How May I Help You?

Unit of One

You already know that the customer is always right, right? But these days — given the speed and interactivity of the Internet, the explosion of customer choice, the emergence of new competitive pressures, and the constant expansion of customers’ expectations for service — just giving customers what they want isn’t enough. You also have to anticipate needs, to solve problems before they start, to provide service that wows, and to offer responses to mistakes that more than make up for the original error. To find out what it takes to deliver great customer service, Fast Company asked 15 experts for their insights. Here are their answers to the question:


Elizabeth Spaulding

Vice President of Customer Satisfaction
L.L. Bean Inc.
Freeport, Maine

Our premise is simple: If any product doesn’t meet a customer’s expectations — whatever they may be — we will replace it, repair it, or refund the customer’s money. This policy goes back to 1912, when Leon Leonwood sent out his first 100 pairs of the Maine Hunting Shoe, promising to refund customers’ money if they weren’t satisfied. Ninety pairs of those shoes came back because the quality was insufficient — and he sent refunds for all of them. It almost broke him; he had to borrow money from his family to recover. But he improved the product.

Today, if a customer calls and wants to return a Maine Hunting Shoe, the first thing we do is find out what that customer’s expectations were when buying the shoe. Did she expect it to last 10 years? If the answer is yes, then there’s no question: We’ll replace the shoe. If it turns out that she expected it to last only one year, then we’ll repair the shoe. The point is that the customer determines the expectation. Not us.


How can we afford to back up that kind of guarantee? It goes back to L.L.’s golden rule, which we have posted in every office: “Sell good merchandise at a reasonable profit. Treat your customers like human beings, and they will always come back for more.”

And 99.9% of our customers are totally honest. They’re just like your neighbors. And when you realize that your customers are just like you, the whole dynamic of your interaction with them changes.

Elizabeth Spaulding ( joined L.L. Bean 10 years ago as a senior manager of product sourcing. She became vice president of customer satisfaction in 1996. The $1 billion retail company conducts more than 20 million interactions with customers each year, with telephone orders accounting for 70% to 80% of its business. L.L. Bean’s flagship store in Freeport, Maine occupies the site of Leon Leonwood Bean’s first store, which opened in 1917.


Mark A.Wallace

President and CEO
Texas Children’s Hospital
Houston, Texas

Finding ways to help sick children and their families feel better goes far beyond being a mere ‘service’: It’s part of the children’s recovery. After all, if children can feel the same level of nurturing and security that they feel at home, then they’re going to get better a whole lot faster.

We’ve learned two important things about serving sick children: They need the opportunity to play — to have a distraction from their illness — and they need easy access to their parents.


We take kids to our playground, which has swings and sandboxes that are accessible to wheelchairs and gurneys. And we operate Radio Lollipop, a hospital radio station that receives volunteer support from local disc jockeys. Children come to the studio and play their favorite CDs, tell stories and jokes on the air, and take part in all kinds of contests to win prizes. Kids who aren’t well enough to come to the studio can listen in their rooms and participate in the contests.

Besides play, close contact with parents and families is critical for our patients. And often the children are so sick that their families don’t want to leave the hospital anyway — not even to sleep in a nearby hotel. So we’ve created sleeping areas at the hospital where families can stay free of charge, and we’re expanding those areas now.

Mark A. Wallace has served as president and CEO of Texas Children’s Hospital since 1989. The 456-bed hospital is a regional, national, and international referral center whose patients come from all 50 states and from roughly 40 countries. It cares for one of the largest pediatric HIV populations of any hospital, and it has been recognized for its breakthroughs in the treatment of HIV, cancer, diabetes, and cardiogenic disorders, among other conditions.


Vera Katz

City of Portland
Portland, Oregon

The best way to find out how well we’re serving our customers — the citizens of Portland — is to ask them. For the past eight years, we’ve mailed a survey to almost 10,000 citizens, asking them to rate the performance of our police department, our water bureau, our environmental services, our public transportation, and other city bureaus. We also ask our citizens the following questions: Do you feel safe walking at night in your neighborhood, in your parks, in your downtown? Are the streets clean enough? What do you think of the city’s speed limits? How do you rate the parks and recreation services? And how do you rate the livability of the city?

