Updated on 10.25.09

Thoughts on Finding Good Customer Service

Trent Hamm

Whenever I mention a company on The Simple Dollar – Apple, Dell, Nintendo, Williams-Sonoma, etc. etc. – I usually receive an email or two from a reader telling me how absolutely horrible the company in question is. They tell a long story about how their customer service from that company was nightmarish and that they tell everyone they know how awful the company is.

Here’s an example, from “Monica,” relaying a bad experience with Apple’s customer service:

In December, my iPod started acting really weird. Since it was still under warranty, I called Apple and got the runaround. I had to call their customer service line three times and ended up yelling at a supervisor. Finally they gave me an address to send it to and it took them a month or two to send it back.

Here’s the thing, though. If a large company deals with a million customer service issues in a given year, some small percentage of them will turn out badly. Simple human miscommunication, an overly demanding customer, unreasonable expectations from both sides, a customer service rep on a bad day – all of these can turn a routine customer service situation into a nightmarish one.

As a result, any sufficiently large company will have bad customer service stories floating around out there. Many of them are likely true and, if you believe that to be the norm of a customer service department, you’d likely be scared to ever use that company.

But it’s not the norm – far from it, actually. To put it simply, I ignore most horror stories about customer service when evaluating a company.

So how can you know if a company has decent customer service or not? I usually look at three things.

First, I look for stories of exceptional service. A company that goes the extra mile to stand out from the crowd enough that people will publicly talk about their service usually has very strong customer service. For some reason, as I write this, Land’s End comes to mind.

Second, I look at customer service awards. Such awards are typically done as a result of examining typical user experiences with customer service, often through extensive surveying that averages out the rare awful experiences.

Finally, I look at the company’s policies. If I can’t quickly figure out how to return a product, how to handle obvious customer service issues, or how to contact the company and get a live person quickly to address my questions, that’s a bad sign. The easier a company makes it to interact with them, the better, and one can usually tell this with a short trip to a company’s web site.

To me, there is significant value in good customer service. I will pay more for a product backed up with a solid customer service reputation than one that’s backed up with a poor customer service reputation.

One final note – local always trumps international. In other words, I’m willing to spend 20% more to buy a homebrew computer from a local store than one from Dell, for example. Why? The local store has stellar service – I can just go drop off a piece of equipment there any time I want and they’ll repair it quite inexpensively. They also dispense advice and information whenever I need it. The same goes for many products that can benefit greatly from good customer service, like a game store that offers free game nights or bookstores that facilitate book clubs and the like.

When we, as a customer, immediately boil a transaction down to the minimal dollar, we usually lose in the long run. The company that shaves a few dollars off the price at the expense of good service will end up leaving you high and dry when the product fails.

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  1. Nik says:

    It’s funny that you would ignore horror stories, yet applaud outstanding service stories. I have two stories for you to do either with:
    I called DELL about a monitor that was displaying everything with a pink tinge, since I had so many DELL monitors, I wasn’t certain what its warranty status was. The guy on the line informed me that the monitor was out of warranty for 2 years, I appologized and was ready to break out the credit card, but he sent me a replacement without even asking. Alienware is owned by DELL, I had one of their Area 51 laptops that had overheated so badly that the DVD drive went dead. It was out of warranty for one week and they wouldn’t help me without me paying some bucks. They were owned by the same company, yet my experience differed wildly… I’ll follow up with a brief commentary on failure rates and all of that when I get home…

  2. Matt says:

    I had an Apple customer service experience that just happened last month. It amazed me how incredibly well I was treated:

    Out of the blue, the video on my MacBook Pro up and died (both built-in and external). I took it to my local Apple store to the Genius Bar. The guy plugged in some contraption, and within 5 minutes had a diagnosis of what the exact problem was. My computer was out of warranty, so I was expecting a hefty repair bill (on the order of having to decide if I should just get a new one).

    Here’s where the amazing comes in… Because the problem was a known/identifed defect in the parts uses on my model, they would repair it *free of charge* even though it was out of warranty. Not only that, but I had taken it in on Wednesday evening, they shipped it to Texas (from Ohio) to be repaired. Once repaired, they overnight air-shipped it via FedEx and I had it back on my doorstep at 8:30 AM on Monday the next week. To top it all off, they didn’t have to touch my hard drive during the repair, so I turned it on and everything was exactly how I had left it. And, I’ll say it again because it’s the part that really shocked me… it didn’t cost me a dime.

