Frankly, I don't see what all the fuss is about. Giving your customers great service, as our Customers First Award winners (page 47) do, is easy. Why, I do it all the time.
When I get letters or emails from readers complaining about, say, a problem ordering a gift subscription, I get right on the case. I get in touch with the right person in circulation; I respond to the unhappy reader to say we're working on the complaint; and I follow up to make sure the issue is resolved. So what's the big deal?
Well, consider this: We have 725,000 magazine subscribers and newsstand buyers, and fastcompany .com gets another 900,000 or so unique visitors every month. That's 1,625,000 customers. If even one- half of 1% have problems (which seems to imply a pretty high satisfaction rate) and bring them to me to resolve, that's 8,125 complaints. Let's say I work 240 days a year. Each day, I'd have to sort out 34 complaints. I'd quickly have to give up editing this magazine—which is, I hope, the real service I provide.
The truth is that when I respond to one of those emails or letters, I'm only dabbling. I can pat myself on the back and say that I've been active and effective in addressing the needs of a reader, but really I'm just playing at customer service. And most of the readers who have problems don't get that sort of personal attention.
The fact that it's impossible for us, even at our relatively small size, to provide true one-on-one service gets at a fundamental tension in the company-customer relationship. I think most of us have an unspoken expectation of that relationship that's rooted in an idealized image of early-20th-century small-town commerce. When we do business, we want to feel as if we're looking the proprietor in the eye over a wooden counter. We want the owner of the hardware store to know us. We want the owner of the bookstore to remember that we liked the last book by that Sinclair Lewis fellow and to set aside his new one for us. We want the waitress in the café to call us by name and pour us our coffee with cream, no sugar, without being asked.
At the same time, we want the economies, the speed, the choice, and the consistency that large-scale enterprise offers. We want the dozens of styles of plumbing fixtures at Home Depot, and we want 'em cheap. We like being able to choose from millions of titles at Amazon.com and to shop for them in our bathrobes. And while Starbucks may be Lewis Black's idea of hell (page 64), we're happy that it's now possible to find a cup of coffee in this country that doesn't taste like hot water with a brown crayon dipped in it.
You can't have a true one-on-one personal relationship with these giant companies—but they can sometimes make you feel almost as if you do. Starbucks hires and trains its staff to be (mostly) perky, pleasant, and helpful. Those complicated recommendation engines at Amazon.com are a technological approximation of the bookstore owner and her thoughtful suggestions. And Home Depot . . . well, Home Depot has those dozens of plumbing fixtures.
In fact, peer closely at a lot of outstanding customer-service efforts, and what you'll see is the clever use of training, process design, and technology to simulate the old-fashioned relationship with the proprietor of a small business. It's a tough trick to pull off, because it means routinizing spontaneity, systematizing warmth, and putting a human skin on technology. And that's why it is so often done so badly, producing employees who robotically mouth scripted nonsense, and technology that frustrates and complicates.
But when it's done right, it can be powerful stuff. Mandarin Oriental uses tons of data, rigorous training, and compensation to make sure its staff—from the director of guest relations to the bellhop—know your name and where you're from. Burton Snowboards hires passionate experts who empathize with their customers. NASCAR's star drivers make an effort to interact with fans at races and dozens of off-track appearances. These companies have kept the fundamental human connection alive in an increasingly inhumane market, which is why we celebrate them with this year's Customers First Awards. Because it's not so easy, after all.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.