What Is Excellent Customer Service?

September 6, 2011

Customer service is one of those topics where it is easy to speak in broad generalities. Sayings such as the customer is always right and service begins with a smile easily convey basic, unqualified principles that mask the fact that what defines excellent customer service will always be incredibly individual in nature.

However, while superior service is inevitably in the eye of the beholder, a focus on universal principles can provide organizations a worthwhile starting point to providing a customer experience that surpasses expectation. In evaluating what constitutes superior service, two basic ideas apply to almost any business.

What is Excellent Customer Service?

Excellent customer service is a level of service delivery that manages to be both unnoticeable and remarkable at the same time.

While these two conceptions might seem diametrically opposed, they are both part of a customer experience that defies the expected by delivering the expected — and then some.

Excellent Customer Service Is Unnoticeable

Awhile back I was discussing some challenges with a key vendor when I commented to her, “If you are doing your job right, you’ll be invisible to me. I shouldn’t think of you unless I am paying your invoices or there is an emergency.” You see, the regular problems were making the service erratic — sometimes great and sometimes terrible — and the regularity of the problems was enough to make the stand out moments unimportant.

The fundamental building block of excellence in customer experience is consistent performance of the basics in a way that meets expectations. And while meeting expectations is not an end goal, it is the base upon which superior service must be built. The product should work as expected, and the service should be provided as expected. Without this consistency of met expectations, stand out moments of above-and-beyond service will have little resonance. It is important to remember that…

Remarkable experiences will not save inconsistent performance.

Before you can truly provide excellent customer service, the basic expectations communicated by your brand promise must be met regularly and seamlessly.

Excellent Customer Service Is Remarkable

What takes customer service to the level of excellent or superior? Moments or processes that stand out in the customer’s mind. It is the extra touch at the end of a service, the same day turnaround for the need-it-now product, or the extra follow up at the end of a sales call.

Excellent customer service is created by layering moments of differentiation on top of consistent performance.

 How do you know if you are achieving these levels of service? You start receiving comments like these…

“I can’t believe you had that waiting on me, I am blown away”

“Jane really makes every visit a pleasure; make sure you keep her.”

“I’ve been getting this type of service for twenty years; this is the first time anyone has ever listened to what I was saying.”

In the end, each business must chart its own path to excellence by knowing its customers and its model. And while the details will vary by industry and application, the above basics are a sound starting point for all businesses. Create systems and training to produce your product or deliver your service consistently, and then look for ways to stand out in your customers’ minds.

When was the last time you had excellent customer service? What made it excellent? What steps do you take in your business to provide customer experiences that are consistent and/or memorable?

42 thoughts on “What Is Excellent Customer Service?”

  1. How about ‘wow, I need to call my friend John; he could really use your help’. That would be a big ‘wow’, huh? I’ve actually had a few of those which were pretty neat.

    Too often I see marginal, or ok service and it gets packaged as exceptional. I think consistency is the key.

    We do a pretty good job of it at our agency but there are so many moving parts we do slip up at times and we will have a disgruntled customer. How you respond to that can make all the difference in the world.

    I trust my team, and for them, they are always right. I will not allow a customer to be abusive to them; there work is already stressful enough.

    What is Publix’s secret sauce; more times than not you will be taken care of but it can still certainly be average at times. However, I know I wouldn’t shop anywhere else. They have a perceived culture and it permeates from top down.

    Excellent customer service is a level of service delivery that manages to be both unnoticeable and remarkable at the same time. This is so true and a lot of the time it’s just taking care of the little things first.

    Good post my friend.

    1. Those are the best, Bill! When they are so blown away they unofficially join the sales team, you know you’ve done something right.

      I agree. There is a not so fine line between upset customers and abusive customers. In retail, we get some pretty interesting people, but when it crosses the line too far or crosses it a little and never goes back to the other side, it is time to say goodbye.

      We do have a few Publix around these parts, don’t we? 🙂 It is a very challenging industry to execute top level service in. Overall, I would concur though. Publix does a good job and keep my family coming back regularly.

      Thanks for the great comment buddy. Good to see you as always!

      1. There is a document called a certificate of insurance; if my contractor is coming to work for you, you will probably want verification of coverage. If my contractor calls me and requests this document but we don’t handle this request for 3-4 days…………not good.

        You call to add a vehicle to your fleet but we forget to add it and it’s stolen 2 months later……not good.