We benchmark those results against those of six other cities. And if we’re not doing as well as those cities, we try to find out what they’re doing that we’re not. We mail the survey results to residents, and I hold an hour-long television show to go over some of the finer points of the survey.


Asking people how they feel — and responding to them — is more important today than it’s ever been, especially when it comes to government. People have lost a tremendous amount of faith in government. At the local level, we have a great opportunity to help citizens regain that trust. We need to remember that it’s citizens who pay our salaries, and they expect accountability from us.

Vera Katz has been serving the city of Portland’s 500,000-plus customers since 1993. She has received many accolades, including “Governing” magazine’s Public Officials of the Year Award for 1994. Before becoming mayor, Katz was the first female speaker of the Oregon House — a post that she held for three terms. The City of Roses, as Portland is known, has twice ranked in the top 10 on Fortune’s “Best Cities for Business” list. To get a copy of the city’s “Service Efforts and Accomplishments” report, call 503-823-4082.

Kent Williams

Senior Vice President of Property and Casualty Operations
San Antonio, Texas


Our company motto is “We know what it means to serve.” That’s not just a little slogan. We think of people not as customers but as members, as part of our family. For example, a few years ago, during some heavy ice storms up north, an elderly woman named Mrs. Lawless called. She was the widow of a deceased military officer, and she got Stephanie Valadez, one of our representatives, on the line.

Mrs. Lawless explained that she was sick, that she was without her medicine — and that she was freezing in her home in upstate New York. ” ‘My husband told me that if I ever had a problem and didn’t know where else to turn, I should call USAA. He said you would take care of me,’ ” Valadez remembers Lawless saying.

Valadez put the woman on hold and contacted the Red Cross. And that afternoon, someone took care of Mrs. Lawless, making sure that her needs were met.


But here’s the twist: When Mrs. Lawless phoned in and Valadez called up her computer file, she found that since Mr. Lawless’s death, no active policy had been continued with our company. I suspect that most other companies would have hung up on Mrs. Lawless. But hanging up isn’t part of our mind-set. That’s what we mean when we say that customer service is a relationship, not a transaction.

Kent Williams ( oversees USAA’s general agency, along with its seven regional offices that serve more than 3 million members around the world and bring in more than $5.2 billion in premiums each year. He joined USAA in 1997, after serving in the U.S. Coast Guard for 32 years and retiring as a vice admiral. The United Services Automobile Association was founded in 1922 by 25 U.S. Army officers who needed automobile insurance but were considered to be too transient, or were deemed “bad risks,” by traditional insurers.

Nancy Kramer

President and CEO
Resource Marketing Inc.
Columbus, Ohio


These days, every client I talk to says the same thing: “We want to own the customer.” But when it comes to the Web, you cannot own customers unless you earn them.

How do you do that? By doing what you say you’ll do. We’ve found Web sites that say that someone will get back to you, but no one does. Or they say, “Here’s a place to ask us about our product” — and they have a disclaimer that reads, “We cannot always answer every question that we receive.” There are more examples of sites that do service the wrong way than there are of sites that do it the right way.

But there are also sites that absolutely win you over. For example, I love my interaction with I have three children, and I’ve told the folks at Amazon that I’d like to get information about children’s books. About a month ago, they sent me an email that was written in a way that felt personal, as if they were paying special attention just to me. I’m fond of a particular children’s author, and the email said something like “Because you’ve purchased several Rosemary Wells books in the past, we thought you’d like to know that she has a new book coming out.” And they told me all about the book. It was very friendly and nonintrusive. I felt that someone was watching out for me.


That’s what I call serving customers — not just providing so-called customer service. It’s remembering that at the root of the word “service” is the word “servant.” Those creating a commercial site online today must think of themselves as devoted servants of customers.

