And so it has come to this. Over the summer, Delta Air Lines surveyed some of its customers, asking whether they'd be willing to pay a fee to talk to U.S.-based customer-service representatives rather than having their calls directed offshore. Frequent fliers were outraged, and before long a frank op-ed article by the company's chief customer-service officer appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In it, she renounced the plan, quoted CEO Gerald Grinstein -- "That darn question should never have been on a survey" -- and noted that "creating a 'customer-focused culture' is a central element of a new plan to transform Delta and its business model."
Whoopsie. True, the folks at Delta are in quite a pickle, and you can't blame them for brainstorming ways to save cash. But their example illustrates the issues at play for consumers today. Market forces such as offshoring are transforming service. Too many CEOs are removed from the customer. Coddling customers can seem like an expensive frill in tough times, a cost to be cut when it's time to make next quarter's number. And yet more and more companies are talking about creating a more customer-focused culture. "I think people are starting to understand that the customer experience is the next competitive battleground," says Tom Knighton, who heads the customer-experience practice at consulting firm Forum Corp. "It's where business is going to be won or lost."
But as Delta shows, talking about focusing on the customer and actually doing it are two completely different things. That's what makes truly customer-centric companies so worthy of our attention. They constantly try to innovate and manage based on what their customers want, not just on what they can sell to them. They do not delegate the customer experience to marketing or operations; it is a core function that has support at the highest levels of leadership. Companies that put customers first win their loyalty, and in our minds deserve to win even more. Fast Company believes there should be due recognition for creating a rich customer experience and for focusing on excellent service. These companies inspire us with their commitment to customers; they have rousing stories to tell and valuable lessons to teach.
To find them, we turned to a panel of experts in customer service and customer experience from academia, consulting, and corporations. We asked for nominations in five categories, each of which represents a practice or philosophy that works to place the customer at the heart of the organization. Our jury came up with more than 100 names; we vetted them for frequency of nominations, for how well they fit the category, and for originality. (In the interest of telling new stories, we looked beyond the obvious suspects -- the Starbucks, the Southwest Airlines, the JetBlues, and the Amazons of the world.) We then asked our panel to rate our finalists and combined their scores with the results of a consumer survey. And in the overall spirit of this project, we also put the customer first, giving heavier weight to consumers' scores.
The names that floated to the top were those that not only provide good service but a rich experience, too. The total customer experience -- the service, the quality, the design, the brand attributes -- connects on an emotional level, keeping customers satisfied and feeling well-served, as well as loyal. Chick-fil-A bonds with its customers through friendly, speedy service and by communicating its values of humility and compassion. Wegmans builds a marketplace-style atmosphere that's underpinned by its employees' deep knowledge. Mini USA engages its impatient customers with fun, customizable technology. Trader Joe's feeds customers with its authenticity and uniqueness. And Progressive reassures its insurance customers during a time of crisis through on-the-spot service.
Two categories also clearly emerged as more important than the rest. They are, not surprisingly, the ones that most depend on people. Without customer-centered leadership and without the right employees in place to deliver great service, other plans and programs won't amount to much. In fact, many customer-focused leaders talk about the value of putting employees first. Take care of your staff, this thinking goes, and they'll take care of your customers. As the authors of Forum's customer-experience book, Uncommon Practice (Financial Times Prentice Hall, 2002), put it: "Your people have to put the customer first." And it is up to you to lead them.
Our Customer Champions
A Baker's Dozen of Experts
Here are the 13 jurors who helped us select the Customers First Awards winners and finalists*:
Leonard Berry 
Distinguished professor of marketing, Texas A&M University. Author, Discovering the Soul of Service
Scott M. Broetzmann 
Founder and president, Customer Care Measurement & Consulting. Founder, Customer Care Alliance
Stephen Brown 
Professor and executive director, Center for Services Leadership, Arizona State University
Lewis Carbone 
Founder and CEO, Experience Engineering. Author, Clued In: How to Keep Customers Coming Back Again and Again
Claes Fornell 
Founder, American Customer Satisfaction Index. Chairman, CFI Group, a customer-satisfaction consulting firm
Andy Fromm 
President, Service Management Group, a research firm that specializes in restaurant-chain and retail-service management
Bruce Jones 
Programming director, Disney Institute, which runs seminars on Disney's customer service
Tom Knighton 
EVP, customer-experience practice, Forum Corp.
Kelly Mooney 
President, Resource Interactive, an online customer-experience consulting firm
Roland Rust 
Director, Center for Excellence in Service at the University of Maryland. Editor, Journal of Service Research
John Timmerman 
Vice president of quality and productivity, Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co.
Paul Williams 
Project manager, customer care, Starbucks
Valarie Zeithaml 
Marketing professor and associate dean of MBA programs, UNC-Chapel Hill. Coauthor, Driving Customer Equity
Our survey results were audited by ForeSee Results, which applies the patented methodology of the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), a leading indicator of financial performance driven by customer satisfaction that quantifies satisfaction on the Web and predicts future behavior. ForeSee Results has administered more than 23 million online surveys across 22 industries, helping companies scientifically measure and manage customer satisfaction. While the ACSI is based on a random sample, our survey was presented primarily to Fast Company newsletter and Web-site readers and to groups with pertinent interests or demographics. Respondents cast a total of 1,805 votes; response rates varied by company.
*Certain jurors have current or former business relationships with some nominated companies.