Lindsay Bell

Customer Service: Should You Try for Second Place?

By: Lindsay Bell | July 17, 2013 | 

Customer Service.

By Lindsay Bell-Wheeler

I’m not a good traveler. Trust me, Gini Dietrich will back me on that statement.

I get nervous weeks before a trip, and fret about things like “what if my glasses break” or “will I say something stupid at customs and get thrown in the clink?”

One thing I never fret about however, is my mode of travel.

Living in downtown Toronto, I always fly Porter Airlines.

Catering to the business traveler, Porter is a boutique airline that flies out of city center Toronto, literally a 15 minute walk from the financial district and tourist areas.

The airline prides itself on its white glove service and amenities, harkening back to the good old days of air travel when the customer was treated like gold.

Flying Porter is truly exceptional. Until it isn’t.

Fails and Frustration

The last time I flew Porter, there was a kerfuffle at the check-in desks. From what I gathered, a young lady’s booking couldn’t be found. Unfortunately, they only had one counter staffed, and that person spent an inordinate amount of time on this one issue. Other clerks casually meandered about doing anything but check-ins. The line up behind me grew and grew, and people became more and more frustrated.

My first (angry) thought was “Come on Porter! This is not how you do business!” My second thought was “Ha! If I were at Pearson right now (Toronto’s international airport) this wouldn’t even be a blip on anyone’s frustration radar.” Pearson is notorious for crowds, delays, and lineups (though, from what I hear, not as bad as O’Hare is). It would have to get REALLY bad at Pearson for people to start protesting.

This experience got me thinking. Might it actually be detrimental for companies to provide top-notch customer service?

We Try Harder

At a dinner during the trip, the subject of being number two versus number one came up. How difficult it is to be on top, and remain there. How people instinctively start to poke and dig in order to topple the winners (here in Canada we call that “Tall Poppy Syndrome”).

Naturally, someone mentioned the classic Avis car rental campaign: We’re Number Two. We Try Harder. What a wonderful position to be in, right? Things can only go up, and people really aren’t expecting to much from you.

I mean sheesh. It’s not like you’re number one!

That ad campaign – and I would posit the fact they weren’t trying to maintain top dog status – saved Avis from certain financial ruin, and they continued to use the slogan for 50 years before finally dropping it last year.

No Really. Email me.

Then on my flight home, while reading the newspaper, I came across a full-pager from the newly appointed CEO of Canadian Tire. For those of you not up on your Canadian business icons, Canadian Tire opened in 1922 and is the country’s largest retailer. It is said 90 percent of all Canadians live within a 15-minute drive of a Canadian Tire store, and nine out of 10 adult Canadians shop there at least twice a year.

This was a nice introductory ‘letter to Canadians,’ introducing himself to his customers – it even included a picture of his wife and children – and highlighting the many things Canadian Tire stores do to give back to their communities.

Then I read the last sentence, “…if you ever feel that isn’t the case, send me an email at (email address) and I will make sure your feedback is heard.” 

The newly minted CEO of one of Canada’s largest businesses just gave out his company email address. To all of Canada. Incredible marketing move. Very human of him to do so. Clearly, he cares. But wait. What? When did things like this start happening? What about when he can’t respond to the deluge of emails. How soon before people start getting upset and angry when their buddy, CEO Allen, doesn’t get back to them for a few days? (I know, I’m sure he has systems in place, and he won’t be personally responding, but still…!)

Once again, can customer service be too good? Are businesses setting themselves up for bigger fails and face-palms by trying to be the kings of customer service?

Customer Service, Loyalty, and Trust

Companies bank on the loyalty and trust of their customers. The biggest issue I had while waiting in that airport lineup was the lack of communication. We didn’t know what was going on, or how much longer we would have to stand there (im)patiently. Even a simple “Hey, sorry everyone, we have another person opening up in ten minutes” would have helped. But, I’m a loyal, borderline rabid Porter Airlines fan, and that won’t change with the odd misstep.

I’m curious to hear what you think. Certainly there’s a fine line. One doesn’t want to purposely provide BAD customer service.

But that said, have customers’ expectations – and the bar – been raised too high?

A version of this post first appeared on the FeedBlitz blog. 

