Nov. 27 (Bloomberg) -- Anyone who has survived a marathon phone session with an Internet service provider knows the frustration, not to mention the elevated stress level, associated with today’s automated world. In many cases, customer service has been supplanted by do-it-yourself phone menus and websites. In some cases, do-it-yourself beats doing it with a real person.
What got me thinking about the value of good customer service was a recent experience with bad -- make that awful -- phone support. It doesn’t seem as if it should be all that hard to do right. Surely corporate executives weigh the costs and benefits of having an adequate staff of well-trained representatives to field customer calls and provide solutions on a timely basis. Market research confirms that a happy customer tends to be a customer for life. Bad service, on the other hand, costs the company in lost sales. And customers are much more likely to tell friends about their negative experiences than their positive ones.
I started my quest by calling a few companies that provided exceptional customer service for me in the last few months: Amazon.com Inc., of course, which is routinely ranked No. 1 among Internet retailers in customer satisfaction surveys; Weber-Stephen Products LLC, a family-owned manufacturer of barbecue grills; and Bose Corp., a closely held manufacturer of audio systems. I also spoke with Southwest Airlines Co., based on the recommendations of friends who swear by it.
I’ve tried to distill the message I got from these companies into some important concepts.
1. Customer service is marketing.
Surveys suggest that customer service has a large and long-lasting impact on the buying behavior of customers. Trust is important. Fool me once, and I’ll be going elsewhere.
The executives I spoke with all said customer service doesn’t start with the cost. “It’s the philosophy: Above all, you need to get it right with the customer, or make it right,” said Bob Maresca, president and chief executive officer at Bose. His philosophy on customer service was shaped by his experiences as a consumer and a lesson he learned from the company’s founder, Amar Bose. Many years ago, Maresca was made vice president of the home-entertainment division after a software issue was discovered in one of its products. “Dr. Bose made me call back the customers to explain,” he said. “I put myself in the shoes of the customers.”
He obviously conveyed what he learned to his staff. When I called Bose to find out if it made sense to send my aging Wave Music System to an authorized dealer for repair, within five minutes I had swapped out my antique for a new system. The cost: $199, a $300 discount from the advertised price. Subsequently Bose sent me an adapter for my radio antenna at no charge.
2. The price of loyalty.
At Weber, they call it the “loyalty loop,” said Chief Executive Officer Tom Koos. It all starts with a great product, easy assembly and a great cooking experience. Then you are part of Weber Nation.
I’m in the loop, as they say. Last summer, I called Weber to get a replacement part for my gas grill and ended up with the part plus instructions for cooking a turkey on a gas grill.
Koos said business schools teach the four Ps of marketing: product, price, place and promotion. But they “miss the fifth ‘P’: positive word of mouth.”
At Weber, 60 customer-support representatives take 500,000 calls a year. “Nobody else talks to customers,” he says. Nobody has to.
3. Who we are is what we do.
That might not be good advice for someone searching for his identity, but it sure fits Southwest Airlines. Customer service “is part of our core being,” said Teresa Laraba, senior vice president for customer services. Ever since Southwest started 42 years ago, the goal has always been “to bring customer service back to the skies.” (Did it disappear that many years ago?) An early company ad featured the line: “Somebody up there loves you.”
Southwest customers feel loved. “We don’t get much argument investing in things that improve the experience,” Laraba said.
New hires interview with recruiters and then with employees who are doing the specific job. “We want employees to be invested in someone who’s going to share that job,” she said.
Southwest’s policies are an added perk. Even customers who purchase tickets with the most restrictive fares can reuse the ticket as long as they cancel before the flight. (See No. 2 above.) No wonder Southwest ranks near the top -- second behind JetBlue -- among low-cost carriers in customer satisfaction surveys.
4. The time value of money, or the value of our time.
Consumers may comparison-shop for the best deal on a computer or flat-screen TV, but if they’re like me, they will gladly pay up for service. Sometimes that isn’t even an option.
What really bugs us about customer service? I’m glad you asked. We hate being trapped in automated-phone menus and waiting on hold for a real person to answer. We hate being disconnected and starting all over with a new agent. We hate the do-not-call(-back) policy many companies seem to favor. And a customer-support agent knowledgeable enough to solve the problem is key. Fixing any or all of these problems would win our hearts and minds.
One wonders if that’s why companies are always looking for new and better Web tools, such as YouTube videos, to improve the customer experience. Amazon.com recently introduced a Mayday button on its Kindle Fire HDX tablet. Press the button, and in 15 seconds or less you are connected to an Amazon expert who is available 24/7, 365 days a year. Oh, and no need to dress: You can see the tech adviser, but she can’t see you.
“Amazon’s goal is to be Earth’s most customer-centric company,” Kelly Cheesman, a company spokeswoman, told me. I think CEO Jeff Bezos has succeeded. I am a devoted Amazon Prime customer. UPS is at my house at least twice a week with deliveries. And I just realized that in all this time, with hundreds of interactions over the years, I have never had reason to contact a real person at Amazon. Now that’s the definition of good customer service.
(Caroline Baum, author of “Just What I Said,” is a Bloomberg View columnist.)