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The Future of Customer Service: These Companies Are Getting it Right

Sometimes companies go out of their way to be kind - and some do it consistently. Here are 10 big businesses getting little relationships right.

Companies know we don't approach them the way we used to. I almost always choose self-checkout and automated help chats, and I'm not usually willing to hold. Plus, I can order almost anything from almost anywhere. Having fewer conversations makes every interaction more important, and the better those interactions, the more loyal I become. And every customer matters, right?

That's why we keep hearing stories about random, radical acts of customer service: Loyalty is more important than sales numbers. Companies are OK with employees bending the rules if customers will sing their praises. And now that the best stories go viral, can one outrageous story be just as valuable as consistent kindness?

These 10 companies have given a lot of thought to what customer service means in the 21st century—and are mastering the art.

1. is the company that let a call center staffer spend 10 hours with a single customer last month. Understandably, that call broke records—and held the previous record, too (an 8-hour call in 2011). Online, customer service reps introduce themselves when they sign onto Twitter, and the page’s background image features those reps wearing paper moustaches. Zappos mandates that employees spend 80 percent of their days with customers, but each person can make that happen in a unique way. And if that means chatting about life in Las Vegas and only selling one pair of boots, like the woman on the 10-hour call, so be it.

2. L.L. Bean

L.L. Bean features real voices online, too: Customer service staffers responded to every single question surveyors tweeted at the company in a 2012 study. It also harnesses its woodsy Maine heritage for national good. For its 100-year anniversary, L.L. Bean asked customers to share their “outdoor moments” via social media. More than a million people responded, so the company donated $1 million to the National Park Service. The pictures are adorable, and most of them have nothing to do with L.L. Bean.

3. Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines outright refuses to hire people who aren’t friendly, one Senior Vice President said (and even at 4 a.m., I've noticed that policy). Noted for transparent communication, Southwest has twice been the subject of tell-all reality TV shows. And when one passenger wrote a story about his damaged bag and sent the website to the airline, Southwest replaced the bag and replied to his message in kind—pictures and all. What could have been a PR disaster became a genuinely funny apology.

4. Nordstrom

Nordstrom famously allows customers to return items without receipts, even years after they’re purchased. So when the chain opened a store in a space acquired from an auto shop, one man tried to return a set of tires. Nordstrom doesn’t sell tires, of course. But true to company policy, one salesperson accepted them anyway. By poking fun at its own rules, the retailer made that man’s day.


Amazon consistently tops customer service polls because people hardly need the company's help. When they do want advice, users sign in and describe their problem before calling, so employees answering phones have data to inspire their conversations. Thanks to Amazon's trusty, efficient platform, I don't even know where the customer service form is. That’s a service in itself.

6. Ritz-Carlton

The Ritz-Carlton requires that every employee attend a 15-minute meeting every day. Two things happen here: One, managers applaud one person’s noteworthy act of service, and two, they describe the hotel guests in one room or one meeting. Last year, an 8-year-old left his teddy bear in one of those rooms in Amelia Island, Australia. The hotel promised his parents they’d mail the bear home that day—but not before they gave Joshie (the bear) access to the pool, the front desk, the golf cart, and his own Ritz-Carlton ID. In the process of doing the right thing, these workers had a blast, and their pictures secured the loyalty of Joshie’s owners.

7. Panera Bread

Last year, Panera opened four pay-what-you can “Community Cafes.” The company's owner says he wants the same food to be accessible to everyone—including Brandon Cook’s grandmother, who asked for clam chowder in a bread bowl the week before she died. Chowder is only served on Fridays, but the restaurant’s managers disregarded that rule and threw in a box of cookies, too. Three Panera Bread Community Cafés are already profitable, and Cook’s Facebook post got more than half a million likes. Generosity really can be practical.

8. CVS/Caremark

CVS/Caremark started its Samaritan Van service more than 30 years ago. Staffed by licensed EMTs, these vans patrol highways in the Northeast and Midwest and stop to help repair cars, give medical assistance or call police. The company says it gets about 7,000 thank you cards every year.

9. Lego

Lego targeted its excellent customer service toward kids this past Christmas. A boy who had been saving for a Lego Emerald Night Train for two years found out the company had discontinued that set. He wrote to Lego, and it replied with a typical form letter, then delivered a package to his house before his birthday. Another kid lost one of his action figures and also wrote to Lego (and admitted he should have listened to his dad). The company sent him two unreleased characters and a partial transcript from a conversation with Sensei Wu, the character he’d lost. Kids are Lego’s customers and they deserve respect, and the company understands that.

10. Sainsbury's

Finally, a story you probably know: Sainsbury's customer Lily Robinson, age 3, thought “tiger bread” looked far more like “giraffe bread” in 2011. She wrote the company a letter about it. Yes, an employee replied—but then the supermarket actually changed its labels. Sainsbury’s proved that bottom-up change works in the corporate world, too.

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