Secrets for getting the very best customer service

It’s the proverbial man-bites-dog story for consumer reporters: an over-the-top customer service experience in which an employee goes the extra mile.

It’s even more rare — on the order of man-bites-man — to find a proven way to extract the very best service from employees.

I won’t mince words. Men are not biting men.

But a series of recent stories and one reader’s experience give me hope that it’s possible. In other words, you could get superior service every time you go to the store or log on to your computer to go shopping.

Beam me up, Netflix

If you’re a Star Trek fan, you’ve probably already seen the funny IM chat transcript between Captain Mike of the good ship Netflix and another fan. It’s been described as the best customer service “ever” by the person seeking help with getting a good picture on an episode of Parks and Recreation.

If you haven’t seen it, you should. It’s playful, humorous and more importantly, it gets the job done.

The most problematic part of the incident came in the comments, where another customer service rep confessed the company he works for would fire him if he engaged in that kind of light-hearted banter with a customer. Truth is, the interaction was infinitely better because the Netflix customer service rep was allowed to be himself.

There’s a lesson in here for the rest of us. By acknowledging the humanity of employees, we give them permission to be more human. Do you think Captain Mike of the good ship Netflix was using a script, as many call center workers do? Unlikely.

Give them a chance

Reader Bruce Kane brings us the next story of unexpectedly terrific service. Several weeks ago, he saw a delivery truck driving down the highway erratically.

“He was weaving and failing to maintain his speed,” he recalls. “As I passed him, I could see he was focused on his cell phone.“

Kane honked to warn the driver that he was driving dangerously, but he just sped up and then returned to sending a text message. So Kane emailed the company to let them know.

To his surprise he heard back from the CEO.

“I would like to express my thanks to you for sharing the information pertaining to the lack of safety and professionalism it appears you encountered while following one of our vehicles last evening,” the CEO wrote. “It is very unfortunate and something we are truly concerned to hear and it of course has been justly communicated not only with the believed offending party but also with the fleet users who use our vehicles on a daily basis.”

By way of apology, the CEO sent him a $100 gift card.

“My personal thanks for taking the time to share the information and help us rectify a drastically and careless action which could impact our standing with the communities and neighbors who depend on us to protect what matters most to them,” he added.

Kane was shocked by the immediate resolution at the highest level. He wasn’t even expecting anything more than a form acknowledgment. Instead, the CEO apologized. Who would have thought?

But Kane shouldn’t have been surprised. His initial email to the delivery company was brief, cordial and non-accusatory. It simply pointed out the fact that one of its drivers wasn’t meeting the company’s high standards of conduct.

It’s not exactly a novel concept, but giving a company a chance to resolve something is often all it takes to get the best service. Not always, but more often than you think.

Too often, customers jump into a situation expecting the worst. They anticipate a scripted non-answer at best, or a “no” at worst. But the folks who get great service are open to the possibility of getting it.

And sometimes, they do.

Should a "special" strategy be necessary to extract better service from a company?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • California_Dave

    The special strategy sometimes is simply being nice to the customer service rep. When a conversation starts out in an angry, accusatory manner, it is hard to get to the actual issue to deal with, and the rep is put on the defensive and will not work as hard to resolve the issue. They have immediately labeled you a jerk. Never call customer service angry – calm down first and write out the issue in plain words that anyone can understand. I also start out by giving them some kind of compliment that will take their defenses down and you can start to bond with them. They will use this tactic too, so go with the flow. Mom always said, “you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar”.

  • Christopher Elliott

    I realize that almost no one is reading today, but I have to say I totally agree with you. I think niceness will get you everywhere, as both a customer and an employee. Lose your manners and you’ll probably lose the customer, too.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Hey, I’m reading, but am sipping on my Diet Coke, trying to come up with a clever remark to post. Obviously I need more caffeine. :)

  • MarkKelling

    But why would I want to catch flies? ;-) I would prefer something to chase them away.

  • Christopher Elliott

    Two readers! YES!

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Let’s see, you’re on what, your 3rd cup of espresso this morning? That was a lightning fast response!

  • EdB

    I’m here. I think. Let me double check and get back to you on it. :)

  • Christopher Elliott


  • Justin

    Mr.. Elliott,

    It’s only still Pre Turkey Day. Thursday (Tomorrow) your readership will all be eating. By Food Coma Friday, treadmill and wheelbarrow sales will be at all time highs. People have to get moving somehow for “Black Friday”.

  • Justin

    I rely upon the timeless advice of the magic 8 ball to answer the quandries of life. Might I point you to a local toy store my good sir?

  • omgstfualready

    I’m reading. And writing. In a pitch for ‘nice’ consider how exhausting it is to be angry.

  • Justin

    Finding a listening ear and a caring rep goes a long way. I agree starting on a good foot helps. We’re all guiilty of letting emotions cloud our resolution skills.

  • omgstfualready

    lol, I keep one in my kitchen!