    Because of that incredible experience, Apple earned a gold-star for customer service in my mind.

  3. Richard says:

    I agree, the word gets out about various companies and how they handle customer issues. I had an experience that was positive and it has been the benchmark for customer service for me over the years. My father and I were at Disneyland and Dad wanted to get something for my mother. He looked in many of the shops and finally toward evening he decided on something that he had seen in one of the shops we had visited. When we arrived at the shop, it was closed. We looked in the shop across the way but with no success. We were about to give up when one of the store clerks asked if she could help. We explained that we had seen the item in the shop across the way but could not find it anywhere else. She got the keys, opened the shop that we had indicated and let us come in and purchase the gift. I was shocked. I expected her to tell us how sorry she was but could not help us. Not this lady. She realized how important this was to my father and took action to make it happen. And that is my benchmark for evaluating customer service by other businesses. Does the company representative find ways to help or do they just try to explain why they can’t do what you want done. What a great experience that was.

  4. Good service will always overcome any quality concerns, as long as a problem gets solved!

    John DeFlumeri Jr

  5. Kelly says:

    People are more vocal about bad experiences than good ones.

  6. et says:

    Customer service is another case where our lust for cheap has won over quality. I, too will spend more to get local/good customer service etc.

  7. Carey says:

    I hear horror stories about Comcast all the time, but I have never had a problem with them.

    Then a couple weeks ago, I decided to cancel my cable, but keep my internet service with them. I just wasn’t watching TV much anymore, and I figured I could save some serious money each month. When I took my box in to the local office, the lady behind the counter told me that internet by itself was 59.99 a month, but that she would give me the special they were offering new customers and make it 32.99 a month for 12 months. I didn’t have to ask. She also said, “Just don’t be surprised when your bill doubles next year.” I thought that was funny :)

    So since this was just a couple weeks ago, I’m telling the story everywhere, because I know Comcast has a bad reputation.

    I also used to work in a customer service call center for a mortgage company, and I know that there are always a few representatives who easily get an attitude, or who might mean well, but just don’t know what they’re talking about, or how to navigate the system to “get it done”. If you feel like you’re not getting anywhere, it’s ok to ask for a supervisor.

  8. Kevin M says:

    I’ll give any company/store a chance but if I have a bad experience the chance I’ll go back are slim to none.

    Example – I rented a DVD from Blockbuster years ago. I returned it a couple days before we left on vacation. A few weeks later I got a nasty letter from a collections company saying I owed some ridiculous amount for the DVD, late fees, etc. After some head-scratching, I checked the DVD player and sure enough the movie was still there. I returned it immediately but continually received late notices/collection letters.

    All it would have taken was the clerk to call me when they realized the DVD was missing when I returned the case, instead they sent my account to collections. I’ve never used Blockbuster since.

  9. lauren says:

    i think good customer service is going to be the winning factor for businesses in the next few years. i love starbucks. used to work with them. do i get an awesome experience EVERY time i go to one? no. but on the off hand that i do – they respond to me very well – making amends locally or corporately. and for return policies? amen. i like target but don’t shop there often bcuz their return policy stinks.

  10. Craig says:

    It is difficult to find a company with good customer service but I appreciate it when I do. It really makes doing business with them much better.

  11. beth says:

    While we’re giving credit where credit is due (since, as someone so truthfully pointed out, you rarely hear about the good customer service stories), I can’t forget Southwest Air.

    On more than one occasion, we’ve watched our airplane take off from the freeway, parked in a traffic jam for 2+ hours on the 405 in Los Angeles. And without fail, the folks working the counter have done everything in their power to get us on the next available flight without rebooking fees, sideways glances for line-jumping (trying to catch a flight that was pulling away from the jetway at that very moment), or even a scowl. Plus their (previously free) unaccompanied minor service for flying the kids cross country was spectacular every time we used it.