P.S. Join DJ Waldow on July 25 at 11 a.m. CT for the Rebel’s Guide to Email Marketing. Register – for free – here!

About Lindsay Bell

Lindsay Bell is the content director at V3 Marketing, and works in Toronto. A former TV producer, she’s a strong advocate of three minutes or less of video content. She has a cool kid, a patient husband, two annoying cats, and Hank Dawge, a Vizsla/Foxhound/moose hybrid. Ok, maybe not moose.

  • I always thought the Avis slogan was marketing brilliance. It immediately positioned them as a competent underdog — someone to root for. I think a lot of people were more inclined to choose them because we love rooting for the underdog! 
    When people perceive you as being #1, they are naturally going to want to take you down a notch. They’ll look for the cracks. But I don’t think that’s a reason to strive for #2 — especially if you’re running a small business. Oftentimes customer service is one of the only differentiators that we have. 
    What I have learned from experience is that communication is the foundation of great customer service. Even when things go sour, if you are upfront with your customers, honest and human it can go a long way towards solidifying their trust and future business. That’s where Porter failed. And frankly, that’s where a lot of businesses drop the ball.

    • TaraGeissinger Amen. I strongly believe most hurt feelings and lost business result not from when someone is not absolutely delightfully tickled to be your customer, but when YOU (royal You, not You, Tara;) as a company create an expectation that you then can’t or won’t deliver on. 
      When someone writes a post gushing about their favorite brand and how Uh-Mazing they’ve been and how they’ve changed the person’s perception of customer service, if you go back and look at their interactions a chunk were good/decent but one or two was fantastic. This is because you can’t be fantastic all the time.

      • RegisDudley

        JoeCardillo TaraGeissinger Exactly what I was going to say! Managing expectations is key. It’s important to have a standard of service communicated to all front-line employees but give incentives to go above and beyond when it comes to customer service (awards, Linkedin recommendations and personal thank you notes are cost-effective options).

        • RegisDudley Absolutely Regis, incentives go a long way toward people feeling proud and taking ownership of their work. JoeCardillo TaraGeissinger

        • RegisDudley JoeCardillo TaraGeissinger Exactly! And creating an atmosphere that generates the types of employees who truly care on (on a personal level) about the service they provide is a difficult task. Personally, I think a lot comes from hiring the right people in the first place. Especially in my business where most of our dialog with customers occurs over email. It’s a fine line between being formal and sounding like a robot! LOL

        • TaraGeissinger The culture thing is big, and I think it often overshadow skills & experience. Also RegisDudley I hear you, in my experience the vast majority of non-product development/engineer stuff consists of a) translating things and b) setting or resetting expectations

      • JoeCardillo TaraGeissinger It is about Tara. It’s ALWAYS about Tara! 😉

        • belllindsay JoeCardillo TaraGeissinger Coming up at 6 pm, The Tara Show. Right after that enjoy complimentary episodes of, The Tara Show. And don’t forget to tune in at 10pm for the Tara Show.

        • JoeCardillo belllindsay TaraGeissinger Bwahaha! My plan is falling into place…..

    • TaraGeissinger Yup, 100% agree here Tara. Honest and human is so important. If one of those snap’ily dressed frontline workers had come out, explained “Hey, something messed up today, someone took ill suddenly…etc.. and we don’t  have enough staff on right now, and we’re so sorry!” I think we would have all nodded in “been there done that” fashion and not been so peeved about what happened. 🙂

      • belllindsay TaraGeissinger Exactly! Be honest, fess up to the problem and offer something extra (if you can) to make up for the inconvenience — all with a smile. 🙂

  • I’ll take good and consistent over amazing and inconsistent any day. Of course I am a person who needs the Core Thing to be work and the rest is nice to have. 
    Enterprise rental cars does a great job of this, they are super polite and friendly and work hard (although they are appear to be doing that whole part time no benefits type thing to their employees which is a bummer). But, even when they are busy and stressed, the core product – a rental car, fast, easy, on-time, is excellent. Have had great and good experiences with them but not a single time in 50+ have they not delivered what they said they would.

