Grand Masters

Past Customer Service Champions share their customer service experiences.

Stories are the currency we use to share our stellar customer experiences. We asked some of the leading Customers First practitioners to tell us their most recent favorite story of where they were treated the way they treat their customers.


Dan Cathy
President and COO
Chick-fil-A Inc.

As told to Chuck Salter

“Let me tell you about my favorite junk store. I’ve been going to Jordan’s Salvage for over 20 years. Robert Jordan started out at Travis Hardware, one of those old neighborhood hardware stores that went out of business when The Home Depot showed up. Before it closed down, he developed relationships with the vendors. They had all this discarded merchandise — a damaged hose, a claw hammer with part of the claw missing. He collected it in his house and eventually opened a store in an old barbershop in Fayetteville, south of the Atlanta airport. There’s junk everywhere, all mixed together. I’m talking lawn mowers, generators, and car jacks, lawn furniture, paint cans — used paint cans.

I go once a month or so. You’ve got to go when you have time to rummage around, because you don’t know what you’re looking for. It’s an adventure. Robert and a couple of his employees will help you if you need a hand, but it’s the not the deal where they’re all over you, breathing down your neck. They let you explore.

Years ago I videotaped an interview with Robert. I was putting together a tape that I sent out to all the Chick-fil-A operators on customer service, explaining why I kept going back to some businesses and not others. I asked Robert, why don’t you get a bigger building, or figure out some way to avoid moving those piles of merchandise onto the sidewalk every morning? He said, “I couldn’t do that. If I had everything clean and neat and organized, I’d lose my customers. My customers like to dig around and feel like they’re hunting for gold.”

His store may sound a little unconventional, but I learned a valuable lesson there: You’ve got to know your customers. Not just the demographics, but the psychology — how they think when they’re in your store. What I just love about stopping in Jordan’s is the feeling that I’ve found some treasure. I can’t wait to go back.”



Maxine Clark
CEO and Founder
Build-A-Bear Workshop

As told to David Lidsky

“I went to a Borders Books in Northridge, California, an L.A. suburb. I’m not usually a Borders customer where I live. I went in looking for a book, and the woman working on the floor near the entrance directed me to the exact place where they had what I wanted. Her tone of voice was so sincere. She made me feel comfortable. Any other day I might have said, “Couldn’t you go upstairs and show me?” But they were so friendly and welcoming.

When I was in line to buy the book, I saw a copy of a DVD I wanted behind the register. The cashier got a colleague to bring one down for me from upstairs so I wouldn’t have to. I’d been in line for a while, so she offered me a coupon to make up for the wait. I’m not particularly coupon-oriented, but she didn’t wait for me to ask for it. The staff had personality, warmth, and intuition. They were on the same program — to respond to an apparent need. And no one acted as if they were going out of their way to do me a favor.

You know what? I’m going to Borders more often now. That’s all a lot of what customer experience is. I call it the ‘Cheers factor.’ People don’t have to know your name, but there has to be that connection and recognition of your value as a customer and a person. It isn’t that hard. Customers are easy to please. But it’s that tone. It’s not necessarily saying thank you, but the way you say it.”



Scott Cook
Founder and Chairman of the Executive Committee
Intuit Inc.

As told to David Lidsky

“You expect great service at a great price when you’re paying for it, like at a luxury hotel. I discovered a great customer experience in a place where you wouldn’t expect it — at traffic court.

I had gotten a ticket for speeding on the Golden Gate Bridge. The Marin County traffic court is in this old Frank Lloyd Wright building (only on the West coast). You had to check in by noon for a 1:30 p.m. court session so they could assemble your records for the judge to review, but you didn’t have to wait in line and there was ample parking. And once you checked in, you didn’t have to stick around. You just had to be back by 1:30.


Once court started, we sat in the audience in comfortable chairs and watched a video that very clearly explained what would happen. The judge called groups up in sets of eight, and you could do what you wanted until you were called. She was very businesslike. She understood that we didn’t want to be here, so she was judicious in the use of time. The judge tried to get to an answer quickly. She couldn’t understand why I was there speeding. I had done traffic school two years before. She looked for a win-win outcome, giving me 10 hours of traffic school, but closer to where I live. I got what I wanted, she got what she wanted. When it was over, the bailiff was right there, to pay any fines and for me to book my traffic school. The best part of the whole experience was that you felt you were being treated fairly. There was a sense of justice and a respect for your time.”


