Somewhere along the way, though, customer-centricity tends to fall by the wayside in favor of pressing issues such as product bugs, marketing campaigns, and making sales. While these are all important components of running a business, remember, the customers are the reason it exists.
So, how do you take great customer service from being a nice-to-have to an all-important-prime-focus across your company? How do you foster a customer-above-everything attitude in your employees? Is it possible to do this at scale?
To answer these questions, we looked at five companies that live and breathe exceptional customer service on a daily basis.
In this piece, we’ll share their best strategies on hiring for great customer service, guiding employees the right way, and the role of leaders in fostering customer-centricity.
Let’s dive in.
Zapier’s obsession with customer support began when they had no customers or even a robust prototype.
In those early days, CEO Wade Foster lurked in community forums and reached out to customers who needed a product like Zapier’s. Through Skype calls, he’d help customers work with his barely functioning MVP, and iterate on their feedback.
Foster’s commitment to customer service was shaped by advice from Wufoo founder, Kevin Hale, who told him there were three types of companies: one with the highest quality product, one with the cheapest deals, and one with the best customer service.
As a startup founder, Foster knew which type of company he would build. He says in an interview:
We can’t be the best and we can’t be the cheapest, but we can definitely care the most, and so from day one, we thought “let’s get on Skype calls, let’s do things that might not scale right now, just so that we can make people really happy and really want to work with us.”
Today, Zapier has over 200 employees and $50 million in annual recurring revenue. But their focus on customer service remains laser-sharp. Here’s how they do it:
Customer support is everyone’s job
Every employee has to do customer support for four hours a week, whether they’re a marketer or an engineer. Their engineers work on customer support requests for a full week, on a rotating basis.
Interacting with customers first-hand helps the team build customer-focused products and services. The product team can gauge the usefulness of features, engineers are apprised of recurring problems, and the marketing team uncovers insights for product positioning.
Customer support skills is a hiring criteria
The focus on customer support also influences Zapier’s hiring process. This means if an engineer is great at their job, but it looks like they may come off as prickly to customers, they won’t make the cut at Zapier. They also vet if potential employees can write well; it’s important for them to be friendly and empathetic to their customers.
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Empathy is non-negotiable
Support representatives often have to deliver bad news. A product unavailability, a feature that’s never going to be built, an expired trial. While bad news always upsets customers, the key for support reps is to do it in a way that reflects empathy and thoughtfulness.
To gauge whether an employee can deliver bad news to customers, Zapier asks questions such as, “say you and I are dating right now and you need to break up with me on this call… how would you do it?”
For companies still waiting for inspiration, Wade’s advice hits the mark:
Anybody can provide awesome customer service. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to just be nice and be helpful.
2. SOUTHWEST AIRLINES
Southwest Airlines may be popular for being a low-cost carrier, but their customer service is equally legendary.
Herb Kellehher, founder of Southwest Airlines, famously said:
“I tell my employees that we’re in the service business, and it’s incidental that we fly airplanes.”
Airlines are notorious for sub-par experiences, but Southwest routinely ranks among the top three carriers in the US. What sets them apart?
Here are a few ways Southwest nurtures a customer-first approach in its employees:
Treating employees like customers
As it turns out, the secret to great customer service is to, firstly, treat your employees well. Said Kelleher, “A motivated employee treats the customer well.”
Southwest CEO Gary Kelly gives weekly shout-outs to employees who demonstrate great service and also includes examples of empathetic engagements in internal videos. Employees’ enthusiasm for their job is evident in these testimonial videos where they talk about their job with fervor.
Placing employees above profit-making
A recent example of the airline’s commitment to their employees is their response to the Covid-19 crisis. At a time when most airlines are cutting costs and laying off employees, Southwest CEO told its employees:
“I want you all to know we will not furlough or layoff any Southwest employees on October 1 (when bailout funds expire), unlike our major competitors. Further, we have no intentions of seeking furloughs, layoffs, pay rate cuts, or benefits cuts through at least the end of this year.”