    • JoeCardillo OMG, Enterprise is hilarious. They make you feel like a rock star when you arrive at the counter. And they almost always manage to keep it just this side of pleasant without veering over into cloying and annoying. I’m curious about how they manage to drive a culture like that at multiple locations around the country when, as you said, I’m guessing the pay and benefits can’t be that great? What motivates those kids?

      • RobBiesenbach JoeCardillo Twenty plus years ago there was a pipeline directly from my fraternity into Enterprise. It started because one of our Alum made a point to try and hire guys from our chapter.
        It was good for both sides, or at least I remember it being because the new guys knew the money and office was pretty good and they worked hard to keep things going.
        Of course my memory could be skewed, especially because I didn’t work there, but I still hear stories.

        • Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes RobBiesenbach JoeCardillo I looked into the pay & benefits a while back, not too great. I *think* the motivator is the experience, it seems to be one of those jobs where you can learn a lot quickly, and apply it anywhere. That’s a huge selling point, because in conversations that I’ve had with their employees I’ve heard a) I can learn things and be self-directed here in ways that will let me do whatever I want after this and/or b) there’s opportunity for advancement in the company

        • JoeCardillo Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes I believe that about the experience. It seems most of the people who work there aren’t themselves old enough to rent a car (<25) and I never see any of the Olds (>30) hanging around.
          BTW, my experience off-airport isn’t quite as good. There’s one in my neighborhood in Chicago that delivers your car with some weird fraction of a tank. They’ll say, “You’ve got 11/16th of a tank here, just bring back in at that level.” Right. I’ll just calculate the mpg, divide that into the miles driven and pump that much gas. It’s a total scam to get you to put more gas in than they gave you.

        • JoeCardillo Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes RobBiesenbach Wow. It also sounds like they ‘hire for attitude” – which is fantastic! Those employees sound smart, independent, and motivated. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – it’s not *always* about the money!

    • JoeCardillo That’s good to know, I can’t remember the last time I rented a car! I agree 100%, consistency is key – which, as I mentioned above – is why companies (especially brand new ones) need to be very honest with themselves regarding what the can *actually* provide when it comes to customer service. Come out all guns a’blazing, without the resources to support that level, and when you start to drop off people are going to be mighty PO’ed!

  • I agree with Joe – I’d take good and consistent over amazing and inconsistent. I really just want a quick response – and not a cookie cutter this is what we say to all of our customers response. Those annoy me. 
    And I’ve heard about you traveling…how many bags did you take with you for a long weekend? Three or four?! Hahahaha!!!

    • yvettepistorio Lindsay’s butler told me that her porter had to carry 3 bags on the last trip..

      • JoeCardillo yvettepistorio LOL! I wish!

    • yvettepistorio I took one small bag. And checked it. 😉

  • Ha-ha, I ALWAYS worry about breaking my glasses on the road. For a long time I’ve kept a spare pair in one of my suitcases. It actually happened to me once. I broke my glasses on vacation. In Paris. On a Saturday night. Yeah, good look finding a glasses shop open on a Sunday in Paris. Luckily our next stop was Venice and I only had to spend half a day walking around like a dbag in sunglasses. Would love to back and see what the interior of St. Mark’s really looks like sometimes.
    Other than that, I’m afraid I have nothing to add of substance.

    • RobBiesenbach LMAO! When I’m wearing my prescription sunglasses and the sun goes away – if I don’t have my glasses with me I have to continue wearing them (DBag’ette!) or I cant’ see a thing! I always tell people I’m not trying to be cool or anything – but yeah, you really do feel like a tool! LOL

  • LASIK is the reason why I don’t worry about broken glasses on trips anymore, almost 13 years of bliss. 😉
    Consistency in service is important to me. I am less concerned about white gloves than I am with knowing what is going on. Professional and respectful are usually enough to make me happy.

    • Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes I’m one of those rare people who looks better with glasses. In fact, the more stuff covering my face the better.

      • RobBiesenbach Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes HAHAHA! I had Lasik done 12 years ago – and it only lasted about 8 years. I think I was rooked! 😉 I would KILL to have it done again.