Reed Hastings
Founder and CEO

As told to David Lidsky

“Zappos’ online shoe sales. They have an incredible return policy. You can return shoes at any time. I recently returned a pair of shoes my wife bought. She’s worn them for four months but they just didn’t fit right. How do you pull that off? It makes you feel so good. It’s just a great customer psychic investment. I’m sure some people abuse it, but not enough.


I also love Pandora, the online music discovery service. It’s done so elegantly. You tell it what you like, and it just starts playing. It’s enjoyable and clever. Pandora offers an unobtrusive but effective way of finding new music. I love the lightweight design, which is simple and elegant.”


Ross Klein
W Hotels Worldwide

As told to David Lidsky


“I have a story about good, old-fashioned service. Basics are basics. This was a shopping emergency, and recovery is a big part of service.

I was in San Francisco for the BlissSpa launch in the W there. I had a torturous flight to the West coast: From the ticket agent to the airline lounge to the flight itself, each interaction was worse than the next. What’s worse, it had been labeled ‘premium service.’ It was so bad that I took notes on the flight to send a letter of complaint. Of course, I get to San Francisco and my luggage has been lost.

Now I have nothing to wear for the launch event, which is in just a few hours. I would’ve asked a member of my staff to help me get replacement clothes, but they were preoccupied with the event. I wasn’t that far from the Saks Fifth Avenue, so even though I had stopped shopping there a few years ago, I knew I could enter just the Men’s store and avoid the usual department store maze.

I got up to designer men’s sportswear and a young saleswoman across the floor acknowledged me, just letting me know that she was there. She didn’t come over right away, which I appreciated. A few minutes later, she came up to me and said, ‘You seem really well put together. Can I help you with anything?’ And I just opened up. How it was 4:30 and I had a meeting at 6:30, the horror with my flight, and so forth. She took me over to a sitting area, got me some water, and asked me what kind of look I wanted to communicate. I told her that the mayor was going to be there and I needed a suit. I had nothing with me.

Without me saying so explicitly, the salesperson understood that I didn’t want to spend $5,000 to solve this emergency. She said, ‘This is a great time. We have some great stuff that’s just been reduced.’ She picked out a Prada suit for me. She just pulled a lot of stuff, exhibiting old-fashioned service with contemporary merchandising.

I bought the suit, she got the tailor to come and rush the job, and at 6:15 p.m., a garment bag arrived at my room at the W, steamed and tailored, at no extra charge. I was able to look in character, not frazzled.


I created a relationship with the salesperson here. I wanted this person in my talent pool. She’s engaging, polite, professional and anticipatory. Well-dressed. Everything I look for when I hire at W. But out of respect for Saks at the moment, I’m not trying to hire her. But I have her information.”


Michelle Peluso

As told to Alyssa Danigelis

“I had ordered a bedroom set and also quite a bit of living-room furniture from Storehouse, a furniture company in the South. There were custom fabrics, so it takes a while to put together. The woman who took my order was great about calling me throughout the six or eight weeks I waited for the furniture to be made, saying, ‘Here’s the latest status.’ It was really nice that she was so proactive.


The day of delivery arrived, and the guys showed up on time, which is great, and I left to run an errand. When I got back, I noticed that they had left me a letter. It said, ‘When we brought the piece in, we smashed it on the truck and broke the leg and it was our fault.’ I almost couldn’t tell, because they had put it back together and it was stable enough to sit on.

Within minutes, my cell phone rang, and it was the same store assistant I had bought the furniture from in Dallas. ‘I just heard about what happened,’ she said, ‘and I wanted to let you know that I’m very, very sorry. I know how long you’ve waited and how important getting furniture is. Here’s what we’re going to do: The guys reglued it and both sat on it and think it’s stable enough for you to use. I’ve already placed a new order for the chair. I anticipate that it will be ready in four weeks. We’ll deliver it at our cost, not at yours, and we’ll also refund some of the delivery today for the inconvenience.’

I ended up writing a letter to the president and CEO of Storehouse about my salesperson because I was really impressed. Obviously, it wasn’t an ideal situation because I had a broken chair for four weeks, and I had to figure out how to be home again for a second delivery, which is annoying. But I’m a devoted Storehouse user because of the situation. When a company mishandles something and it recovers with grace, it can create an even more loyal customer.”


Ron Shaich
Chairman and CEO
Panera Bread


As told to Alyssa Danigelis

We were one of Sapient International’s first customers. They did computer programming and we hired them to write some software for us. It was structural as opposed to just satisfying customers.