        Your liability premium is auditable and it based on payroll, meaning you estimate the payroll number at the beginning of the year and it’s adjusted at year end based on actual numbers. You estimate $500,000 but in my conversations it’s obvious you are doing much better but we make no adjustments during the year. Your year end audit develops an additional premium of $45,000 that you didn’t budget for…..not good.

        BTW – I’m in commercial insurance for businesses; we insure their property and the work they do.

        That was probably WAY too much insurance talk, but those are typical service issues we run into.

        1. Bill, I can vouch first hand for how important getting insurance certs in a timely fashion are. When you need them, you need them. State inspections, landlords, you name it.

          I had some fun a few weeks ago with one of these third parties the landlords hire to keep track of the certificates — fun because they sent a letter requesting the same certificate that had already been provided 3 times before! On the bright side, I guess it gave the agent a chance to score some CS points with us.

  2. Adam, I learned all about excellent customer service while waiting tables back in the 80’s in Newport, RI. The servers who made a killing were stars at going above and beyond what was expected. You’re right — excellent customer service happens when customer expectations are MET CONSISTENTLY and then TOPPED.

    Real Life Example: We just started a brand new social media campaign for a new upscale perfume line called Primal Mist. After speaking to the president by phone today to assess goals, I emailed him about a strategy I’m implementing, with instructions on how he can watch us represent his brand in real time. It’s those little things that show a customer/client that you have their best interests at heart, and will do everything you can to make them shine the brightest. Never assume the client/customer knows what you’re doing behind the scenes. Be visible; show them what you’re doing; stay in touch; keep them in the loop.

    Kudos to Nikolas Allen (@Nikolas_Allen on Twitter) for a recent blog post that reminded me of this!

    1. Hey Michelle,

      That’s a great example from your new campaign. I really like how you presented the client with opportunities to see the value you are providing his company. The story makes a great point — sometimes you do have let customers know what you’ve done for them, so they will actually know you went the extra mile.

      I’ll have to check out Nikolas Allen.

      Thanks for the heads up and for the great thoughts! Best of luck with the new campaign.

  3. I needed this reminder. Thanks, Adam. I think I could do better.

    As I said in my tweet, I think this post covers this topic better than I’m used to seeing. Usually it is platitudes. But you’re right, every consultant or vendor I’ve worked with who I thought highly of was usually unnoticeable to me – they just did what they were supposed to do.

    1. I really appreciate that Jenn. And you’re right, I want them to be unnoticeable — unless they are wowing me with great service! Then, I don’t mind noticing them. 🙂

      Thanks so much for stopping by!

  4. G’Day Adam,
    I think that half the problem with customer service are the words, “customer service.” They’re like a blanket you throw over a bed and say “the bed’s made” when in truth the sheet’s all scrunched up at one end and the pillowslip’s under the mattress.

    I have a client who runs a domestic plumbing maintenance business. Their success is built entirely on “customer service’ but the term is rarely used.

    They talk about their guarantee; “If we’re late, you don’t pay,” their Priority Client Scheme, the special “cleanboots” they put on before they enter a home and a vast range of things they do to ensure that their customers are always delighted with them.

    They also seek to give the customer a “seamless” experience. From the time the customer phones until the job’s completed and the plumber leaves, the interaction between customer and company must be smooth and satisfying for the customer.

    Let’s stop talking about “customer service” and start specifying in detail, all the good things that the customer can expect to experience when they use our product or service and what we’ll do for them if we fail to live up to the expectation we’ve created.

    That’s customer service.
    Make sure you have fun

    1. Hey Leon,

      Well, I’m probably going to have to keep using the words “customer service” — or else I won’t have much to blog about. 🙂

      But I do know what you mean. There’s a lot of talk about customer service at the level of the individual business, but what matters is attention, action and follow through.

      I’m not sure how plumbing as an industry is considered down under, but here in the states it is not known generally for customer focused service. If it’s like that in AU, then I can certainly understand how your client manages to stand out by doing the things you mentioned.

      It’s a great point you make sir, people want to hear about the benefits of your product or service, not generic claims about great service. We should all remember that.

      Thanks for the awesome comment Leon!