  • What would I buy except tires? Sounds like a really dumb name sorry. LOL
    Also the CEO email? Not his main account. If it was he would be so dumb he would be sweeping floors! LOL And I bet he isn’t the one answering them…TRY IT OUT! 
    OK my rant aside (You are forgiven you are still in vacation mode. This is a great question. For years ATT and Verizon and Sprint totally sucked at customer service. They gave up on customer retention and focused just on stealing customers. This worked because if you get pissed at one your choices were limited. So a key measure for the stock market was customer churn rate % that left and % added each year. But now it is different. Verizon while giving me shitty service in Vermont are really good if you call them up (not so good via social media).
    So I think it depends on the industry make up. If you all suck at service maybe that reduces the incentive to be better at it? Hey adamtoporek time to chime in!

    • Howie Goldfarb Dear Howie: Please read the entire post next time. LOL “(I know, I’m sure he has systems in place, and he won’t be personally responding, but still…!) And don’t even get me STARTED on phone/cable/internet companies – holy nightmare here in Canada. adamtoporek

    • Howie Goldfarb belllindsay Some actions are really more symbolic than actually great service. The CEO email thing — I think it’s excellent, because his office is responding and he probably does read a handful once in awhile.  What really makes it great is that it sends a signal to the team downstream that the organization is dedicated to customers and takes service seriously. 
      To your question in the post Lindsay, I don’t believe that customer service in the aggregate can ever be too good; however, individual instances of service can be exceptional enough that they raise expectations for something that really cannot be repeated. For example, the recent story about the airline CEO who gave up a seat on a flight for a sick child. A great symbolic gesture for sure (great PR too, isn’t that right ginidietrich ?) and it was great service to that one family, but it’s not scalable and is unlikely to ever be repeated. 
      Speaking of great service… Howie, how long have I had you on hold now?

      • Adam | Customer Experience Howie Goldfarb belllindsay ginidietrich right now I am on two phone lines on hold with Gini and Adam. grrrrrr!

        • Howie Goldfarb Adam | Customer Experience belllindsay ginidietrich LMAO!!!

  • This immediately made me think of Disney World, where my family has spent a lot of vacation time over the past 30 years. The bigger they grew, the lower my expectations became b/c they just didn’t seem to be able to maintain the level of “magic” they did when they were smaller. But they still try, and we, led by our matriarch Lynnie-The-Pooh, can’t say we’ve ever had a “bad” experience. That’s a pretty good track record. And LTP’s expectations are WAY higher than mine. (Mom’s a bit high maintenance.) With any company, what is most telling to me is when a mistake is made or a customer has a legit complaint, that company steps up to rectify it and make it up to the customer. 
    I have to apply this to myself as an employee/freelancer, too. Can I deliver 100% every time? No, b/c I’m human and get tired, but that doesn’t mean I won’t TRY to give my best every time. Not because I’m striving to be the Employee #1 but because that is my personal work ethic. 
    Really interesting post!

    • Word Ninja I hear you re: striving – I have a *koff* healthy Protestant work ethic – I will work to the bone to get something finished, or drop everything if an emergency arises. But that’s more personal, and I think when you’re spending your hard earned cashola on a company you have every right to expect that they try their darndest to be the best they can be. LTP made me laugh – hilarious! I’ve never been to Disney World – and I hear good and bad – but they sure do keep on going, don’t they??

      • belllindsay Agree. Some company leaders have the customer/service/word hard mentality but that has to continue through employees either by way of the people they hire (who have the same work ethic) or through great training, which is obviously not happening in lots of companies.

        • Word Ninja belllindsay The training is the real key — you are SPOT on with that! It’s a corporate mentality that has to trickle down or you won’t be able to maintain the level of customer service over time. 
          And I also love Disney and the “magic” they are able to sprinkle on all of their guests. It may have lessened over time, but it is still noticeably different from most companies their size.