    Now don’t get me started on AT&T Wireless, Compaq, Southwestern Bell, or any number of health insurance companies…

    It is always rough, too, when you’re reminded the hard way of the consequences of taking the cheap route. It’s hard to own up and pay the extra cash, but with some companies, it makes such a huge difference.

  12. Kevin M says:

    @lauren (#9) – see I love Target b/c you don’t even have to have your receipt when you return something. They’ll just swipe your credit/debit card and verify it. Why do you think their return policy stinks?

  13. Kara says:

    If I’ve had exceptional service form someone I’ll ask for a comment card, or for a manager to let them know.. I may not give all the details (in case the employee let something slide), but a general “Jane was really great to work with and helped me with my issue”

  14. leslie says:

    This seems very similar to reviews of any kind. Just recently I purchased a new sewing machine. Out of 200 reviews on Amazon, a handful of them were scathing. I read through them very carefully and decided that few of those problems would affect me so I went ahead and bought it.

    With anything, you need to take it with a grain of salt. Some cashiers at my local grocery store are slow and unfriendly, but some are very nice. Doesn’t mean I say I write-off the store when I get a slow one.

  15. Tahlia42 says:

    I also have stopped shopping at Target because of their return policy. For me it is related to the holidays. I have received products as gifts that are brands that only Target sells, they still have their tags, are in original condition, but without a gift receipt Target will not even issue a store credit.

  16. Jim says:

    You can’t please everyone all the time. I think if 95% or more of a companies customers are satisfied then they’re doing a good job. So for a very large customer like Apple who has millions of customers they’ll have 1000’s of unhappy customers.

    I disagree that local is always better. Small doesn’t guarantee good. Frankly I’ve had some bad experiences with small local vendors that I would not expect to see with large companies. Local companies seem to have more erratic support, they may have inconsistent rules and policies and might run the business at the whim of their owner. I understand supporting small business out of principal but not out of an expectation that they will be better.

  17. Tammy says:

    Return policies can either be a blessing or a big hassle.

    I was a manager at Pier 1 Imports for 3 years and our return policy was very lenient, in my opinion. If you did not have a receipt you would receive store credit. The problem was that people would shoplift merchandise, go out to their car, put the item in a Pier 1 bag, come back inside and say that they wanted to “return” it. The store associates were not allowed to actively approach shoplifters, so all we could do was either issue the store credit or if we really suspected shoplifting, we could tell them the home office would issue a credit pending further review. So I totally understand why a receipt is necessary–bad people make things difficult for honest people.
    However…for truly honest customers who lost their receipt, we could look the transaction up on the computer if the customer knew the date they purchased it. We would always make an effort to do this if we had enough information from the customer. I think if the employee just said “no receipt? Tough!” instead of trying to find another way to help, I would be upset because there are other ways to deal with that situation.

  18. Lori says:

    I agree with Kelly #5 – people always complain about the bad service they receive and very rarely recognize good customer service. The one place where I always receive excellent customer serive is Nordstrom. They should teach classes.

  19. leslie says:

    Lori (#18) it is so funny you said that! I was told by a ton of people that Nordstrom had THE BEST return policy. Along the same lines as LL Bean, I was told that I could take old, worn out jeans that I bought at Nordstrom and they would return them no questions asked.

    Unfortunately, I didn’t find this to be true. I am sure that I am the exception but after a pair of expensive jeans ripped out in the seams, I took them back to Nordstrom. The cashier claimed that my purchase didn’t show up on the computer even though I saw the charge on my credit card statement. But there was nothing I could do so I just walked out, defeated, with my ripped jeans in hand.

  20. Jen says:

    I have a soft spot for United. In 2003 I was coming home from a semester in Scotland, changing planes at Heathrow. Sleep-deprived, I got lost in that giant rat maze and missed my connection. I was thisclose to bursting into tears, but the United agent didn’t bat an eyelash. They put me on the next flight to Chicago (luckily, I was flying between two of the world’s busiest airports, so the wait was only a few hours), didn’t charge me any reservation-changing fees, AND–this is the real kicker–got my luggage there on the SAME FLIGHT. Have I mentioned that this was three days before Christmas?