      1. G’Day Adam,
        Thanks for your generous comments. I’ve been working with that plumbing business for about 10 years. And you’re right. Plumbers in Oz are not every householder’s favourite tradespeople. One of the first things we did there was to change the name of the business from Alan Hall Plumbing to “The Clean Plumber”

        i recently posted on my blog about the importance of business names. Check it out on

        I may be about to tell you how to “suck eggs” I beg forgiveness in advance.

        There’s absolutely no reason at all that you should continue to blog about customer service. I can think of some mighty good reasons why you should stop. Chief among these is that everybody’s doing it. And you’re all tarred with the same brush in prospect’s eyes. The Clean Plumber still does exactly the same plumbing work as Alan Hall Plumbing. That business sounds like one of hundreds of plumbing companies. The Clean Plumber sounds special.

        Why not blog about “client satisfaction” or ‘satisfying customer expectation?” You’d still be talking about the same things. But you could give them a unique perspective. And you wouldn’t sound…..ho hum….like a thousand other customer service consultants. You’d also have the opportunity to show up the limitations of conventional customer service thinking and practice.

        I’ll also send you separately a piece I wrote about expectation in selling some time ago.
        Best Wishes

        1. You make a great point about business names. “The Clean Plumber” does have quite a ring to it.

          I really appreciate your thoughts, and I do agree with what I take to be your larger point about differentiating from the “ho hum”. I certainly plan to blog about customer engagement, customer experience, customer loyalty, client satisfaction and so on. I think the clarification I would make is that “customer service” is the most, generic and common of the terms because it is the name of the industry — like marketing or advertising. In that sense, I don’t think I can run around the term too much.

          Wise comments Leon and very appreciated! I look forward to reading the expectations piece.

  5. Adam,

    Excellent article. While I was building my coaching practice, I use to do Retail Auditing jobs where I had to go undercover and rate the customer service of all kinds of businesses ranging from retail, service, restaurants and even banks. It was fascinating to see all the requirements each business had outlined, yet the majority of employees failed to meed these standards.

    Its really outstanding when there is a company that provides amazing service…you want to return again and again. I recently went to dine at a local steakhouse with my daughters and the waitress was very friendly, even to my daughters. The manager came over to make sure we were satisfied. There was even a balloon lady on staff to brighten the children’s night. The staff truly seemed to enjoy their job…that to me is the best customer service that is offered. We will be returning.

    What steps do I take? I give my all to each client when they are with me. I am 100% in their energy and my world is completely gone. I also send thank you notes for their trust in me and do the same when they send me referrals. I let them know I think about them when they are not with me. Basically…they know and feel my care and love for them. 🙂

    1. Hi Joanne,

      As a coach, I imagine that 100% focus on the client you mention is more valuable than just about anything. In today’s Iphone/Blackberry times, it is probably rare that they receive that type of focused attention from anyone — business or personal. The cards and follow up, of course, are that extra touch that goes so far!

      Secret shoppers are incredible tools for discovering how your business’ service standards are being executed. As someone on the retail side, I can certainly say that uniformity of execution is one of the most difficult parts of delivering the customer experience. Obviously, you saw that too!

      Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. I look forward to seeing you again!

  6. Hi Adam,

    Over the years I’ve learned that one of the most important things is simply to keep in touch with the client and let them know what is going on. Status reports, always! In creative work, it’s so easy to become immersed in a project and when you come up for air, the last thing you want to do is to get on the phone and tell the client their project is not quite ready. But keeping them in the loop has helped me establish some great client relationships over the years. They understand that sometimes creative work takes time, but I’m realistic about schedules and I keep them informed.

    I’ve worked with more than a few vendors who claimed quiet a bit up front, but were often much more skilled at becoming elusive when I tried to get in touch with them. Oh, to be burned by a vendor 🙁 Not a good feeling and it makes you look so bad. I have found a good group of people I can rely on, thus much less damage control.

    Anyway, excellent post! I’ve learned over the years to brag less and do more for sure.

    Thanks for stopping my my place yesterday. Really appreciate that!

    1. Hi Craig,

      Great point about keeping clients “in the loop” — particularly in a direct service business. It’s amazing how much open communication can accomplish to maintain and strengthen a customer relationship. And surprises are great for clients — unless the surprise is that the project is delayed. 🙂

      I agree, that’s the catch with vendors — if they don’t give you great, dependable service, more often than not it affects the service you are able to give to your customers.

      Congrats on your launch Craig! I am sure you are going to be very successful. Thanks so much for taking the time to make it over!