  • NoraG

    On our vacation last May, my sister and I got some good customer service and some excellent customer service. Our “secret”? We were nice, we smiled at people, we tipped where appropriate. In return, we got helpful information like a close store where we could buy snacks instead of using the mini-bar, we got help in changing reservations when the weather cancelled our excursions, etc. Start with a smile and a good attitude, and treat everyone like the fellow human beings that they are.

  • Christopher Elliott

    I forgot. I guess everyone is stuck at the airport today?

  • bigboofer

    Sorry Chris your reader count will be in the 1000’s.If you don’t read your article everyday you don’t travel enough. They are of great help in focusing on what the real problem is and creating a good solution. Thanks for all your help.

  • Justin

    Have faith. In just a few hours, your blog will shine so bright, bringing all ye backlogged travelers online through airport wifi.

  • Justin

    Never let’s you down! Another steadfast believer.

  • emanon256

    I voted no, but yes is probably more likely. I always try to have a nice personal conversation with employees, and it works maybe 50% of the time, the rest just stick to their script.

    When I supervised the call center many many years ago, I always told employees that sometimes all people want is an apology, and if that’s what they are looking for, give it to them. People often call angry over a mistake they made, rather then fighting them and blaming them, apologize, fix it, and move on. It works almost all of the time and every one leaves happy. I also always told people to think of every single customer as if it were one of their parents, kids, dear relatives on the phone calling for help. Treat them like you would want someone to treat your mother. I wish more companies were like this. I would have been very happy if my employee acted like Captain Mike.

  • emanon256

    I have an off topic question for you, and hopefully as coffee connoisseur you know the answer. I like brewed coffee and I like espresso. My wife only drinks decaf and I switched back to high test. I am tired of cleaning my espresso machine and it takes forever to use and clean and takes up too much room. We have both ruled out making two pots of brewed coffee because it also takes forever and then we have to clean it. So, I am finally considering a pod machine. Now the tough choice, Nesspresso or Kurig? And can either of them make both coffee and espresso?

  • emanon256

    You may rely on it.

  • John Baker

    @emanon256:disqus our office switched to a Kurig years ago from a machine that would do both drip and espresso (grinding the beans at the time). I like the k-cups much better.

    Edit: Forgot … the thing I like about the version we bought is that you can use your own beans if you want (we have a filter basket you can drop in)

  • John Baker

    Sorry too hard to come up with a witty comment today!

  • EdB

    I’m not a coffee drinker, but my wife is and is wanting one of the pod machines. So I started looking into the two machines and what I found was for the area we are in and the stores we shop, the Nespressos machines and cups and not as available as the k-cups. So might want to check around on availability before making a choice.

  • MarkKelling

    I don’t like either one. The Keurig at the office gives a faint plastic taste to the coffee it makes (might not be a problem for a home machine). The Nesspresso costs way too much per cup where I can find the coffee for it. And since I only drink decaf these days, my options are severely limited for either of these machine types.

    There are several inexpensive machines out there that use regular ground coffee to make a single cup at a time. Black & Decker makes one that a coworker says is the best ever. I have not had a chance to try one since I drink about a pot full daily anyway. Love my Kauai peaberry espresso roast decaf.

  • MarkKelling

    The storm of the year is overblown. I could see the frustration in the weatherman this morning when he was reporting that the total collapse of the American transportation system had not occurred as predicted. ;-)

  • Mark Cuban

    One word: Nespresso.

    Still searching for the intravenous attachment….

  • John Baker

    Am I supposed to duck? … Oh that’s FORE!

  • Jim

    Alright Chris I give up… What is in the picture?!?!

  • Emanuel Levy

    I recently hunted for an iPad Air on T-mobile’s Network. Two stores within 30 miles said they had when I called. On arrival at the store it was the old model. I don’t know if they made an honest mistake or were trying to fool me. I kept calling and found one store an hour and away with one. I was able to get them to hold it. After making the drive they did have it and I was able to complete my purchase.

    I used Planetfeedback to send a message to the CEO. I received a thank you call back from his office telling me the local store was notified and appreciative of the positive feedback.

  • Christopher Elliott

    I don’t have a lot of hands-on experience with either. My machine’s old school. But I’ve used both and like them.

  • Christopher Elliott

    Four, four … what’s the difference? Kidding.

  • Christopher Elliott

    I was going for Star Trek. But all I could find was some knock-off from the stock photo site. Should I replace it with a turkey?


    Being nice is so much better than being just plain belligerent. (Though belligerent is fun on occasion!)

  • Jim

    Dammit Chris, it’s a turkey not a flying machine. Ok Bones settle down.

  • Kate Carey

    Some of my friends specifically ask me t do their over the phone work with companies (sprint is one) becasue I get such good results. My secret is easy, I go into it with the assumption that the company wants me to have the best experience, that the rep of that company cares and wants to do their best for me, and that there will be some mutually agreeable common ground found. The only time this fails me is dealing with government entities and even then only about half the time. Frequently I get better deals than I was hoping for.