How Much is Great Customer Service Worth?

Aug 14, 2013

In a RetailWire poll last month, 43 percent gave the retailers they interact with a grade of D or F for demonstrating loyalty to them (i.e., exceptional customer service). In other words, doing something that might not benefit the business in the short term, but would over the longer haul.

It was with this as a backdrop that I was happy to read a MoneyWatch article (I highly recommend you read the original) about a young boy traveling across country and what happened to him in a layover at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.

Long story short: young kid finds himself in the airport with no money and several hours to kill. His father offers to give his credit card information over the phone to several restaurants to pay for his kid’s meal. All the restaurants say that they are not set up to do that and decline the young boy service except for one.

The one, Wolfgang Puck Express, said they would feed the boy for free. The man said he insisted that there must be some way he could pay for his son’s meal. The response the woman on the phone gave him was, "Just do something nice for someone else."

The boy reported that he was waited on by women who acted "like doting moms." They made sure that, even after his meal was done, he went off with a bottle of water.

The people at the Wolfgang Puck Express might have figured the man would share his story with friends or perhaps even go on Facebook to praise their actions. They had no way to know that he would also tell the company’s corporate headquarters or write a story on a major website. And yet, they did what they did anyway. Pass it on.

Why don’t more retailers, large or small, do the types of things that transform people from ordinary customers to lifelong fans and brand evangelists? Do you have a great customer service story to share?

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22 Comments on "How Much is Great Customer Service Worth?"

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David Livingston
4 years 2 months ago

This sounds more like someone’s personal decision to help and not a direct order from corporate headquarters. When I worked for an independent grocer, I forgot how many flat tires I changed in parking lot, drove customers home when it was too far to walk, jump started their cars, delivered gift baskets to them when they were sick, overlooked minor shoplifting by the elderly, etc. Could go on all day. It comes down to letting lower level employees make an executive decision and empowering them to carry it through.

I suppose the most recent experience for me was when I made a complaint about the drunks in the next room at Hampton Inn. The front desk clerk just said the room was free, no more discussion.

Tony Orlando
There are many stories out there of fantastic service being offered to customers, and many in my own store, but they get lost in the fog of the business world. With advocates for the big box stores, and the competitive shopping mindset, we need to step back and smell the roses to get the really good customer service that we deserve. What else do independents have, besides niche items to offer? Great service for one, and always being mindful of the communities they serve. Retailing can be very discouraging sometimes, but when I go into the local schools to talk with kids, it ignites the true spirit in me, as to my purpose in life, which is to help others. There is a pay forward mentality in all of us, if we pay attention to our inner spirit, and customers can see that inside of us, which down the road will help your business. If and when I retire, my days will be filled with working with kids in my community, as it is the most joy I can bring to others and myself and that, my friends, is what keeps the folks out there happy to know that you… Read more »
Ken Lonyai

There’s probably a couple of main reasons why retailers and consumer facing businesses don’t act more spontaneously towards their customers: the corporate mentality is to make a buck on everything and employees are not empowered to use personal judgement. Clearly we know of exceptions to both of these issues, but across the board, the worker bees are supposed to do their jobs and not stick their head up. They’re supposed to account for inventory and fight to enforce corporate policies on payments, returns, and discounts.

As discussed in yesterday’s article on return policies, some flexibility and customer consideration can go a long way to generating goodwill from both the direct recipient of kind gestures and those they influence (even if it’s not mentioned on MoneyWatch).

Steve Montgomery
It comes down to having people who care as part of your retail team. As shown in the Wolfgang Puck story it was not a matter of policy, but a matter of people. My example of great customer service is with Office Depot. Ten plus years ago I was doing a presentation at a major industry conference. Had it ready a couple weeks in advance when my laptop developed issues. Went to my local Office Depot and they said it was still under warranty. Was advised the fastest way to get it fixed was to bring it to a service center. Fortunately there was one fairly close. I dropped it off and was assured that it would be ready in a week. Naturally it wasn’t, but was told to give then a few more days. Again it wasn’t ready and my time was fast running out. When I went back to the store to buy another one and express my displeasure, I asked for the store manager. Was told he was not available as he was with the district manager. I approached them both and told my tale of woe. The district manager asked if the store manager recognized me.… Read more »
Joan Treistman

It was not exactly Wolfgang Puck Express that acted so kindly, it was the people who work for Wolfgang Express. The company should thank their staff and continue their hiring practices.

