What is Great Customer Service? 9 Industry Leaders to Learn From

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It’s no secret that having world-class customer service leads to more revenue, higher margins, and improved customer satisfaction and retention.

According to Harvard Business Review, customers who have the best customer experiences spend 140% more than customers with the worst experiences.

But how does a company transform their customer experience to become a market leader?

The tactics and the strategies that underpin great customer service are often more elusive. It may be simple to identify small issues that can be fixed to drive better service, but transforming the entire support operation is much more difficult and requires both high-level insight about what needs to be fixed and a clear vision for how to move in the right direction.

One way to approach this challenge is to learn from the best.

Year after year, a few companies are consistently lauded for their customer service strategies. Let’s take a closer look at some of these companies and get to the root of what makes them so successful.

1. Amazon’s Customer Service Strategy is Perfectly Aligned with Their Business Strategy

Amazon’s empire is built on selling to anything and everything–and in enormous quantities.

As a result, the company handles a tremendous number of customer service inquiries. Core to their business is the role that support plays in keeping their customers happy and coming back. It’s a volume game.

This aligns directly with Amazon’s overall business strategy:

  1. Focus on volume; issues are resolved quickly without back and forth
  2. Focus on long-term relationships; Amazon assumes fault and delights the customer to keep them coming back, even if it has higher short-term costs

Of course, not every company can remain fixated on the big picture and ignore the short-term costs of a strategy like this. But, your firm can use its overarching business strategy as a compass that guides support operations.

Amazon always gives customers the benefit of the doubt when it comes to interactions with customer service. In fact, Amazon has an automated system that gives customers refunds immediately, no questions asked.

2. Trader Joe’s is Human to the Core

Trader Joe’s is known for being a different kind of grocery store.

Beyond the local products, friendly staff, and relaxed atmosphere, there is a general air of kindness, generosity, and understanding. Shoppers become loyal fans because of the in-store experience.

In a word: They’re human.

And that is reflected in their customer service strategy, which is more about understanding and meeting the specific needs of their customers rather than implementing a rigid system of processes and procedures.

It seems that TJ’s has adopted a customer service strategy that is focused on going the extra mile to make people happy.

There have been countless stories of Trader Joe’s employees and managers going above and beyond for customers. From stocking a specific product at the request of a regular customer to hand-delivering groceries (for free) in the middle of a snow storm, there’s no support playbook that could outline all of these decisions.

They’re driven by individual circumstances and humans empowered to decide what seems right in the moment. That’s the magic of the experience.

For other companies, the takeaway is to give your support operations a human element. While there may be general rules, providing customer service is not always about having a prepared response to every situation–it’s about understanding the circumstances and adapting to meet the needs of the customer.

3. USAA Knows Its Customers Better than Anyone

USAA has reached the top of customer service rankings for many years running. One insurance review aggregator shows that 92% of customers would recommend USAA to a friend.

What’s their secret?

USAA’s entire approach relies on picking a niche–US military members and their families–and focusing entirely on meeting their insurance needs.

Because USAA has built their entire business around this customer segment, they are able to provide service that is custom-tailored to the unique needs and circumstances of military families. While other insurance carriers may not be prepared to handle these situations, USAA doesn’t bat an eye–they’ve seen it all before.

The reason this works is that USAA has been deliberate about identifying their customers and becoming experts on their needs. But that also means that they’re not a fit for other customer segments. They’ve made a choice to pursue a specific strategy.

Remember the old saying: “You can’t please all of the people all of the time.”

While we often think of this as being the mission of customer service, it’s important to be thoughtful about which customer segments might be underserved or how serving certain segments may mean sacrificing the quality of service for others.

You may need to build customer support operations and teams that are focused entirely on serving certain types of customers. Or, in more extreme circumstances, you may adjust your entire business strategy to provide a higher level of service and support to a more narrow band of potential buyers.

4. American Express Understands that Their Role is More Than Just a Financial Institution

We may think of credit cards as just tools that we use.

But they’re also intimately linked to our lives. The way that we use our cards reveals a lot of information about us. What we buy, where we shop, and how we spend our time and money are all told in our billing statement.

In the wrong context, this can be scary. But this data can also be used for good.

American Express proved this in at least one instance when they notified their customers about some contaminated cake purchased from a hotel cafe. After learning about the circumstances, they gave the cardholders a call to let them know about the potential danger.

The crisis was averted.

This entire episode is made possible by the fact that AmEx views their role as extending beyond just the product or service that they’re selling. As a credit card company, they had no real obligation to do anything about this problem. But as a company that’s deeply embedded in the lives and wellbeing of their customers, they saw an opportunity to help protect them from harm.

To provide this kind of support, companies must foster a culture that focuses on the bigger picture and the role that their products or services play in the lives of customers.

5. Marriott Turns Every Employee Into a Customer Advocate

Many companies only train their customer service team on how to handle and resolve customer problems. But Marriott has a different take.

Marriott believes that every employee is customer facing. Everyone from the bellhop to the chef is ready to help a customer, even if the customer needs assistance with something that isn’t traditionally their responsibility.

This means customers never need to wait for the right employee to come by to help them.

Need a new key? Just flag down the nearest employee and get things in motion.