It’s a powerful concept: You have to prove that you are worthy, in the humblest way, of your customers’ trust. And until you can do that, you will never own them.

Nancy Kramer ( founded Resource Marketing Inc. in 1981. Initially, the firm focused on the development of marketing strategies for Apple Computer, and it was involved in launching the Apple Macintosh. Today, Resource Marketing is a $75 million technology marketing and communications firm, with a client list that includes Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems, Victoria’s Secret, and Cisco Systems. Its “Analyst Watch,” a study released last October, reviews and rates e-commerce shopping experiences.


Danny Meyer

Union Square Hospitality Group
New York, New York

We’ve tried to distinguish ourselves by going beyond “customer service” — by offering people hospitality. What’s the difference? Service is a technical skill; hospitality is an emotional skill. To me, great service means that the food arrives on time, that the wine is presented properly, and that the plates are cleared gracefully and promptly.

But I’d say that a place has great hospitality if you leave there feeling that the staff is on your side. It isn’t any more complicated than that. Say that you’re mulling over the menu at a restaurant, and you just can’t decide what to order. A server who’s “on your side” — having overheard you debating between the oxtail and the lamb — might bring you a small taste of each before you order.


Or say that you leave your credit card or your bag behind at a restaurant. When you call the restaurant, most will say, “Yes, it’s here in our lost-and-found. You can come by and get it.” But we always say, “Where can we send it to you by messenger or FedEx carrier?” And although it costs us money to return your belongings, it’s a great investment: When you realize that you’ve left something somewhere and that you’ll have to schlepp back there to get it, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth — even after you’ve had a wonderful dining experience. So we try to turn what could otherwise become a negative feeling into a positive one.

That’s what I mean by being on the customer’s side. That’s hospitality. To deliver that kind of hospitality, you have to hire the right people. Waitstaff skills are very trainable; human-being skills are not. I can train anyone to be knowledgeable about our wine list or how to clear a table properly. But I cannot teach people to care about how their actions affect others. Do your hiring right — that’s more than half the battle.

Danny Meyer launched Union Square Cafe in 1985, at the age of 27. It has ranked number one in the New York City Zagat survey for the past four years, and it has twice received a three-star rating from the New York Times. Grammercy Tavern, which Meyer opened in 1994, has also received a three-star review from the Times. Eleven Madison Park and Tabla, Meyer’s newest culinary ventures, both opened in New York City in 1998.

Yap Kim Wah

Senior Vice President of Marketing Services
Singapore Airlines Ltd.
Singapore, Singapore

The meaning of customer service is always changing because customers are always changing. Today’s customers want more choice and more control. People don’t want to feel that they’re at your mercy, especially on board an airplane. So we give them a wide selection of choices — from what and when they eat to how and when they are entertained.

The most important thing that you can do for customers is to make them feel cared for as individuals. That means doing the little things, looking for opportunities to provide extra customer care. It means making passengers feel as if everything you do were especially for them — how you serve a cup of tea, with just the right amount of sugar, or the way you empathize with a particular passenger’s plight.

On a recent overseas flight, one of our attendants noticed a toddler who kept dropping his pacifier. Every time he dropped it, he would cry, and either his mother or another passenger would retrieve the pacifier, or the flight attendant would get it as she walked by. Finally, the attendant picked up the pacifier, attached it to a ribbon, and sewed it to the child’s shirt. The child was happy, the mother was happy, and the passengers nearby gave the attendant a standing ovation for solving the problem so cleverly.

That kind of personal attention makes all the difference in the world.

Yap Kim Wah joined Singapore Airlines Ltd. in 1975. The airline recently launched a major customer-service initiative called “Transforming Customer Service,” which encourages staff to “step out of the conventional for the good of the customer.” Each year, the airline brings in revenues of $4.6 billion and flies 12.7 million passengers around the world.

James Briscoe

Federal Express Corp.
Boston, Massachusetts

I treat my route as if it were my own business. And if I were running a business, I’d want customers to feel that they were dealing with somebody who is friendly, professional, and helpful.

