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Customer service is the ultimate survival skill for businesses

While great companies like Nordstrom, American Express and Costco rank up there with Amazon, too many businesses only talk the talk. They may advertise their service in clever commercials, but it's empty rhetoric.
While great companies like Nordstrom, American Express and Costco rank up there with Amazon, too many businesses only talk the talk. They may advertise their service in clever commercials, but it's empty rhetoric.
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“Our focus is on customer obsession rather than competitor obsession.” — Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO

When Jeff Bezos spoke in Salt Lake City a few years ago, Amazon’s profit margin was about 1 percent, while Google’s and Apple’s were around 25 percent. I asked one of his lieutenants why Amazon had such a tiny profit. He said Bezos wants customers to get most of the benefit from shopping with Amazon; thus it keeps its costs — and profits — as low as possible. Bezos’ obsession with customer satisfaction is working: Amazon has achieved $100 billion in annual sales faster than any company in history.

In his recent stockholder letter, Bezos wrote, “We’ve grown Prime two-day delivery selection from 1 million items to over 30 million, added Sunday delivery, and introduced free same-day delivery on hundreds of thousands of products for customers in more than 35 cities around the world.”

“Prime Now offers members one-hour delivery on many items ... and was launched (in) only 111 days. ... In that time, a small team built a customer-facing app, secured a location for an urban warehouse, determined which 25,000 items to sell, got those items stocked, recruited and on-boarded new staff ... and launched in time for the holidays.”

Any business wanting to create a superb customer experience should pause and seriously consider what Amazon has done and is doing: one-hour delivery? This puts every goods retailer in the bull's-eye.

While great companies like Nordstrom, American Express and Costco rank up there with Amazon, too many businesses only talk the talk. They may advertise their service in clever commercials, but it’s empty rhetoric. I don’t have to tell you that, my gentle readers, because you’re their customers, too. Far too many companies concentrate on their product but have a poor grasp of the quality of their service. Their CEOs can’t possibly be experiencing their own companies’ treatment of customers or they wouldn’t be bragging about it.

Wal-Mart doesn’t care if I find what I’m looking for. I know that because it doesn’t provide anyone to help me find humidifiers or belts. The Swiss Army knife I like to buy is almost always out of stock. My experience leads me to conclude Wal-Mart’s customer service philosophy is something like this: We’re really big and have lots of inexpensive stuff; customers want our products and prices enough to put up with minimal customer assistance. Wal-Mart may continue to prosper, but odds are Amazon will bury it by helping shoppers buy exactly what they want (after choosing from a gazillion options, all with informative reviews by previous buyers) from their homes and having it delivered in about the same time it would take to go to Wal-Mart.

In general, the inability to talk to a person — in store or remotely — is a huge disadvantage for a company. Call XMission, ClearPlay or Ring. A knowledgeable, engaged person will answer the phone and immediately help you with your problem. Contact Moen to tell it your faucet broke or tell Hunter-Douglas about your broken blind. In a day or so either company will ship — without cost — a replacement part, no questions asked. Even though I rarely talk to a person at Amazon, I still get everything worked out amazingly well. I love the chat feature on a lot of help pages. I’ve resolved many problems this way. There is no perfect way. Great companies find out how to give great customer service.

Oh, that my cable carrier would adopt Amazon’s service ethic. In my new cable package, I specifically kept my landline (I had my reasons), but the company turned it off anyway. After a long time on hold, I talked to a helpful service rep, but she couldn’t help because the salesperson hadn’t included the landline in the ticket. I couldn’t contact the salesperson, but luckily, he had written the whole deal down on some scratch paper, which I kept. Over the next several weeks I spent hours upon hours on the phone. With stern resolution and some legal knowledge, I finally got the deal I had negotiated. This company may have a customer service department, but it has no real customer service.

Product quality and selection bring business, but customer service keeps — or loses — customers.

Greg Bell is the current president and CEO of the Utah Hospital Association. He is the former Republican lieutenant governor of Utah.