Unbelievable Customer Service

Joe Nocera, in a piece for the New York Times this weekend, writes about how Amazon saved Christmas by replacing a $500 PlayStation 3 for his son.

Now I was nearly distraught. In all likelihood, the reason I hadn’t seen the package earlier in the week is because it had been stolen, probably by someone delivering something else to the building…. The Amazon customer service guy didn’t blink. After assuring himself that I had never actually touched or seen the PlayStation, he had a replacement on the way before the day was out. It arrived on Christmas Eve. Amazon didn’t even charge me for the shipping.

Stories like these quickly become legend. It’s fantastic word-of-mouth advertisting for Amazon but I have to wonder what part of the equation boiled down to the author working for the New York Times. It reminded me of a theme James Heskett explored in his book The Service Profit Chain.

Too much anecdote-peppered advice is given by many service gurus today without a context.

Who hasn’t heard the story about the Nordstrom store that accepts the return of a set of snow tires by someone claiming to have bought them there even though Nordstrom doesn’t sell snow tires. The misguided moral is that by wowing the customer in this manner, Nordstrom will gain a new customer and possibly great word-of-mouth advertising.

If the tire story ever did occur, you can bet that it involved a customer that Nordstrom’s people, based on facts, knew they did not want to alienate. In the context of a more carefully planned strategy, it could have made sense, although one could question the loyalty of a customer who would pull such a stunt on a company and expect to get away with it.

Many of the great service stories are downright misleading—for example, the one involving the Southwest Airlines counter agent who encountered a customer who had just missed the flight that would take him to his most important business meeting of the year. The attendant decided to have his own light plane pulled out of the hanger and fueled in order to fly him to the customer’s destination. We’re supposed to believe that it’s just part of the great service at Southwest, an airline that charges no more than $39 for many of its tickets [in 1997]. If so, it’s the kind of great service that, offered repeatedly, will put a company out of business.

The story behind the story is much more important. It is that the counter agent knew the customer by his first name because the agent had been at his job for seven years. He knew that the customer flew over 300 segments per year and was worth more than $18,000 a year in revenue to the airline. But the run-of-the-mill customer shouldn’t expect this kind of treatment. Rarely do the great stories go much below the surface to suggest causes rather than symptoms of great service.

[via designswarm]


  1. I’m not sure you’re right about this. Some companies just have a policy of giving excellent customer service.

    For example, I contacted Logitech about a set of out-of-warranty speakers that had developed a problem (physical damage to a cable most likely caused by a small child kicking it or stepping on it).

    Within a couple of days, a new set of speakers was delivered to me free of charge. (And I am not an NYT columnist…)

    Logitech did not have to do this. But they did.

    Which is why I have been telling my friends and family about it, and blogging about it too (http://capcloud.com/node/249). And mentioning it here🙂

  2. Jeff

    I’ve heard some good things about Logitech’s customer service. Wonder how far they’d go?

    Logitech: I would like to know how the cable was damaged.

    Martin: I think it was damaged when my kids and I were smashing the speaker with a rock.

    Logitech: Okay. Sounds good. A new speaker is on its way!

    Seriously, it’d be interesting to understand why Logitech has such a policy of excellent customer service (or at least easy returns/replacements). The point of the Heskett quote was getting beyond the symptom of great service to find the underlying cause.

    Is it because you’ve bought and registered many Logitech items in the past? Or is it simply cheaper to replace broken speakers than to build reliable ones? Hard to say.

  3. I think they would probably draw the line at intentional damage (even if it is by kids).

    In this case, I think you are right — it is cheaper to replace broken speakers than to build reliable ones.

    Or rather, that if there is a weak point in a particular product, it is better to acknowledge that, do the right thing by the customer, and design/engineer the next version without this weak point. (The newer model that they sent me has a much more robust connector than the old one. Maybe this would stand up better to accidental knocks.)

    And no, I have not bought and registered many Logitech products in the past. In fact, I think this was the first one I’d ever bought.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s