Just last week, a customer stopped me on the street and asked me how to reach our main office by subway. She’d left her home for a short time and had missed a really important delivery, so our office was holding a package for her. I told her that if she could wait, I’d deliver it to her door the very next day.

But she needed the package by noon that day. She didn’t have a car, and she was new to the area. I thought about how complicated it would be for her to take the subway and then walk the rest of the way to our office. So I told her to give me 15 minutes, and I would get the package and be right back with it. You can imagine how happy she was.

But I didn’t help her out because I was looking for a pat on the back. I just did what I could to help a customer in a tough situation. You want to do the right thing for people. You want to put yourself in their shoes, as if you were the one asking for help. Part of customer service is the great feeling that you get when you see that you’ve made a difference.

James Briscoe, a courier with Federal Express since 1986, has served Boston’s North End for the past three years. (In that role, he delivers an average of 25 packages each day to Fast Company. “When Fast Company became part of my route, I realized that I needed a bigger truck,” says Briscoe, who appears at our door promptly at 9:20 each morning.) Throughout the world, there are about 47,000 FedEx couriers; together, they deliver more than 3 million packages each workday.

Anthony Lye

President and CEO
NoWonder Inc.
Sunnyvale, California

Sometimes the only way to improve customer service is to change the model that you use. Take technical support. The most frustrated customer has to be the one who’s trying to fix a computer glitch. Why? Because it’s service providers, rather than customers, who dictate the terms and the level of service. And that service is almost always both expensive and difficult to find. So the customers are unhappy — and, what’s more, so are the service providers: They’re not paid much, and they don’t like the way that their work is structured. Most tech-support people leave their jobs after only 18 months.

That’s a no-win model. We’re trying to change that by offering tech support through an online network. We’re like a big dating service, hooking up customers and providers. It’s fast and personal. You get to know the name of your tech-service provider, and you don’t have to go through the standard set of 20 questions every time you need help. You have a place to go 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; you can choose from among 5,000 experts — and find an answer to your problem. And the providers are happy too, because suddenly they’ve got freedom. They can choose when and how they’ll work, and they have the opportunity to earn a lot of money.

The result? We have earned customer-satisfaction ratings of more than 90%. We’re resolving about 50,000 questions each month, and more than 70% of them are solved in an hour or less.

Anthony Lye ( held positions at Remedy Corp. and Tivoli Systems Inc., among other companies, before joining NoWonder Inc. in 1998. NoWonder, founded in 1997, is the first online-support marketplace on the Web. It has received many awards, including a 1999 “Best-in-Class” Users Choice Award, given jointly by “Customer Support Management” magazine and “RealMarket Research,” an online newsletter.

Martin Charlwood

President and CEO
Seattle, Washington

Say that you’re at O’Hare International Airport, and your flight gets canceled. Like everyone else booked on that flight, you go to the airline’s customer-service counter. There are 150 people in front of you, and they’re all freaking out. But if you’re one of our customers, you simply walk over to the nearest phone and call the 800-number for our 7/24 Rescue Line. An agent brings up your file and says, “Oh, there’s a flight on another airline. It leaves from Terminal 3 in 45 minutes. Why don’t you run over and catch it?”

The agent automatically prepares your new electronic ticket and lets your hotel know that you may arrive later than was expected. And if you still miss your connection and get stuck in the wrong city, the agent will make sure that your car reservation is held until the following day. That’s what it means to deliver great service. It’s not in everyday situations that great customer service matters most — it’s when there’s a crisis. And in the travel business, crisis situations are often the norm.

I know, because I’m a key user of the 7/24 Rescue Line. I travel 250 days a year, on three continents, and I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve been somewhere like Tokyo and I’ve had to change my flight when it was 3 AM back in the United States. Whenever that happens, I just call that 800-number and someone answers, “Uniglobe travel services. May I help you?” That’s an incredibly comforting thing to hear.

