The Key to Great Customer Service

August 15, 2017

The Key to Great Customer Service


Isabela Kronemberger


This is the story of how I learned the key to great customer service.

I’d come down to New York for HSM’s World Innovation Forum. The first day of the conference, customer service guru and Zappos chief Tony Hsieh gave his spiel about Zappos being a service company that just happened to sell shoes. In fact, he said, their primary business wasn’t even delivering shoes or clothing. It was delivering happiness. He talked about how they hire — and fire — on their core values, how they’d developed and refined those values over the course of several years, and how their company mission was grounded in the latest science of what makes people happy. There was a music video and a PowerPoint. We got his book, Delivering Happiness, free in our conference bags. It was all compelling, inspiring stuff.

But it’s not what taught me the key to great service.

I learned the key to great service because of a set of physical keys — namely, the house keys of the friend who was putting me up for the duration of the conference. The single set of house keys that was somehow still in my purse when I got to Penn Station, with just five minutes to make my train back to Boston.

“WhatdoIdowhatdoIdowhatdoIdo,” I thought, my mind racing. I had to get on that train — it was the only train that would get me back in time for a graduation ceremony I’d sworn to attend. But I couldn’t get on that train, not with those keys — my friend would be homeless. I was quickly running through my rapidly dwindling options when I saw the information booth at the heart of the Amtrak waiting area. I ran up to the window.

“I’ve done something incredibly stupid,” I began, out of breath and sweaty from running up from the subway with my suitcase and shoulder bag on the 95-degree day. I frantically explained to the woman behind the glass that I needed a place to leave the keys so my friend could pick them up. Was there anywhere in the station I could safely leave them? And still, make my train?

“Here,” she said, immediately extending her hand. “Give them to me. Here’s my cell phone number. My name is Joyce. Call your friend and explain where the keys are.” I was floored.

“You’ll just — do that? Just like that? That’s — that’s amazing,” I sputtered.

“Well, it’s the easiest and the quickest,” she replied, sensibly, “If someone just takes responsibility for the problem.”

Taking responsibility for the problem! It was so simple. Requiring no PowerPoint, no positive psychology, no viral video, no best-selling book, no conference badge. Just the willingness of Joyce Davis, Pennsylvania Station Amtrak Employee of the Century as far as I’m concerned, to take responsibility for my stupid memory lapse. I was gratefully looking up Midtown florists before the train had reached New Rochelle.

The day before, at the WIF, Hsieh had mentioned that Zappos had just set a record for the longest customer service call with an eight-hour-and-23-minute-marathon. But when I tweeted this impressive nugget, CaseyChesh replied, “idono, when do you draw the line? 8-hour customer service support call? Seems like something’s broken.”

I don’t think so, and here’s why: the upshot of Zappos’ intensive training and carefully constructed company culture and famous “quitter’s bonus” is that they have an army of employees who are willing to really own the problems of their customers — even if it takes all day.

Joyce Davis doesn’t work at one of the hippest companies in business, a darling of the HBR’s and Fast Companys of the world. Her CEO doesn’t drive around the country in a “Happiness Bus” or share the stage with the likes of Clay Christensen and Roger Martin.

And neither do most of us. In fact, most of us work at companies that are less like the sainted Zappos and more like Amtrak — where one of the conductors on my train down to New York shouted into the loudspeaker: “Again, for the last time, we have a full train today. That means no belongings on the seats next to you — no bags, no purses, no backpacks, no suitcases, no shoes, no computer bags, no anything-else-I-have-forgotten-to-mention. No nothing. Now puh-lease, do NOT pretend you didn’t hear this announcement!” (Yes, I was on the Regional.)

No wonder that while 80 percent of companies think they have good service, only 8% of their customers agree (according to a survey prepared by WIF sponsor Avaya).

You may not be able to rewrite your company’s mission statement, reshape your company culture, or even make decisions about who to hire. But you can decide to take ownership of the next problem that lands in your lap, whether it’s from a customer, a colleague, or just a frazzled, sweaty, crazy lady.

It won’t revolutionise your business. But at the very least, it might inspire a grateful stranger to send you flowers.


This article was originally written by Sarah Greenan associate editor at HBR and full credit goes to Harvard Business Review, which is where the article was originally published over a year ago. This article has been reprinted for the purpose of education.

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