline, though it offered a too-little,too-late refund.

Much of the revitalized attention to customer service parallels the rise in social media, according to Aaron Strout, writing on Multichannel Merchant.

For starters, so many products and services have become commoditized, other than price – which is not an insignificant factor. Customer service is one of the last things left that differentiates one company from another. Do it poorly, and your customers will leave.

On the flip side, when done well, customer service can actually increase loyalty. And if you’ve ever read Fred Reichheld’s manifesto titled “Leading with Loyalty” you know that companies that enjoy the “loyalty effect” grow at better than twice the average for their industry.

With Twitter and Facebook providing immediate details of great — and poor — customer service, the importance to corporations has never been higher. You haven’t booked a flight today on Continental Express, I assume.

Have you found great examples of customer service that have made you a loyal customer of a company in these tough times? Tell me about it.

  • Emily M

    I’ve received two personalized thank-yous in recent weeks: one from a large catalog retailer, and one from a small, local nail salon. The catalog retailer thank-you came via Twitter (I had tweeted about keeping them in business), but still — someone is using their Twitter account in all the right ways.

    The nail salon note was — gasp! — of the handwritten variety, thanking me for coming in. This place is no high-end spa, either; it’s more of the strip-mall variety.

    Both of these were on the heels of the proprietor of my neighborhood coffee shop telling me he had received a handwritten thank-you from one of his vendors.

    I tweeted about this shortly thereafter: gracious/appreciative customer service — the silver lining to this recession?