Martin Charlwood ( launched in 1997, along with his brother, Chris Charlwood, and his father, U. Gary Charlwood. (U. Gary Charlwood founded Uniglobe Travel Inc., a franchise company, in the early 1980s.), an online travel agency, has partnered with cruise lines to offer information and bookings, and it features a live-chat service from 6 AM to 7 PM. The company follows a policy of responding within 20 minutes to every customer email.

Tony Fujita

Vice President of Parts, Service, Customer Satisfaction, and Training — Lexus Division
Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc.
Torrance, California

Today’s customers are impatient and demanding. They have high expectations and very little time. So when you’re trying to serve them, speed is critical. That means that you need to shorten the distance between the people who create products and the people who buy those products.

That’s a challenge when your manufacturers are in Japan, as ours are, and your customers are mostly in the United States. The Pacific Ocean is pretty wide — not only in terms of miles but also in terms of cultural distance. So, to get feedback about customer needs, we started the Lexus Owners’ Advisory Forum in 1998. We bring about 20 engineers who are responsible for designing and producing the Lexus to the United States, and they meet with 15 or 20 loyal Lexus owners. Together, they walk around the cars, and the customers tell the engineers what they like and what they dislike.

We’re always trying to think of new ways to serve customers better. For example, because we have fewer than 200 dealers in the United States, many of our customers must drive hundreds of miles to buy a Lexus. And when they need routine service, or when they want to install an accessory, they don’t want to drive all the way back to the original dealer. So we’ve begun a new service: We’ve converted a truck into a mobile service station that we can roll into a customer’s driveway.

These are ways to speed up service — to shorten the gap between your customers and your company. In the new marketplace — the marketplace of impatient buyers — companies that can’t offer fast service will be left behind.

Tony Fujita has been with Toyota since 1972, serving in roles that include national sales manager and vice president of sales support. The number of customers for Lexus luxury cars and sport-utility vehicles has grown from 500,000 in 1996 to more than 1 million today. Lexus dealers have earned highest honors in customer satisfaction from J.D. Power and Associates for eight of the past nine years.

Thomas A. Proulx

President and CEO
Netpulse Communications Inc.
San Francisco, California

The best service that you can give customers is to solve their problems. Even better is to solve a problem for them before they even know that they have a problem.

Our company brings broadband Internet connections to health clubs, allowing exercisers to surf the Web or check their email while they’re working out — right from their exercise machine. We make it our business to know whenever there’s a problem with one of our connections — anywhere in the country, 24 hours a day.

So, if a janitor accidentally hits the power cord on a Lifecycle that’s hooked up to our service, the monitoring system at our data center goes from green to red. Usually, we can diagnose the problem remotely. Then our customer-service team can call the club and say, “Did you know that machine number 27 is down? Would you send somebody to plug the power cord back in?”

Nine times out of 10, we report a problem to the club before anyone there is even aware of it. And that blows people away. We do this with the specific intention of creating users who are so amazed and delighted by our service that they tell their friends — our prospective customers — about it.

Of course, we don’t want things to go wrong. But when they do, we see that as an opportunity. The average person doesn’t tell his friends about customer service that’s just good. The service really has to wow him.

Tom Proulx ( cofounded Intuit Inc. in 1983 and retired from the company in 1994. At Intuit, he helped create Quicken software. Netpulse Communications Inc. brings the Internet to 50 million U.S. gym users via Lifecycles, Stairmasters, and other cardio-exercise machines.

Madeline Albert

Southwest Region Trainer and Facilitator
Whole Foods Market, Inc.
Austin, TX

The first thing that I ask managers who want to improve the service at their companies is “What’s it like to work for you? Do your employees feel appreciated and respected?”

The average work environment isn’t terrible; it’s average. And consequently, so is service. To get people to deliver exceptional customer service, you have to be specific about what that means. Too many managers just tell their employees to “be friendly.” But friendliness alone is not enough: A friendly ticket agent who loses my reservation and causes me to miss my flight is just going to leave me frustrated.

Employees need to understand, in detail, what makes delighted customers “delighted” — and how to re-create that. At the same time, it’s important to leave room for employees to use their own personality and their own ideas — to do whatever it takes to make customers happy. That means thinking of solutions, rather than falling back on policies.