They locked everyone in a room for this massive project. Everyone had to sign off on it. The process starts with getting everybody who is a player on this in the room. We had all these white sheets. They kept the discipline of the process. They forced us to debate. By the time we were done we were really done. You need clarity of the view of where you’re going. It forced us to make decisions about what we wanted to do and then from there they gave us a fixed price cost on what it would take to do it. That’s really what it’s about — putting everyone in a room and going, ‘We’re not leaving until we’re done.’

What they came up with became the whole dashboard for our stores. Before, it was a moving target. The dashboard was rooted in deep and fundamental process. The dashboard combined data from everything going on in stores — sales for years, days, weeks, labor rates, cost, customer satisfaction, all this information. They were bringing it all together. We had the data, but we had to make it make sense.

One time they had a problem with their software and the machines it was running on. They actually went out and bought new computers and personally delivered them to us. I’ll never forget being in the stairwell and seeing these guys come up lugging in the new computers. These guys are now each worth quarter of a million dollars. There was absolute commitment in their process.

It was amazing. It changed our business. We brought them in to do many more things later and have a longstanding relationship with them because of how they treated us when we both were much smaller companies. Information is power, my friend: what you shine a flashlight on, understanding what’s going on.



Charlene White
Technical support representative

As told to David Lidsky

“I had had to visit the emergency room at Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque, New Mexico for my four-year old son to get a few stitches. He’s okay, but later I received a bill from the hospital that made me a little concerned and confused because I have two different kinds of insurance. Amy, the person who helped me on the phone, was awesome. She never placed me on hold. While she was looking up what happened, she was taking my mind off of what she was doing. We talked about our kids for a few minutes. She knew where I was coming from, she put herself in my shoes. She figured out that the secondary insurance never got billed. I got a personalized, handwritten note the next day thanking me for calling them and for calling this situation to their attention. And every bill since has been taken care of. If you can relate to a customer, you can help make it 100 percent better.”



Tom Wolfe
Chief concierge
Fairmont Hotel, San Francisco

As told to Joseph Manez

“I was in Italy at a little bed and breakfast in Tuscany — Marina de Massa to be precise, not exactly on the circuit and not at all a fancy place. My wife and I went out for the day. My wife was in the fashion business so she is very meticulous about setting everything up. She hung the shirt I was going to wear that night on a hanger. I guess when she buttoned the buttons, one of them came off somehow.

When we got back, there was this little note on the dressing table, ‘Dear Senior Wolfe, your bottone broken, is fixed.’ I had to look at the shirt for a minute, and then I understood. I could see where one button had been repaired. The thread was the right color, but it was a little different. I said, Bless her heart. I hadn’t even seen this gal; we went out in the morning and when we came back she was gone for the day. I made a point of looking her up the next morning to say multa gratzi and giving her some worthless American dollars.

People have forgotten teeny tiny things that really make the difference. It doesn’t take a six-month course in hospitality to do that. You can do it from the goodness of your heart, just by looking for what people need and responding to it.”



Carol Henderson
Flight Attendant
Southwest Airlines

As told to Joseph Manez

“My sisters and I went on a girl’s trip. It’s a weekend, we’re in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, never been there, doing a day trip. At the end of the shopping day, I get in my car, and it won’t start. It’s the alternator. All the stores are closed. I call AAA and the mechanic they sent out impressed me with his customer service so much I’ll never forget it. There were no cabs in the town so he had to give us a ride. We just piled into his car, never met him, going, “OK, we’ve got to go to K-Mart, get some toothpaste and stuff, and then we have to find a hotel.” So he helped us with all of that. The next day was Saturday, his day off. He had to go in and fix my car. He fixed my car, and I called in after it was done — we were at a hotel — and asked him how much he was going to charge me. He’s like, “Lady, I worked on a Saturday, my day off. I charge time and a half.” But he didn’t charge me time and a half, because he put himself in our place: “Here’s four females stranded, if it was my family I would want to take care of them.” He brought the car to the hotel and just charged me straight rates and made sure we got on the road okay. Well, the alternator’s a part that can just go bad. Well, it went out again and the mechanic met me halfway and brought me a new alternator.

I think of that experience every time I’m on the plane. I get a lot of people in wheelchairs and the elderly and kids traveling by themselves. A lot of times we’re their only contact. I want to really give them great customer service. I’ll make sure their wheelchairs are there. I try to really do anything I can — whether it’s drink refills or extra snacks — to make their trip easier the way that mechanic in Rehoboth Beach took care of me and my sisters.”