Many years ago my daughter and her friend had their wallets and passports stolen during a European vacation. They stopped at the Brussels American Express office just about closing time. My daughter was trying to get another card issued and some ideas about how to get to the American Embassy. One of the staff offered to put up my daughter and her friend for the night. After breakfast the next morning the staff member’s wife drove my daughter and her friend to the American Embassy. We’ve remained loyal American Express members and tout their amazing service.

While I believe it was the compassion and generosity of this man and his wife, not an American Express mandate that was so helpful and comforting…at the end of the day, American Express benefits from hiring the right people.

Dick Seesel

This is a good illustration of why so many retailers mistake price incentives as a substitute for truly cultivating customer loyalty. The best loyalty programs out there (Kimpton Hotels comes to mind) may or may not offer discounts to members, but always provide other “surprises” (minibar credits, room upgrades, wine tastings) that provide incentives for repeat business. In this case, the Wolfgang Puck restaurant provided the best sort of “surprise” and customer service at its most elemental.

As to the sleepover camp that sent the child on his way with a dollar in his pocket for a cross-country flight? They did not earn the author’s “repeat business.”

Ian Percy

Absolutely love these stories, thanks George. Sadly there is also evidence of them being manufactured. Why, I don’t know. It is so much easier to just do the kind, right and loving thing as the wonderful “moms” at Puck Express did.

There’s an ancient sacred book that admonishes us to be aware that the beggar could be a king in disguise. Will we sometimes be taken advantage of like those people who raise money to help them with non-existent cancer? Yup, that is almost certain. But then you are left with a choice: a) be taken advantage of though your intent was to do something good without thought of return; or b) live your life in cynicism, suspicion, negativity and paranoia. Personally I’m ready to be taken advantage of. It’s a far easier, more fulfilling way to live. Next time at the airport, I promise, it will be Puck’s for me.

Frank Riso
It may be a case of where one bad apple spoils the rest. Too many retailers define their customer service based on what advantages a few customers will take of them. They do not realize that most of us are good people and just want to shop in a store with great service. When I was a store manager, years ago, a man knocked on the front door of my supermarket wanting a can of cranberry sauce for Christmas dinner. It was Christmas Eve, we were closed and enjoying a small staff party. I gave him two cans, and since we had already closed the registers, I could not ring up the purchase, so I gave them to him for free. Hopefully he is still loyal to the chain. I purchased a new car about a year or so ago. In the first year I had the car, I had 12 major issues. The car is under warranty so they fixed them at no charge. But since it had so many issues and many of their cars do not, I asked for an extension of the warranty given the document problems I have had. I have two cars from the… Read more »
Dr. Stephen Needel

I don’t think this is a retailer issue—I think the boy ran into some wonderful people. So we might better ask, “why aren’t more people nicer?” Psychologists have lots of answers to that, none of them great.

Shep Hyken

The answer is simple. Most retailers don’t train to the level of service as the customer service legends like Zappos, Nordstrom, Amazon, Ace Hardware, Ritz-Carlton, etc. As a result, most interactions that happen with the customers are focused on that transaction, versus a bigger picture. My philosophy on customer loyalty is simple: Start with a question, “Is what I’m doing right now going to get the customer to come back the next time they need what I sell?” It’s all about the next time, every time.

Great customer service stories? My new book, “Amaze Every Customer, Every Time” is full of these types of stories. Also, I have a story about an amazing cab driver on my YouTube channel.

Nikki Baird

I too think this was the case of a couple of individuals making a call. But it does speak to something in the corporate culture that these women felt they could make that call. That’s what is missing more than anything else—empowered associates, and a corporate culture that trusts those associates to do what is best for the customer in a way that translates into what is best for the company.

Adrian Weidmann
I am aware of a customer service incident involving a WWII veteran shopping at a Fortune 50 retailer with which I had been engaged. This particular retailer advertises and offers an additional discount to our service men and women. During a shopping trip, the customer presented his sealed military credentials with great pride to the checkout person only to be told that it was not the ‘correct’ form. Someone forgot to tell retailer X that there were veterans from WWII (1940’s), and their ID’s are different than current issue.  I contacted the retailer and was referred to the Executive VP responsible for customer service and suggested that the retailer present the customer with an apology and representative ‘thank you’ gift card. I gave them all of the details and contact information. I was assured this would be made ‘right’. I followed the story for 2 months and to my disappointment the situation was never followed up nor corrected. I for one have changed my shopping preference.  This is a great example of a marketing and promotion opportunity trumping ‘doing the right thing’. A corporate policy got in the way of allowing and empowering the front line brand ambassador- your employee… Read more »
Ed Rosenbaum

This is “Pay it Forward” in a big way. Those ladies at Wolfgang’s were only interested in the boy’s best interest. Who cares if this was a corporate or individual decision? The point is someone did good for someone else.