Our customers see our people not just as employees but also as experts in particular areas of the food industry. So we need to make sure that we give employees the information that they need to do their jobs. For example, our produce comes from all over the world, and some of it is very unusual. We make sure that team members can tell customers where and how various types of produce were grown, what they taste like, and how to prepare them.

We know that it benefits our customers to get that kind of great service. But we also want members of our staff to understand how it benefits them to offer such service. Beginning on day one of training, team members understand that the difference between service and servitude lies in the dignity that only they can bring to the position. They know that the more they pay attention to the details of their job, the more rewarding it will be. That’s the bottom line: All of us want to go home each night feeling proud of the way that we spent our time that day.

Madeleine Albert ( waited on tables for 17 years. Then, in 1992, she began conducting restaurant-service workshops. After joining Whole Foods in 1995, she created the company’s first service-specific training program. Whole Foods Market is one of the largest chains of natural-foods supermarkets in the United States, with 105 stores in 20 states, as well as the District of Columbia, and with 1999 sales totaling almost $1.6 billion.

Don Robinson

Senior Vice President, Resort Operations
Walt Disney World Co.
Lake Buena Vista, Florida

One of the most important things that we train staff members to do is service recovery. That’s when you walk into a situation and you can tell that something has gone wrong — and you do whatever it takes to fix the problem. That’s also an opportunity for what we call a “magic moment.”

We once had a family that wanted to celebrate a child’s birthday at a “character breakfast” — a buffet in which Disney characters mingle with guests, sign autographs, and pose for photographs. But this family was late and didn’t make the seating. The next show was scheduled for lunch, which was also booked. Members of the family were sitting on a bench outside the restaurant, waiting for an opening, when one of our employees walked by and saw that these people were not happy campers.

The employee found out what the problem was and said, “Let me see what I can do.” He was able to get them into the lunch show, seat them right up front, and make sure that the birthday boy’s favorite character sang “Happy Birthday” to him and that all of the characters danced around the family’s table. That was a magic moment — a quick recovery from what could have been a very disappointing birthday.

The best part? The employee who did that recovery was a custodian — a guy just walking by with a broom, sweeping up cigarette butts. But all of our employees, from janitors and dishwashers to hotel managers, know they have the ability — and the responsibility — to improve the experience of any guest.

Don Robinson ( has worked at Disney for 28 years. Today, he is responsible for the operation of 14 resort hotels (comprising a total of 21,000 rooms) at Walt Disney World. Among the themed hotels that he oversees are a wilderness lodge, an all-star sports resort, and a Polynesian-style facility that features Peter Pan’s “Neverland Club” for children.

Hans Peter Brondmo

Chairman and Founder
Post Communications Inc.
San Francisco, California

When you think about it, establishing a service relationship online isn’t all that different from starting a dating relationship. The problem is that a lot of Internet companies approach their first date with a list of 20 questions: “Could you please fill out this three-page form about your income, family history, and medical background?” Imagine if that were the first question that a prospective romantic interest asked you! It’s absurd to expect people to respond to such questions before you’ve established a certain level of trust with them.

Instead, what if you started by asking a customer three or four little questions? After establishing that this potential “date” is interested in what you have to offer, you and this customer could begin sharing information back and forth. One of our clients, a San Francisco startup called myplay, is wooing customers with a similar approach. The site is an online personal storage locker for customers’ favorite music. When you first sign up, myplay sends you a few preliminary questions. Then, using your answers to those questions, it customizes your locker. The site asks you a few more questions each time it contacts you. Over time, the company gets to know you, and you get to know — and to trust — the company.

It’s Human Psychology 101, and the rules are no different in the Internet space from what they are anywhere else. You must establish a certain level of trust: You need to prove to me that you’re not going to misuse any of my information, and then you need to show me that you’ll deliver service and value in return — and then I’ll tell you more.

Hans Peter Brondmo ( founded Post Communications Inc. in 1996.