Further, he went on to explain how the company would use strong profits from 2019 to get the company through the tough period.
Leading by example
Leaders can take a cue from the airline’s founder, who routinely walked the talk when it came to customer service. He would often arrive at three in the morning to clean planes, and also assist with baggage unloading, so the aircraft would depart on time. A perfect example of leadership not only sermonizing about customer service, but backing it up with action.
In an industry where delays are the norm and customer experiences seldom accounted for, Southwest won customer loyalty simply by caring enough about them.
Eventbrite is an online ticketing website for live events. It launched in 2016 to staunch competition from existing players such as StubHub and Ticketmaster. Still, they carved a niche in the small events organizer market. Their differentiating factor: excellent customer service.
To ensure their partners and customers consistently receive the best quality services, they have a playbook for hiring and training employees.
In an interview with First Round, Dana Kilian, VP of customer service at Eventbrite, shared some practical advice:
Make a great first hire
Your first customer support hire must identify with the founder’s vision of what great customer service looks like. They should have a good balance of people and operation skills. Dana suggests asking questions like, “How will you inspire and motivate a team?” and “What service-level targets should we be tackling?” to get a sense of whether they’d be a good fit.
Provide balance and flexibility
While everyone on the Eventbrite team does customer support, there are no fixed times or days. They don’t follow scripts, and employees have the freedom to take support decisions.
Hire for success
A part of Eventbrite’s interview process for customer support employees is calling candidates and pretending to be a customer who needs step-by-step instruction to use the product. Even if the candidate does not have a ton of product knowledge, the hiring managers look for creativity and presence of mind.
In another version of this test, they present candidates with tricky customer situations to see if they’re able to pacify agitated customers, solve the problem, and take help from the company’s documentation, all the while maintaining a friendly front.
Having time-tested processes in place help you deliver consistent service, no matter how big you grow. As Dana says:
You want them (customers) to always know that if they call, they will get help from people who care.
You’ve probably heard the famous Nordstrom tire story. If not, here’s a quick gist: In 1975, a man drove up to a Nordstrom store asking for a refund for tires he’d bought weeks ago at a tire shop that the retailer replaced. Even though the company had no obligation to pay the man, they still did, much to his delight. Today, this story is an often-repeated customer-service legend.
This wasn’t a one-off, isolated incident. It’s one of many tales testament to Nordstrom’s excellent customer service.
To deliver delightful experiences on a regular basis, Nordstrom uses a combination of employee empowerment and an unwavering commitment to customers. Here are some lessons to glean from the much-loved retailer:
Prioritize customers before company policy
Customer service reps often fall back on company policies when faced with tricky decisions. More often than not, it leads to disappointment for a customer. At Nordstrom, employees follow one policy: making the customer happy.
Famously, Nordstrom’s employee handbook read like this:
“Welcome to Nordstrom. We’re glad to have you with our Company. Our number one goal is to provide outstanding customer service. Set both your personal and professional goals high. We have great confidence in your ability to achieve them.
Nordstrom Rules: Rule #1: Use your best judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.”
To further encourage employees to prioritize customer experience above all else, the company’s leadership routinely endorsed these values. Said co-founder John Nordstrom, “If I’m a salesperson on the floor and I know that the people who own this place are committed to customer service, then I am free to find new ways to give great customer service. I know that I won’t be criticized for taking care of a customer. I will only be criticized if I don’t take care of a customer.’’
Go beyond your core service
Nordstrom may be a retailer for clothing and shoes, but it’s Local stores don’t just allow customers to return and pick up online purchases. While waiting for their purchases, shoppers can get a manicure/pedicure, tailor clothing with in-store seamstresses, and consult with in-house stylists. These services may be paid for, but they still help to enhance a customer’s overall experience with the retailer.
