Customer Service Champs

These days, a snafu can wind up on YouTube. Here's how smart companies keep clients happy

Good customer service would seem to be a simple matter. Make policies flexible. Don't force customers to play call-center phone tag. Hire friendly people, train them well, and reward them with healthy pay and benefits.

But delivering the right level of customer service turns out to be hard. Some companies struggle to find smiling teenagers who are willing to work for the minimum wage flipping burgers. Others have the difficult task of ensuring their customers get the same message whether they're online, on the phone, or in the store. Slip up, and your service snafu becomes a tale consumers tell with relish over and over again.

Our special report on customer service digs deep into how companies are coping with this challenge. It highlights those that won a place among our 2008 Customer Service Champs, a ranking of the best-in-class companies using data from consumer researcher J.D. Power & Associates (MHP). We tap into three of the top 10—USAA, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, and Ace Hardware—for their new service initiatives. Plus, we take an inside look at why so many subscribers are hanging up on wireless service from Sprint Nextel (S), where the new CEO is struggling to fix deep-seated service problems. For a snapshot of customer service stats, see Numbers.

For companies that don't tend to their customers, the consequences can be dire. Consumers frustrated by the regular fix-it channels are increasingly employing vigilante tactics. Whether they're making YouTube (GOOG) videos or posting account numbers on blogs filled with digital rants, more and more consumers are getting companies to respond on their terms. We tell the story of Paul English, one of the original consumer vigilantes, whose Web site cracked the code for circumventing the call center and helping consumers everywhere get to a real live human being.

Finally, we check in with blogger Jeff Jarvis, who famously took Dell (DELL) to task for its service on his blog BuzzMachine. He weighs in with a column on how companies can put all that online aggravation to work for them.

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