  21. Perry says:

    I too had a really good experience with Apple customer service. My iPod suddenly died while I was upgrading it to the latest software. I called customer service and, after a couple of hours of troubleshooting, it was determined that the iPod was definitely dead. It was still under warrenty and two days after the call, I received a mailer to send it back in. Three days after mailing it, I received a replacement iPod. I was amazed.

  22. torrilin says:

    I find the horror stories are actually quite useful, at least when I’m looking at a particular product. The raves are also useful.

    First, I always look at how many reviews the item has, and how they’re broken down. Most stuff has a pretty bell curve distribution, with “average” or a middling score being the most common. If a product has a lot of very high or very low ratings, I take that as a warning. I won’t know what kind of warning til I’m done with reviews.

    Then I look at the awful reviews. If there is a pattern to how the item fails, or if there’s a failure where the company consistently won’t believe you, it tends to show up here. But sometimes a product is confusing, or not marketed well and the unhappy reviews will point that out too. Sometimes you will find that a product attracts a lot of novice users, to the point where they can’t figure out how to give the item a rating in the review… so you can find really awful reviews paired with a great score. That’s why I also read the top rated reviews.

    The actual good reviews are also helpful. Someone who knows their stuff and is very happy with a product might take the time to explain all the pitfalls they found in setting it up. It’s a huge help when dealing with an unfamiliar bit of tech.

    I usually will take some time to think over my expectations after reading reviews. I also think about my strengths and weaknesses… Some things just plain drive me batty, and it’s stupid to buy an item where all the reviews praise a trait that will drive me nuts. For example, I’ve used touchpads for over half my life and love them to death. But the way Apple sets up touchpads by default is very painful for me to use, and their touchpads tend to feel pretty unpleasant. For me, an Apple product is a bad choice. When I bought a laptop, I found one where a lot of users absolutely *hated* the touchpad… for all the reasons I’ve loved them. I bought it, and I couldn’t be happier.

  23. Kathy says:

    I don’t completely ignore bad reviews, but I make note of them. If I see a trend in how many and what the issue was, then I start to pay attention.

    Sometimes, I will read the bad reviews when something seems to only have good reviews. It helps me to see if the good reviews are truly objective or not.

  24. Chris @ BuildMyBudget says:

    It is so very difficult to find good customer service these days. As companies consolidate and become bigger it seems to just get exponentially worse. I must admit I like going to small businesses..because I know they are going to value and pay attention to me. Especially when it comes to service on my car..I really value good customer service and the relationship is key!

  25. Shevy says:

    Torrilin has an excellent point. For example, I was looking at microwave/range hood combinations online. Most complaints centred around the unit shutting down at various times and then working again later.

    Reading further, I discovered it shuts down when it senses too much heat or humidity. It also stated that it had to be installed so the bottom of the microwave was a minimum of 30″ from the range top.

    I had a light bulb moment. If the bottom is too close to pots on the stove that are hot/steamy, it will shut down. Knowing that, it makes sense not to use the microwave at the same time as you’re (say) boiling potatoes. But, if you normally wouldn’t use the 2 together, it should work fine. Then I measured the available space and realized I didn’t have enough headroom to use the unit as specified.

    If I hadn’t done all that, had bought the item, installed it, used it and had it shut down on me I probably would have been complaining about the product.

    Also, a note about good customer service. Several years ago I got held up on the I-5 by construction and narrowly missed my flight from Seattle to a convention I was going to in either Denver or Baltimore. I talked to the airline (Alaska, I believe) and they couldn’t let me board (I was at check in and they were just unlocking the bridge). They said they’d put me on the same flight the next day (they only had the one flight there per day).

    I explained that I’d driven down from Vancouver, Canada, it was a 3 day con, I’d paid for it all including my hotel and that I was unable to fly on Saturday for religious reasons. I couldn’t fly with them until Sunday morning and the con would end Sunday afternoon. Then I mentioned that my dad had been an airline passenger agent in Canada for over 30 years and that I knew his airline often honoured other carrier’s tickets straight across.

    I asked if they had a similar deal with any other airlines. They sent me down the row to a couple of other airlines. One (Delta, I believe) had 2 flights departing 5 minutes apart and I could just make it to the gate if I hustled and didn’t check a bag. No problem, no charge. They just took my Alaska ticket and printed me a boarding pass.