Other than providing add-on services, Nordstrom employees routinely go above and beyond to delight customers.
Here’s a sample of what employees routinely do:
Use customer service stories for onboarding
Nordstrom’s customer service stories not only earn them media mentions, but are an important part of inducting new employees.
Merely stating the importance of customer service is unhelpful, uninspiring, vague. Instead, hiring managers recount stories of employees who have exceeded customer expectations. For example, the story of an employee who gift wrapped items purchased at Macy’s, or the employee who warmed up a customer’s car in the middle of a snow storm. Such stories have a powerful way to make messages stick. New recruits use them as reference points to deliver new and unique services, and thus the cycle continues.
Nordstrom serves as the perfect example for both online and offline companies to provide superlative customer experiences, no matter the platform.
The words “cut-throat competition” hardly justify the ecommerce landscape. Still, Zappos, an online retailer company for clothing and shoes, has managed to rise above competitors and build a memorable brand. Their success can be pinned to what is often a nightmare for most online retailers: customer service.
In their own words, Zappos’ commitment to customer service experience is, “obsessed, maniacal, radical, wow.” In a company blog post, they revealed some of their customer service strategy secrets:
Unlimited customer call times
Call times indicate customer support reps’ efficiency for most companies. Not for Zappos. Their support representatives are not bound by specific times or metrics, when it comes to assisting customers. It may take a while to digest this, but the longest customer service call a Zappos employee handled was 10 hours and 51 minutes.
Solutions + conversations
You know how most customer service representatives sound like they’d rather be doing something else? Zappos goes out of the way to ensure their reps are different. Says customer service trainer, Megan Petrini, “We want to distinguish the service experience for every customer, on each and every phone call.”
Zappos employees are free of scripts and textbook replies. Instead, they’re encouraged to develop personal connections with every caller. If they hear a dog in the background, they’ll chat about pets. If they can gauge a caller is stressed, they’ll ask if they can help.
Customer service conversations at Zappos often comprise a gamut of topics other than the usual exchange, order, and returns requests. Kids, sports, current events; employees discuss anything that helps them forge a bond with customers.
Their founder Tony Hsieh said in an interview:
While most companies have timings for customer support, Zappos employees are available to take customer calls, no matter what time or day. Unsurprisingly, employees are not in a rush to get off the phone because their shift has ended. Where most call centres have 80% occupancy, Zappos prefers to keep their call centers overstuffed and run at 60-70% occupancy. More customer support reps also enable more personal conversations and less focus on call time.
Training and empowerment
The Zappos customer service team, called Customer Loyalty Team, is trained for six weeks before they actually talk to customers. At the end of this training period, they offer employees a month’s salary to quit, if they feel they won’t be able to live up to Zappos’ values on customer service.
The lengthy training period does not equal excessive control over how employees deal with customers. In fact, employees have full freedom to accept special-case returns, offer refunds, and pay for damages.
Thanks to the lack of red tape around customer support, employees often deliver “Wow” moments to customers such as upgrading shipping to get shoes delivered for an occasion, sending a care package to a soldier in Afghanistan, and gifting Get Well Soon flowers to a customer’s ailing mother.
While on the face of it, Zappos’ customer service policies seem to cost them dear, they also buy them unwavering customer loyalty in return. For any business, that can only be a good thing.
Wrapping up: Great customer experiences are not a matter of chance
When customer service is baked into a company’s fundamental culture, great customer experience becomes the rule, not the exception.
Just as honesty, accountability, and openness take time to foster, customer-centricity is nurtured over time too. As with any lasting transformation, small, incremental changes make all the difference.
There are a few common themes running across companies with stellar customer service: hiring for great customer service, providing both flexibility and autonomy, and empowering teams to go the extra mile.
To take these from theory to practice, company leadership must ask the right questions while hiring new employees, emphasize customer experience during training and onboarding, celebrate exceptional customer service, and most importantly, lead by example.