The 3 Characteristics of Good Customer Service: A Story about Ed and Phil

Guest post by Mark Prosser.

I served as the Chief Marketing Officer of a company that eventually went public on the New York Stock Exchange. The company offered an online platform for trading currencies. When the platform was first launched, there definitely were some bugs. However, instead of earning a reputation for having a “buggy” platform, the company earned a reputation for quickly addressing problems.

We learned – through trial and error – that there are three important keys to customer service that are crucial to establishing a great brand and reputation:

  1. Set realistic customer expectations.
  2. When problems do happen, respond quickly.
  3. Try to fix the problem and / or if the problem comes from unrealistic expectations, try to reset those expectations.

This post is a light-hearted effort to drive home these points!

For many customers, good customer service can be the single deciding factor by which they will choose one business over another. I’ll illustrate the three keys to customer service via the stories of Ed and Phil, two regular small business owners.

Ed and Phil run similar businesses and happen to be big competitors. Their elephant rental businesses, a staple in sunny So Cal’s entertainment industry, called Ed’s Elephants and Phil’s Pachyderms, provide luxurious, high-class elephant rides to the elite of Southern California’s Orange County. On any given weeknight, you might see any number of Orange County’s big wigs lounging on the back of an elephant as it strolls casually down the beach with its illustrious cargo.

For several years, both businesses did well and seemed to attract a similar number of customers. But recently, more and more customers have been forsaking Phil’s Pachyderms and switching their allegiance over to Ed’s Elephants. Why? Because of Ed’s superior customer service.

1. Setting and Meeting Customer Expectations

The first characteristic of good customer service is the ability to correctly set customer expectations and then meet those expectations. Never promise a level of service that you are not able to provide. Instead, take an honest look at your resources/abilities, craft a customer service approach that utilizes those resources and abilities in the best way possible, and then make sure you are following through on your promises.

Unfortunately, Phil overpromised and underdelivered. He advertised 24/7 customer support, meals custom tailored to his client’s diets, free libations, and even promised that he would give clients their money back if the steak they ordered (cooked on-board the elephant) was not the best they had ever had. Turns out, cooking an excellent steak using a propane grill on the back of an elephant is not easy, which led to many a customer refund. Several gluten/dairy intolerant customers were served food that caused them to have a reaction, although they had informed Phil of their intolerance. Despite advertising 24/7 customer support, Phil could only afford a support representative from 8am-7pm, so quite a few appointments/clients fell through the cracks and many looking to reschedule were so dissatisfied that they decided to just cancel instead.

Ed handled things quite a bit differently. He went through his budget/employee resources before he started and planned out the services he would and would not provide accordingly. Ed knew he could not rival Phil’s claims. Instead, he focused on making sure he delivered on what he did promise. He hired an employee to provide 7 day 9-5 customer support, also investing in a business phone system that forwarded calls directly to his cell when multiple callers were on the line, to ensure that his customers were assisted as quickly as possible. He could not afford to offer alcoholic beverages, but he encouraged customers to BYOB, even emailing them a menu of the wraps/appetizers provided beforehand, so they would be better able to pair their wines to the food. Although Ed’s business might not have been quite as sexy on paper, client’s soon realized that his reliability was better than Phil’s empty promises.

2. When You Do Make a Mistake: Respond Quickly and Honestly

Although it would be great if your business never made a mistake, the odds are some customers will have a negative experience/fall through the cracks. A business with good customer service will respond to these mistakes quickly and honestly, contacting the customer soon after the reported incident/complaint, acknowledging and apologizing for any fault/failure of the business, and then begin working towards a resolution.

When things started going downhill and the complaints started mounting, Phil decided to just keep a low profile and hope things would blow over. Instead of contacting his frustrated customers, he made sure to avoid their numbers when they appeared on his caller ID. When asked by the media about several allegations, he stated that he was sorry his customers were disgruntled but assured the media that the business was blameless. As a result, more and more clients started using Ed’s Elephants, feeling that Phil was just taking them for a ride.

Ed worked hard to deliver consistent and excellent service. But things were not always rosy. For example, one time a customer was standing next to Grelda, one of Ed’s elephants, and received a load of freshly digested fruit right onto her new Jimmy Choo Chiara sandals. Although the customer was initially irate, Ed called her later that day (as soon as he found out about it) to apologize and see what he could do to correct the situation. Because of Ed’s quick and honest response, the customer calmed down and the situation was eventually resolved to the satisfaction of both parties concerned (see section below for end of story).

3. Resetting Expectations and Fixing the Problem

The third important characteristic of good customer service, is the ability to reset unrealistic customer expectations and then to take appropriate action to meet those new expectations/fix your customer’s problem. When your business has a disgruntled customer, you need to be sensitive to their issue and do what you can to fix the problem. But, customer expectations are often much too high, especially if they feel wronged, which is why you have to work with them to have more realistic expectations, hopefully finding a happy medium where your customer is satisfied with a solution that does not require you to mortgage the business.

There came a point where Phil had to deal with the more serious of his customer’s complaints. Those who had experienced severe allergic reactions because their dietary needs had been ignored, threatened to take Phil to court. Because Phil did not quickly apologize, change the language on his menu to reflect what he could offer, and try to make-up for the bad experience, his “customers” were angry. They demanded big sums for their suffering and Phil’s business did economically suffer.

Ed’s strategy was different. For example, when dealing with the infamous Jimmy Choo incident, Ed’s customer initially demanded a year of free elephant rides to compensate for the emotional, physical, and financial trauma she experienced. Ed assured her that he was committed to bringing a positive resolution to the situation, but explained honestly that a year of free elephant rides would seriously compromise the financial health of his business. As a compromise, Ed offered to replace the Jimmy Choo’s and give his customer two complimentary elephant rides. A pair of Jimmy Choo’s and two elephant rides later, Ed’s customer was back to enthusiastically recommending Ed’s Elephants to her friends. Ed was able to reset her expectations to a reasonable level and then deliver on his promise to meet her needs.

* The stories of Ed and Phil are fictional and their customer service practices should not be viewed as ultimately authoritative.

* No Elephants or Jimmy Choos were harmed in the writing of this article!

 About The Author – Marc Prosser is the co-founder and publisher of Fit Small Business, an educational web site for entrepreneurs and small business owners.