Tips on how to reach customer service nirvana

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Several weeks ago, I took my car to a Sears Auto Tire & Repair to have a flat tire replaced -- for free, since my wife had the brilliant foresight to get a warranty. (OK, honey, you can stop looking over my shoulder.)

I was stunned because to my utter shock, I experienced some great customer service. For starters, Sears has a bad rap, sometimes deserved, for customer service. But I was also stunned simply because customer service is more and more often hard to come by anywhere.

The guy who was in charge somehow managed to wait on me and two other customers at once, so that none of us had to go more than about 60 seconds without talking to someone. He was unfailingly polite. And when I was ushered into a waiting room, they had free Internet service, free coffee (I don't like coffee, but I appreciated it), vending machines and a TV, and I could watch my car through a window, so I always knew how my tire was progressing. I left within 45 minutes and was floored -- because the customer experience was fantastic. (Anyone at Sears, whoever runs the tire place near the Kenwood Mall in Cincinnati -- give that person a raise.)

And then, driving home, I got a little miffed because good customer service, of course, should be the norm. Instead, I had found myself thrilled because I wasn't ignored and then shuttled off to wait in a dark corner. Honestly, I think if the clerk had belittled me and then thrown me down a flight of stairs, and my two front teeth had fallen out, I might have said optimistically, "Hey, this isn't so bad. I mean, as long as they're going to fix my tire ..."So when I recently traded a couple emails with customer service consultant Paul Kowal, I asked what business owners can do to achieve that customer service nirvana that all companies and their patrons want, but never seem to get.

And Kowal told me:

"First, talk to your customers. Regularly. The president of Pizza Hut calls customers for a half hour at lunch once a week, every week. He thanks them for their business and asks them what they could be doing better. He runs a multi-million dollar company, and he calls Sally Smith who might buy a pizza every couple of weeks. If he can do it, you can, too. You don't need market research studies or customer satisfaction statistics. Just get some phone numbers from the accounting department (they're better at keeping records than sales is) and start calling them."

Secondly, Kowal advises, "Get some customer satisfaction statistics. Regularly. And pay attention to them. Create an online and a telephone survey, and make them short and easy to complete -- five questions tops." He also suggests having people rate you, and the ones who say "terrible," make sure you have someone from your company contact those people, so you can get the details and fix them.

Thirdly, "let everyone in the company know that you think hearing the voice of the customer is critical to be successful in your business."

Assuming you can do all that, you, too, might have someday have some writer anonymously drop by as a customer and then later, after racking his brain trying to think of something to write about, wind up singing the praises of your company. You never know.

Geoff Williams is a business journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).
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