  7. Good post. I think customer service has been going downhill for so many large firms but the purely online companies seem to be getting better at it – could this be because of increased (or even cut-throat) competition? The best service I’ve received has been from hostgator (web hosting) and I the main things that I do to provide excellent service in my business is:

    – Go the extra mile and exceed expectations

    – Be friendly and personable

    – Be prompt. This is of the utmost importance. You can provide an excellent reply but if it’s after two weeks it’s of no use

    1. Sunny, you make some great points. Being friendly and personable is necessary no matter what industry you are in. And I agree, being timely with a response is important — hopefully, I wasn’t too late with this one. 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment!

  8. Adam, excellent post! When I think of excellent or outstanding customer service, I think of companies like Apple, Costco, and LL Bean. Each of these companies has a strong reputation for taking care of their customers. Their customers are even willing to pay a premium to enjoy such service.

    In my year prior life as a retail executive, customer service was something that was employed to watch the bottom line. The bulk of service issues were handled only when calls were placed to the home office. The thinking was completely backwards. If they focused on giving the customer what they truly wanted, it would be paid back in dividends through increased sales, and word of mouth.

    1. Adam, you bring up a great point about Apple, etc. They are able to factor their service into their pricing to make it profitable for the company and worthwhile to the consumer.

      And I agree, that is truly backwards thinking. It’s the attention to service on the front end that minimizes the attention (and resources) that have to be dedicated to it down the road. While it certainly varies by industry and company, the generic data is pretty strong on the ROI of good service.

      Thanks for the insights! Really appreciate you stopping by.

  9. This is great post, wonderful experience in customer service. Some hard to find customer service like this but with this you teach us a lot. Thanks

  10. Sadly excellent customer service is incredibly hard to come by in France. They don’t seem to believe in it. It’s the same price no matter what and forget any compensation when you do eventually have to throw a tantrum to get something done!

    I have to admit, being in a service industry, I do get a real kick when I get feedback that includes the words excellent or wonderful.

    In all honesty i don’t understand how companies get away with poor customer service and how employees don’t make an effort – at the end of the day it’s harder to be useless and rude than it is to be nice and efficient surely?

    1. Hi Ameena,

      It’s been almost two decades since I was in France, so the memories are fuzzy. Suffice it to say, I don’t remember being welcomed with open arms by too many businesses. Most people were pleasant, just not particularly service oriented. It’s interesting to see that, even in today’s times, you can find culture trumping competitive performance.

      “It’s harder to be useless and rude that it is to be nice and efficient” Okay Ameena, you win quote of the week with that one! You would think that would be true — yet, almost everyone seems to agree that good service is not the norm. Maybe useless is easier for some. In the end, the lack of “nice and efficient” is a good thing for those who do provide strong service — as it provides a source of competitive advantage.

      I really appreciate you stopping by!

      1. Ha! You liked that? Well, when I do hire people I always feel bad when they are rude or useless or inefficient – I feel like it’s MY fault because I didn’t brief them correctly or I didn’t nuture them etc etc … but that is because I am unusually hard on myself. I do believe there is some truth is the idea that there is no such thing as a bad employee – but as with any idea there are ALWAYS exceptions – plus the assumption that everyone has a level of common sense and basic manners is dangerous territory.

        1. I think there is a spectrum. It is hard when you drop the ball and don’t give someone the training or resources needed to be successful. On the other hand, when you do, it does not always guarantee success. Sometimes people are simply not a good fit for a position.

          You’ll have to stop back when I get my next post up. I’m going to be touching on how some people are not ideal for a customer service role! Take care Ameena.

  11. Adam, you are right on target with your comments! Additionally, I have found that if companies are fortunate enough to hire people who are naturally engaging and see the customer as a person first, a customer second , they will clearly be able to differentiate themselves from their competition. Lastly, if individuals delivering service excellence are able to establish long-term relationships with their specific customers, there is also a much better opportunity to develop consistency, make almost every interaction remarkable and guarantee repeat business. Richard Shapiro, The Center For Client Retention

    1. Hi Richard, you make such a great point about seeing customers as people first, customers second! I was doing some training last night regarding upset customers and tried to make the point that you never really know what is going on in someone’s life. Often when customers seem to be upset out of all proportion to what has happened, it has to do with a lot more than the company. Thinking of customers as people, not transactions, can make a huge difference in those interactions, as well as in the more day-to-day encounters.

