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A for Effort: Five Companies with Great Customer Service

There’s an old business saying that goes something like, “A happy customer tells one person, but an unhappy customer tells everyone he knows.” Judging by the number of human-interest stories about big, bad companies picking on poor, defenseless customers, it seems like there’s a lot of truth to that adage. We’re all probably guilty of this bias—who among us hasn’t railed against a restaurant where we had one incompetent server, without thinking of the dozens of perfectly pleasant experiences we had there before?

But it seems that some companies can simply do no wrong. Customers of companies like Apple, Amazon, and Southwest Airlines regularly rave about the above-and-beyond service they get. An obsessive focus on customer service has made these institutions legendary among their loyal fans, but they’re not the only companies whose customers line up again and again to open up their hearts—and their wallets.

Since Bloomberg BusinessWeek started putting out its annual list of customer service champions, financial services company USAA has held a number-one or number-two spot every year. The company provides banking, insurance, loans, and mortgages to a clientele composed mostly of active-duty military members and their families. BusinessWeek reports that the company has a 97.8 percent client-retention rate, compared with a financial-industry average of about 36 percent, and about 60 percent of its thirteen-thousand-member workforce comprises customer service representatives. Not only does the company focus on treating its customers well, but it also explicitly caters to the military lifestyle, discounting auto insurance rates while a member is deployed overseas, refunding ATM fees worldwide, and being the first bank to allow check deposits via iPhone. Customer service team members develop empathy by watching videos of members serving in the Middle East, eating military-style meals, and doing other team-building activities that allow them to understand what their customers are enduring.

The company has figured out the right way to take the experience of shoe shopping online—with free shipping both ways, a generous return policy, a warehouse open twenty-four hours a day so that customers can always get next-day shipping, and price-matching if a customer finds the same style for less elsewhere. Headquartered in Henderson, Nevada, the company has a call center right on the same premises as its corporate headquarters, and the phone reps are encouraged to “Deliver WOW through service,” according to the Zappos Family Core Values. Zappos proudly encourages its customers to call in, instead of making them wade through the bowels of the company’s Web site in order to talk to a real human being. All this personal attention has developed a customer base so enthusiastic that Zappos spends little on traditional advertising, preferring to rely on word of mouth. Happy employees further generate enthusiastic support; they enjoy fully paid medical benefits and free lunch every day. Most return customers get regular upgrades to free priority shipping, as well as other perks that make buying shoes even more enjoyable.  

Maintaining the high level of service they call “the Ritz-Carlton mystique” is the top priority for all staff at the luxury-hotel chain, which regularly ranks at the top of J.D. Power & Associates’ yearly North America Hotel Guest Satisfaction Index Study. Employees are encouraged to go the distance, attending not just to guests’ expressed needs, but also to the needs they haven’t thought of yet, whether it’s offering scented candles for a traveler who seems harried or flying in eggs and milk from another country for a child with food allergies. During daily meetings, staff members tell “wow” stories of how they excelled for a guest, and the public recognition of excellence serves as an incentive to keep taking high levels of pride in their work. Part of creating the “mystique” is appealing to guests’ emotions and creating an intensely personal connection, ensuring that the guest would never consider staying anywhere else but a Ritz.

Among upscale retail stores, no one has a better reputation for customer service than this Seattle-based chain. Devoted customers adore the easygoing return policy and the friendly but focused sales associates. The company’s focus on service has become so legendary that one sales associate teamed with a writer to publish a book, The Nordstrom Way: The Inside Story of America’s #1 Customer Service Company, aimed at helping other companies become the “Nordstrom” of their own industries. One apocryphal tale that has bolstered the company’s image as a service leader for years is the story of one customer who returned a set of tires to the Nordstrom in Fairbanks, Alaska, and received a full refund—even though Nordstrom doesn’t even sell tires. Although some experts have questioned its validity, some Nordstrom employees claim to have firsthand knowledge of the incident, and say it’s an accurate reflection of their devotion to their customers’ needs.

This Northeast grocery store chain has found success doing everything that Walmart and other giant discounters don’t. Wegmans stores sell the kind of upscale and specialty foods that are hard to come by in some communities, but the real secret of their service is the investment they make in their employees. They send cheese shop managers to Italy to learn how parmesan is made, and Fast Company reports that fish- and meat-department employees must pass a fifty-five-hour university program to ensure they have encyclopedic knowledge of the products for sale. This commitment to training and education means that Wegmans employees can do more than stock shelves; they also give menu-planning tips, wine suggestions, and even cooking classes. Customers appreciate the personal attention they get at the stores and the warm, inviting atmosphere that differs from that of many traditional grocery stores. Employees are happy because the company offers generous health benefits, scholarship programs, and ample room for advancement and career development. Wegmans is consistently rated not only among the best companies for customer service, but also as one of the nation’s best companies to work for.

One thing that all of these companies have in common is that not a single one offers the least expensive products in its industry. But even when every dollar counts, cheap isn’t everything, and people prefer to spend their money with companies that treat them right. These companies, with successful sales as well as successful service, prove that getting ahead in business isn’t all about cutting costs and prices; when it comes to purchasing decisions, it’s the human element that matters most.

Allison Ford

Allison is a writer and editor who specializes in beauty, style, entertainment, and pop culture. She was part of the editorial team at DivineCaroline (now for more than three years. She loves makeup, sparkly accessories, giraffes, brunch, Matt Damon, New York City, and ice cream.