We’ve all heard horror stories where customers have asked for help only to receive a “not my job”response. This kind of respond has a toxic air–it feels dismissive.

Companies looking to improve the overall customer experience should look for ways to train any and all employees on customer service. From front-line staff to corporate executives, no one should be above the task of taking care of a customer.

This kind of ethos can immediately diffuse a tense situation; customers who are upset or distressed get immediate help rather than being passed off. These small gestures go a long way toward overall satisfaction.

6. Alaska Airlines Meets Customers Where They Already Are

Most would assume that the budget airline Alaska Airlines only retains minimal resources devoted to serving customers.

In reality, Alaska Airlines recently ranked as the airline with the lowest rate of customer complaints.

Even if they may not have the resources of the major carriers, they have made scrappy use of their customer service budget by meeting customers where they already are. The service team handles many requests in real time through channels like Twitter and Facebook.

Customers often reach out to their airline via Twitter for information about delays, airplane features, and using their frequent flier miles. By carefully monitoring their Twitter feed, Alaska Airlines responds to customer inquiries within minutes — a critical factor when passengers are scrambling to make their flight.

Alaska Airlines has even won special praise for its extensive Twitter-based customer service.

Other airlines might use their social media to direct customers to the “official” service channels, introducing friction and dissatisfaction. But, Alaska Airlines has realized that it’s easier–and provides a better experience–to answer requests on the channels that customers are already using and meeting customers where they are

For other companies, this means understanding customer habits and building your service strategy to reduce friction for the consumer rather than forcing them to adopt new channels or processes in order to get help.

7. REI is Laser-Focused On Customer Education

Customer service is built into the experience of buying from REI.

As customers may not know much about the vast camping and hiking gear that REI offers, every department in the store is staffed by veteran outdoors enthusiasts who work as personal shopping assistants and product experts.

They answer questions, give advice, and provide genuine product feedback.

By helping customers navigate the world of camping, fishing, and other outdoor activities, REI makes it easier for customers to purchase expensive items like tents and sleeping bags without fear. This also helps customers feel respected. Their questions and concerns are answered in a friendly way and they don’t have to feel silly about asking for help.

This kind of expertise is central to the REI experience and extends to their website and social media. Companies can embrace a similar approach by focusing on hiring subject matter experts and making expertise part of the shopping experience.

8. Valve Takes the Risk and Friction Out of Purchasing

As the creator of the ubiquitous video game distribution platform Steam, Valve is an expert at finding what their customers want and making sure that they get it.

Customers using Steam build a profile of the video games that they like to play, which Valve then uses this information to recommend them new games that are offered at massive discounts.

If users see a game they would like to purchase, it’s only a couple of clicks until they’re playing–in fact, Valve’s simplification of the process is so effective that it even curbed piracy of video games.

That’s right: Valve makes purchasing products so easy that users are willing to do it even if they could find the product for free

But that’s not all.

Valve understand that sometimes their suggestions aren’t on the money. Valve allows users to test a game for up to five hours and still get a refund if it doesn’t meet their expectations. It doesn’t matter if the user paid for the game years ago, they can still return it if they aren’t happy after actually trying it out.

Aspire to make buying your product so easy that customers would do it even if they could get the product for free. And be sure to provide service that’s rooted in reality rather than standard convention.

9. Ikea Has Mastered the Art of Self-Service

The entire Ikea business model is built on helping customers help themselves.

From the self-guided showroom to the self-assembled furniture, customers are in charge of their own buying experience. And front-line customer service at Ikea is also a self-service model.

Ikea is known for ease of assembly and proactive documentation that prevents customers from making mistakes during assembly.

They document the most common user mistakes in the instruction booklet for each piece of furniture at the point where the errors occur.

More companies are adopting self-service options, even for solving complex issues or finding answers to specific and technical questions. Artificial intelligence is leading the way–learning from customer interactions and questions to provide better and more accurate questions.

Companies shouldn’t be afraid of providing self-service support options. In fact, many studies have found that customers would rather find answers themselves (provided that it’s simple) than have to talk to a support representative.

Understanding your customer and providing a self-service option where appropriate can improve the overall customer experience. It allows companies to provide faster, easier, and more consistent service. It also cuts costs on responding to customer service inquiries.

Turning Customer Service Success Into Revenue

Now that you understand the different approaches customer service leaders used to climb to the top of their industries, it’s time to execute them within your company.

As shown by companies like Trader Joe’s and Marriot, taking the initiative to stand out is the first step toward customer service excellence. Likewise, personalizing your customer interactions to create deep collaboration like REI can go a long way towards driving sales.

To tie everything together, you can learn from some of these examples:

  • Align your customer service strategy with your broader business strategy
  • Develop a clear support policies and procedures, but don’t remove the human element and empower your team to use their best judgment
  • Use channel selection and strategic routing to meet your customer’s needs and expectations
  • Focus on developing internal champions for customers–educators that help them make decisions and resolve issues
  • Answer questions and concerns proactively to avoid

Each company has their own approach to customer service, but the general trends are clear. Companies that are providing a world-class experience are riding trends toward proactive support, self-service/automation, and deep personalization that makes customers feel valued and respected.

Some of these trends are driven by new technology, but the core of great service remains the same–making customers feel like they are valued and making it an easy and seamless experience.