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A Personal Touch In An Online Era

JetBlue terminal at Kennedy Airport
JetBlue Terminal 5 at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City. Photo by Doug Letterman.

Much is made these days about the death, or at least the dearth, of great personal customer service. Much has been made about that very same point for as long as I can remember.

It wasn’t true then and it isn’t true now.

In a column for The Wall Street Journal, Bob Greene related a story about Robert Lazarus Sr., the president of a large department store in Columbus, Ohio. Lazarus kept his home number listed in the phone book. (Younger readers may find phone books or, indeed, home landline phones as much of a throwback as an independent local department store.) Greene, who learned the story from Lazarus’ son, recalled that the president of the now-defunct store answered a customer’s call at home one evening. He was prepared to trouble-shoot a product defect or another common issue; instead, a customer sheepishly admitted that he and his wife had no idea how to properly use the new tea set they had purchased at Lazarus’ store. Lazarus stayed on the phone and answered all of that customer’s questions, and reportedly later recalled the incident with great fondness.

Greene himself never drew a comparison between the Lazarus story and today’s retail environment, though the Journal ran the column under the headline “When Retailing Was Very Personal.” But such dedication to the customer experience is still around today, if you know where to look for it.

Good service – and, for that matter, bad service – depends on the priorities of the people at the top of the business. The question is whether a business is prepared to go out of its way to meet the needs of its clientele, regardless of whether that level of effort or expense is ordinarily expected. That’s the point: Great service is not ordinary.

In my experience, service is good more often than it isn’t. We just fail to notice it because we expect good service. Businesses typically satisfy this expectation because they are subject to a form of natural selection: Provide bad enough service to enough people over enough time, and your business is apt to fail.

There is no such thing as perfection in any human endeavor. No matter how high a standard a business sets for itself, inevitably the results will sometimes fall short. A big part of how customers perceive service depends on how the business reacts when it realizes, on its own or via a customer complaint, that it missed the mark the first time.

As an example, consider JetBlue. It remains my domestic airline of choice not because it has never disappointed me; it has, especially in connection with how it conducts its TrueBlue loyalty program. However, when I have raised a complaint, JetBlue has consistently reached out to fix it. Even for flyers who travel much less frequently than I do, JetBlue makes a point of offering credits for future travel in response to circumstances as routine as a significant flight delay or malfunctioning in-flight televisions. Travelers don’t expect airlines to do such things; that is what makes JetBlue’s choice to do them so outstanding.

I have never found that customer service was a function of a business’s size or the direct involvement of its owner, either. Of course, small businesses can have very personal relationships with customers, but that does not guarantee anything. Picture an accountant or attorney who lets projects languish, fails to provide status reports, and does not timely return phone calls or emails.

On the other hand, large organizations can be impersonal and miserable to navigate, or they can impress us when they deploy their resources on our behalf. My friend Jake Stephens is an area manager for Amazon, working out of the company’s large distribution center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. A few months ago, via LinkedIn, Jake shared the story of an occasion on which Amazon’s customer resolutions team reached out with an urgent request for two toddler-sized tuxedos. Jake and one of his colleagues didn’t ask questions; they simply sprang into action and secured the suits and got them on their way. Jake later discovered that the suits were on their way to a pair of bereaved parents, who were preparing to bury the two little boys in question and urgently needed the suits for the funeral. Amazon is the polar opposite of a small business, but in this instance, a dedicated customer service team went above and beyond to take care of those customers.

Nordstrom built its brand on customer service, setting a standard that is increasingly challenging to maintain as retailing moves online. Decades ago, Walmart was also a pioneer in customer service, despite its low-price, mass-market business model. When I first encountered Walmart in the 1980s, a shopper could return virtually any item at practically any reasonable time if it proved unsatisfactory. Walmart believed a disappointing product should be its problem, or its vendor’s problem, but never the customer’s problem. Inevitably, policies as liberal as these will be abused by some, and that usually leads to some cutbacks. Witness the recent demise of L.L. Bean’s legendary lifetime replacement policy. But such changes need not mean that an enterprise must give up on giving customers a great experience.

When I think of customer service, I often come back to Amazon and JetBlue because I believe they model what a business can be, or should aspire to be, in their respective fields. They are not always the lowest-price option, but value and price are not always closely correlated. They try to listen, and they try to respond constructively when customers are dissatisfied. They empower line employees to address complaints with substantive responses. I am just one entry in an enormous database of customers to each enterprise, but they don’t make me feel that way.

I like the personal touch, but I don’t much care whether it comes in an email, through a live chat interface or on the phone. The tools to provide it are better than ever, for businesses that choose to use them. If you pay attention, retailing is as personal now as it ever has been. I expect it to stay that way.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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