    Do some due diligence. If you know what to look for, what to ask for, and are polite but firm you will often be successful. I got the flight I wanted. I wasn’t able to get the range hood I wanted but I understand why and am happy I’m not having problems with it.

  26. Claudia says:

    Check with the Better Business Bureau before making a large purchase. I’ve had problems with Tilia/food Savers and Sallie Mae customer service. I went to the BBB to complain and both had hundreds of complaints already on record. The BBB got Sallie Mae to fix my problem and when it occured again, a threat of another BBB complaint made them respond. Tilia is just a lost cause, they don’t respond to anything! But, then every site I’ve looked at has dozens of bad reviews for them.
    If a site has customer reviews, I always read them, even if the good outweigh the bad at least you have a heads up as to what problems may occur.

  27. littlepitcher says:

    I had a fan problem on my Lenovo laptop. Got online, filled out all the forms, and was told to call the service center. I received a shipping box within 24 hours, packed the laptop up, called the shipper and the driver, still in town, picked the box up within a couple hours of delivery.

    In 48 hours, the box was back on my doorstop, the fan had been replaced, and the tech had updated my BIOS and other firmware, without having been asked.

    Meanwhile, I’m entering my second month of negotiations with a Horizon Treadmill supplier concerning a machine which arrived with various body parts shattered or cracked…

  28. tentaculistic says:

    “When we, as a customer, immediately boil a transaction down to the minimal dollar, we usually lose in the long run.”

    That, my dear, says it perfectly. I think the older I’m getting, the more I’m leaning toward buying certain things bargain (like storebrand groceries where I don’t notice the difference, and bargain clothes at well-organized clean stores like Syms), and buying other things at full price (like car repairs from Firestone where everything is a bit more expensive, but they don’t rip you off by throwing in extra “required” parts, like other mechanics I’ve frequented). I think that often buying from reputable companies saves hassle (and sometimes money) in the long run.

    I do really value excellent customer service – we have a good deal of well-crafted clothing and gear from REI, which has a ridiculously lenient return policy, but because we appreciate them and their service so much, we generally sell used gear on Craigslist at a small loss rather than make REI eat the loss. We got our money’s worth, and they did their job, so we try to support them.

    For individual purchases, Amazon reviews are a god-send! I recently bought a Roomba (may well have saved my marriage – neat freak and clutter geek marriage :), but from all the comments about poor iRobot customer service, product problems, and the like I am expecting it to fail in a few months, or at least be cranky. I’m hoping I got the model that has a lot of the kinks worked out, but since I was up-front to my husband that it will almost surely fail fairly soon, we can both be calm if/when it does… we look at it as if we invested in several months of house cleaning service. So reviews can be a real help!

  29. AnnJo says:

    On the local vs. international issue, it pays to remember that a national/international company may have different cultures within different divisions.

    I’ve been a Bank of America customer for two decades, since they acquired a large local bank in my area where I had banked for years. The excellent customer service culture of the acquired bank survived the acquisition, and my local branch and state call center are both extremely helpful. (I’ve dealt with Bank of America branches elsewhere, and that helpfulness has not always been the custom.)

    An example, through my own mistake I overdrew a business account recently. I did not receive the notice of overdraft until nine days after the date it was supposedly mailed. As a result, I was charged a $35 overdraft fee as well as a $35 extended overdraft fee. I called to transfer funds to cover. I acknowledged it was my mistake and the initial overdraft fee was reasonable, but I told the representative that the extended one was not reasonable given how long their mailing took to reach me. The representative noted that this was the first overdraft in many years, and she not only reversed the extended overdraft fee, but the initial one as well.

    This is also an example of another part of the customer service equation. Good customers typically do get treated better. To be a good customer, you have to have a history with the company. To have a history with a company, you probably will have to forgive some lapses, just as you would hope they will forgive your own, and treat the company’s representatives with the same courtesy and respect you expect from them. And sometimes, you just have to politely cut off a discussion that is going the wrong way and call back later when a different representative might be more temperamentally receptive to your requests.

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