Lessons From Our Customer Champions

This month's letter from the editor.

Like most men, I hate shopping. It may be America's national pastime, with entire magazines devoted to the subject, but I'd rather go to the dentist for a filling than go to the mall. All I see there are long lines, poor service, and lack of imagination.

But there is one exception: Trader Joe's, the specialty grocery chain. The quality and variety of the food certainly draw me to my nearby Trader Joe's. But what really matters is the experience: the friendly and helpful staff, the smart product selection, the sense of discovery you get from finding something new on the shelf, the tasty samples that inevitably make you buy the stuffed salmon or the creme brulee. In short, Trader Joe's makes shopping fun.

So it's not surprising that this company emerged as one of the big winners in "Putting Customers First" (page 79), our special package celebrating the best customer-focused companies and exploring what we can learn from them. In each case, you'll find not just a company that satisfies customers; you'll find an organization with a nearly fanatical dedication to creating customers for life, a focus that puts customer experience at the heart of its strategy and culture.

To discover these inspiring companies, we assembled a panel of 13 experts in customer service and asked them to nominate the best organizations in five critical categories. We winnowed the more than 100 nominees down to a list of finalists, which our panelists then voted on. Those finalists then faced the ultimate, and most important, test: an online survey of their own customers. Directed by associate editor Jena McGregor, this is the first of what we expect will be an annual package on companies that have nailed the customer experience.

This year's winners remind us of Peter Drucker's dictum that there is only one valid purpose for any business: to create and satisfy a customer. Everything else, from value and service to profits and market share, follows from that premise. After all, it's customers who pay the bills. It's customers who keep us employed.

The winners serve up valuable lessons — distilled, as always, in an accompanying Fast Take box. Other business magazines fill their pages with pie charts and tables on profits and revenues, market shares and shareholder returns. Fast Company zeroes in on the useful ideas and practical methods that can help you make a meaningful difference in the world of work.

What do these companies and the people who run them teach us? First, leaders must be champions of the customer experience. By example and by emphasis, they must set high expectations for satisfying customers in their organizations. Second, employee empathy is what creates distinctive service. It's not enough to put on a happy face. Our champions of the customer understand that their employees must know what it feels like to be on the other side of the counter.

And while technology is often central to providing a superior customer experience, it must be used to benefit customers, not just to replace the human element. It's vital to really listen to consumers too — not just collect data that remains unused. And finally, cutting costs doesn't have to mean cutting service. Boosting productivity and treating customers well are not mutually exclusive.

Ultimately, our winners have asked and answered two of the most important questions facing any business: Which of the consumer's wants are not adequately satisfied by existing products or services? And how do we satisfy them? You can walk into any supermarket and find substitutes for just about everything on Trader Joe's shelves. But what you won't find is Trader Joe's unique customer experience. That's what keeps you and me coming back for more.

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