Managing the customer experience is a little like playing a game of chess. The pieces on the front line—the employees who touch the customer—are the most frequently turned over and so much more valuable than they seem. At your disposal are three weapons: technology, information, and bold investments that will win customer loyalty, and therefore, profits. These are the tactical knights, rooks, and bishops of the game. And at the center of it all is leadership, without which you cannot prevail.
Our second-annual Customers First Awards honor this intricate game. On the following pages, we celebrate 15 customer-centered grand masters—companies that make putting the customer first a serious pursuit. While many of them could fit into any of our five categories (indeed, you need every piece to win the game), we highlight their particular strengths: the Employee Innovators, who know the inextricable link between happy employees and happy customers; the High-Tech Achievers, who use technology to truly enhance the customer's experience; the Leading Listeners, who use feedback in innovative and powerful ways; the Profitable Players, who commit to investments that create long-term loyalty; and the Customer-Centered Leaders, who foster cultures dedicated to service.
To find them, we again turned to a panel of experts. Armed with their suggestions, we looked deeply into more than 30 names before deciding on 15 finalists. Our criteria? The originality of their practices, the number of times they were nominated, and the freshness of their stories (we love JetBlue, too, but were on the hunt for new names). Once again, we turned to ForeSee Results, a customer-satisfaction measurement firm, to help us administer an online survey. We asked respondents to rate our finalists in four key areas: overall satisfaction, customer service, whether they'd do business with the company again, and whether they'd recommend the brand to others.
In selecting our winners, we decided to give that last score the heaviest weight. After all, what better sign of happiness is there than endorsing a company to your friends? We're not alone in our thinking. Bain consultant Frederick Reichheld has shown that tracking a company's "net promoters," or customers who would advocate it to family and friends, provides the strongest indication of customer growth.
Our winners ranged from Netflix—the much-evangelized online DVD service—to close-second USAA, the financial-services firm whose customers answered our survey with praises like "I'm a customer for life!" (Who knew insurance could inspire such passion?) So sit back and learn a thing or two from our winners. Then it's time to plot your next move.
See the full 2005 Customers First Awards.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.