        • TaraGeissinger belllindsay Yes, noticeably different or we wouldn’t go back as much as we have over the years (and Lynnie-The-Pooh has a timeshare). I’m curious about their training/criteria for hiring employees who have the most face-to-face contact. I always thought it would be fun to play Tigger (but my daughter says you have to have a lot of energy for that…uh…)

        • Word Ninja TaraGeissinger belllindsay I heart Tigger. 🙂

  • So I have a horrible airline story. I was headed to Florida, but my connection in Atlanta was delayed due to weather. We were sitting on the plane while it rained for about an hour. Once the weather cleared up, the flight attendants informed us that the Pilot was no longer able to fly the plane. As a result, we waited about 45 minutes for them to find a new pilot. Then once the pilot arrives, he informs us that the flight attendants had reached their weekly hours and could not fly due to the airline’s “no over-time” policy. We sat on that plane for another hour and a half while they looked for a new flight crew. 
    In the moment, I was outraged. We had been sitting on this plane for 3 hours and we still hadn’t went anywhere. I was starving and people were just overall restless. However, what i appreciated was the airline’s openness. They kept us updated on the progress and took time to answer anyone who had a questions. That’s really all you need for good customer service in my book.

    • stevenmcoyle Oh. My. GOD. They would have had to take me off that plane in a straight jacket!!! Not even joking. No amount of “open communication” would have satisfied me in that situation I’m afraid. Good for y ou for staying positive through it all!

    • stevenmcoyle No pretzels? Nuts? I would have been asking for a free flight…after deploying the overhead oxygen mask.

    • stevenmcoyle That is horrible! We had a similar delay when the kids were younger and one had to use the bathroom. They didn’t want to let us take him because they “might” takeoff at any time. After about 30 mins of waiting (with a newly potty-trained 3-yr-old) he peed in an empty water bottle.

    • stevenmcoyle See all of that is why I have an open relationship. With several airlines.

      • JoeCardillo Exactly. Could never go steady with such a fickle industry like traveling.

  • Design Spike

    We think not. Simply put, change. Companies and brands have got to change the way they handles customer service issues. We can no longer hold on to “old” methods, we must adjust to new technology, new sources of communication and then some. The onus is on us. Not on the customer.

  • Number one is definitely a tough position to maintain — fast followers being a constant threat and all. Now so many people give lip service to wanting to give a Zappos-like customer experience ( I am so tired of hearing that by the way). 
    And being number one in customer service comes with another problem. I think the whole kick of “a good” customer service experience is the moment of “surprise and delight.” That moment varies depending on where you have set your standard. If you have set it at the Zappos level, which is “I’d like a pepperoni pizza to celebrate ordering my slingback mules,” you don’t have very much room, except, “Chicago or New York style?” (Notice that it is *there,* though. It’s just really, really high.)
    Under-promise; over-perform. I think that sums it up. Set a bar that will please people like JoeCardillo who want a consistent and good core experience, and then offer him breadsticks with his pizza once in a while to keep him surprised and delighted. The “bar” differs for every space though … when airline agents smile and rebook bungled flights in under 24 hours without making me cry and the plane lands without crashing, I am surprised and delighted.

    • DwayneAlicie JoeCardillo Oh dear. Gauntlet. Thrown! I think you’re right – we can’t ALL strive to be the company that send pizzas to people (they DO that?) – but we can all take some lessons from what companies like that achieve by doing so – and to your point, concentrate on the “surprise and delight” aspect. One problem is when you go out all guns a’ blazing on the customer service front, then start slowly backsliding.

      • belllindsay DwayneAlicie JoeCardillo Ooh I like breadsticks. 
        Smart stuff Dwayne, I agree with you there.

  • Fat chance; CEO Allen took a page out of GiniDietrich’s book on engagement and he will always answer every single one and still have time to go out at lunch and ride his bike on Canadian Tires no less….

  • Oh, the memories this elicited…
    During my career as a property tax assessor, attempting to maintain a
    high level of customer-service often seemed more appropriately
    considered a matter of survival. I’m here, so I must have squeaked by.
    Though I never actually thought of being at the top, I knew the goal was to make my clients (taxpayers) realize I listened and that they were the most important person in the office.
    Lightness aside, most people visiting their tax assessor come prepared to do battle. It always amazed me to watch their armor start dropping when they realized I truly believed I worked for them!
    Timely reminder for me, as I delve into the realm of e-commerce…
    Thanks for the help

  • AnneReuss

    Thinking as we’re number 1 could limits growth opportunities, then that attitude may trickle down to other levels within the organization….it could keep them motivated or doing just enough. It should involve looking at the brand experience mission and instill a shared attitude among all employees for a consistent experience with some delightful moments! 
    Why not make a goal to be perceived as for something awesome {insert multiple descriptives} instead of number 1!