      Thanks for taking time to comment. Really glad to connect with you!

  12. Seeing customers as people and customers second is an excellent statement. However, I’ve had some experiences where that was a bit overdone.

    In order to make the impression of being friendly, some salespersons get a bit too personal. I appreciate the attention but….we are not friends. I don’t like “you know what I mean” comments and “I bet you…”

    It’s seems fake and it makes me want to escape that situation right away.

    1. That’s a good point Ana. Seeing someone as a person is not the same as treating them overly familiarly. My view of it means that you recognize the person as an individual with hopes, fears, dreams like everyone else — and not just as a transaction — and you have a better chance or providing them with value. It does not mean treating them like they are your best friend; as you note from your experience, most consumers are turned off by that.

  13. Been meaning to comment on a few of these Adam, as I’m often quick to make fun of customer disservice, ala the Despair posters I like so much. Being unseen is a good one, and like Michelle I’ve been on the front lines of service so much, it makes a difference. It’s about planning and anticipation, thinking ahead with the customer – knowing that balance between being helpful vs intrusive, interruptive. Leon’s point about the details is spot-on too. Forget calling it good service, if you actually DO the good service it’ll get noticed no matter what.

    Two examples of unexpected excellent service that recently stood out to me, FWIW:

    1) I had my wisdom teeth pulled (ouch!) and as part of the service, offered Bose headphones for my iPod to help distract me. Wasn’t expecting it but very nice.
    2) A couple of weeks ago, a small delay getting breakfast.. not even that, just a busy morning. Without prompting the manager gave me a card for a free biscuit next time. I tweeted what my sister and I discussed, “Chick fil A is the Disney of fast food.” Had a nice chat w/ a former Disney employee about that, who totally got what I was saying.

    1. Davina, your two examples made me laugh, because I have posts related to both of them! You’ll have to check out Kaarina’s guest both about her root canal (close enough to wisdom teeth!) and also, the first blog post I did on customer service was about a Chik-Fil-A manager directing traffic in the parking lot at rush hour

      And you’re spot on — “planning and anticipation, thinking ahead” are so crucial to creating that customer experience. It has to begin as a proactive process, no matter what comes after.

      1. I remember the Chick fil A post, and saw Kaarina’s (just hadn’t had chance to read it yet). Customer service always comes back to thinking like a customer, seeing things from their side doesn’t it? FWIW.

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  16. HI Adam:

    I have what might qualify as remarkable service.

    Back in the day, I used to work at a restaurant. We had a lot of repeat customers so we never had “customers,” we had friends. We still provided the normal services but the relationship was not “fake.” It was like, hey, I know you personally, and we treated them on a very “real” level. First names were used, non-businesss conversations took place, and they felt important.

    But that was not what stood out the most.

    I worked in the valet department. The usual routine with any valet service is to get the claim ticket, and then retrieve the car for the customer.

    However, following the lead of my supervisor, we went a step beyond.

    We made an effort to remember EACH customer (although, it’s impossible when there is a rush) as they came in. Then, when we saw them leaving the tables (or coming out the front door), we would run to grab their car (since we purposely remembered it) and have it ready and running by the time they got to us. Nothing is perfect but I’d say we did this 80-90% of the time.

    Needless to say, customers were amazed and said things like, “WOW! How did you know we were coming out. Now, THAT’S service!”

    Thanks for this post!


    1. Chach,

      What a great comment! Thanks so much for taking the time to share it.

      I am a HUGE fan of hidden systems like you used at the valet department to anticipate the customer and give them what they want before they even ask! That never fails to make a huge impression!

      Thanks again!

      1. Hey, thanks Adam.

        I’m not sure I would quite call it a system because it was based a lot of individual effort. Some people could remember more than others. And, when there’s a lot of customer’s coming in at once and we’d have to keep moving the cars in (so it wouldn’t back up the main road), there’s no way we’d remember everyone.

        It would be really cool if there was a cheap way to make it a system where you could just plug in someone and have it executed.

        Anyway, it was your point of anticipating the customer’s want’s / needs that made me give this story.

        Happy Holidays Adam,

        1. Hey Chach,

          It sounds like even without a formal system, you had the most important ingredient — the team was responsive and cared enough to make it happen. I actually wonder if there might be some sort of technology based system nowadays that would make it feasible.

          Thanks again. And happy holidays to you as well!

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