To me, it is a throwback to the years when retail was less corporate and national, but more local. That time was the last of outstanding customer service as we grew to know and appreciate it. Today, it is something seen as an individual’s initiative more than a company training program.

John Boccuzzi, Jr.
John Boccuzzi, Jr.
4 years 2 months ago
Empowering your associates to deliver “extraordinary” customer service is truly the key to building a long term relationship with customers. To accomplish this, the message needs to come from the top and employees can’t be afraid of losing their job for for doing what they believe to be “extraordinary” customer service. Now my personal story of extraordinary customer service: A few years ago I booked a family vacation to Disney. We purchased our airline tickets from Jet Blue 6 months in advance. I had a relative drop us off at the White Plains, NY airport in plenty of time to catch our flight. The issue was I did not reread the tickets before leaving the house. The flight was out of Stewart International Airport not White Plains. Now what? I approached the Jet Blue desk ready to fight. When I explained the situation the person behind the desk quickly checked other flights leaving White Plains for Orlando, our final destination. She was able to switch our tickets, get the entire family on the flight without costing us a dime. Needless to say, the rest of the trip was a breeze and our family books Jet Blue whenever possible for family… Read more »
Joanna Beerman
Joanna Beerman
4 years 2 months ago

Unfortunately, I do not have a great customer service story to share. A TON of horrible experiences come to mind. Isn’t it awful?

Can’t explain it to your folks on the floor? Try Customer Lifetime Value vs. Today’s Transaction. In almost all cases (with some exclusions, such as wedding vendors), there’s a vast difference in value.

David Zahn

Why don’t more retailers do these things? Lack of trust of frontline employees to do the right thing, fear of being robbed, not understanding the value of such things, only seeing the cost, not the return, wedded to policy and bureaucracy, command and control management tactics.

Is it right? No. Is it penny-wise and pound-foolish? Yes.

Carlos Arambula

The key is training—and the presence of the store and operations manager helped. Empathy is often sacrificed in behalf of “following the rules” and unfortunately, customer service does not lend itself to absolute rules and guidelines.

I have several great customer service stories, and all of them involve companies where employee training is constant and emphasized.

Craig Sundstrom

This was an endearing story, I suppose, although my initial thought was “what kind of father sends his son on a flight with no money?” But it seems a contradiction to on the one hand, praise WPX for selflessness, and then turn around and point out there’s a marketing upside.

Anyway, as to why such benevolence isn’t more widespread—and the assumption that it is not is unproven—I suspect it’s because retailers ultimately found it DIDN’T pay. Loyalty is indeed a two way street, and in the race-to-the-bottom of low prices, something had to give, and that thing was service. David’s tire changing chivalry would have been a lot harder if he were one of only 3 employees on shift at a 100,000 square foot superstore.

Kenneth Leung

The theme is really empowering, not punishing the employees for doing the right thing for the customers. How many stories in social media have we read about retail employees in big box retailers fired for violating company policy (designed to lower insurance premiums) while helping out in emergencies or in human interest situations? At the end of the day, if retailers hire the right employees and give them a little discretion, rather than just apply strict business process rules, they will generate the right experience.

Ralph Jacobson

This behavior must be driven by the corporate culture. In many companies, a kind, yet expensive gesture by an employee may be met with unkind discipline. I love the story and have many to share, like most people. I just think that a small investment in a shopper can often be the differentiator we are all seeking.

Tom Redd

While speaking with a top retail analyst this week, we discussed shopper loyalty—especially at the largest retail space—in the stores.  A point he made was that “many retail stores still have managers that are older and not in synch with a large segment of their shoppers. The age difference causes a knowledge and awareness gap that in turn, impacts how stores are run and associates are motivated.”

Good point. Get the younger people running the stores and synch up with the Millennial shoppers.

Being “older,” this hurts, but it is time for change. I would not mind working in a Home Depot, in place of a younger person who knows nothing of home maintenance. I would be the the old guy that knows why wax seals for toilets are different, and advising the shopper on which one to buy.

Tom…Fixit Advice for Retail and Homes….

Ed Dennis
Ed Dennis
4 years 2 months ago

It’s because retailers large and small do a horrible job of hiring and training their employees. They won’t pay for quality employees; they won’t even go to the trouble of searching for quality employees. And forget about training.

Ninety-nine out of 100 retail employees are space fillers. They have no concept of what the retailer is trying to accomplish and why. They don’t consider themselves to be part of the business; they just occupy space and draw a check. You ask why retailers don’t do these things and I will tell you that most retail management don’t have a clue. They don’t know any more than the hourly employees.


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