  • One of my first real jobs (other than being an aerobics instructor which taught me an entirely different set of lessons which I’m sure I’ll pull out during another ‘soon to come’ exceptional blog comment) was working at Nordstroms, another CS giant. I have to say I probably learned more at that job than any other one I’ve had to date. Lessons I have used every single day of my career. 
    Anyway, the big thing at Nordies is that you cared about your client. You took ownership, you followed up, you treated each one as if you were their personal shopper, you made them feel special. Customer service at it’s finest is really simply about caring (which is something that just isn’t done often enough). To say you are number one in customer service to me is not only dangerous, but hypocritical since by making that claim you are putting the attention on you, vs. the customer….that’s bad customer service, right?
    I’ve brought this up before, but I think more often than not people are treated like numbers because we are becoming an increasingly disconnected world in many ways. When you take the time to connect and treat people like…..shock and awe….people, that’s where the ‘surprise and delight’ comes in (aka DwayneAlicie ). This is maybe a bit sad, but very true.

    • LauraPetrolino DwayneAlicie Oooooh, Nordstrom is amazing! I love how they look after their customers, and go that extra mile. The key is they have the size, manpower and dollars to maintain that level of service. I bet if it started to slide, people would be really angry! Also, now I have to go and YouTube Depeche Mode! LOL #PeoplearePeople

      • belllindsay LauraPetrolino DwayneAlicie You know the thing about Nordstroms is that it doesn’t cost them more to make customer service a priority. It actively brings them more money….alot more money, . The only ‘tool’ I had was a binder that I kept my client info it. And they just tied it into the training they already needed to be doing. 
        Sure, you *can* spend gazillions, or you can keep it simple and just focus on people. This means hiring the right people, bringing the right people into leadership roles, fostering a culture for all of these people to thrive and be amazing brand ambassadors….and then focusing all of that externally to the clients. It MUST be an internal and external focus or it won’t work.

    • LauraPetrolino DwayneAlicie Yeah I think you’re right there Laura, we have all this business intel available to us but people are still shocked when you actually care about their experience. 
      I have to say, people are still getting it wrong. For example, CRM & marketing systems are still subject to actual, human relationships, that are overlooked. I get all kinds of marketing automation type emails or direct followup that I can tell is informed by intel / automation that misses the point.

      • JoeCardillo LauraPetrolino DwayneAlicie Don’t even get me started on the marketing automation crapola…..uggggh!

  • Hmmmm… you really have me thinking after this one Lindsay.
    –Tony Gnau

  • rdopping

    The fact that you are a fan of Porter (me too) is a testament to their customer service. Like you said this on blip will not change your mind. Like Apple fans who pay crap-loads of money for “the same” product.
    Second place sucks in my world. 
    It means I wasn’t good enough to get the project. Translate: I don’t eat. Number One all the way, baby!. In our business approx 80% of our work comes from repeat business therefore once we have a client provided they’re not complete douche-bags (many can be) we treat them like no one else exists.

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  • AllisonP

    This is right up my alley.  I have often wondered why it is that companies want to  claim to be number one – especially in something as fluid and perception-based as customer service.  And then, if they do make the claim (whether they truly are or not), how long will it take before somebody starts to tear them apart for the claim?  I know I’ve done it.  A restaurant claims to have the best staff and service above all others and I immediately remember a bad experience at that establishment.  That experience may have been ‘off my radar’, but that one cocky boast would bring it right back.  On the other hand, those companies that use humour and say the kinds of things Avis did in their “We’re number two!” campaign make me want to support them more.  
    It makes me think of my brother.  Several years ago, he competed in triathlons.  He didn’t train at all, but he was the kind of guy who would finish, no matter what.  He consistently came in last at every event he entered.  He successfully branded himself as the ‘Most Losingest Triathlete in Manitoba”.  He even walked and/or ran with his dog during the final leg of each race.   He got some media coverage and people started coming out specifically to cheer him on.  It just goes to show that you don’t always have to be the best to get the most recognition and support.

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