On the Importance of Customer Service

I’m writing this blog from 35,000 feet in the sky on a United flight from DCA to ORD, originally scheduled to arrive at 9pm, currently tracking somewhere close to midnight. Our outbound flight to Washington was equally delayed around 3 hours. We even boarded the flight before being forced back to the gate. Total flying time: 2:50. Total delays: 6 hours plus. (Total airport + flying + transition for a 3 day weekend: maybe 13?)

I should be livid. Heck, I’ve had a screaming 18 month baby missing nap time (and bed time!) left and right. But I just can’t get myself to be really angry. Why? Because United’s customer service was so darn impressive.

In my case, that meant having gate staff that were highly attentive, blasting apart upgrade rows to enable my family to sit together with three seats even though we only paid for two. It meant having staff that were in general incredibly caring, offering timely and accurate updates. It meant turnarounds that were intentionally fast. And it doesn’t hurt that I’m sipping on a complimentary beer.

This experience reminds me that customer service is fundamental – both for consumer facing and enterprise businesses. I speak from personal experience: at CardRunners, back in 2007, we were an early enterprise customer of Zendesk, employing it to manage our 15,000 paying subscribers and hundreds of monthly subscription inquiries. While we had initially thought our subscribers cared most about new features and quality of content, it became clear that the nature of video and DRM in the early days of streaming necessitated a lot of hand holding. Simply put, our customers wanted to be able to get ahold of us and know where they were in the cue at all times.

At CardRunners, the trick to our customer service successes were hiring from within our user base. We sought out passionate members from our discussion forums who were driven to be strong brand ambassadors. What we quickly learned (as hotels already knew) is that one bad experience trumped 100 good ones. Given the myriad opportunities our customers had to complain – on our discussion forums, in third party forums, on affiliate platforms, or review sites – we needed customer service staff that was maniacal about protecting our brand and reputation.

I encourage all our investments to be obsessive about customer service. I love when CEOs respond to e-mails personally, e-mail customers randomly, or check the Zendesk mobile app on their phones regularly.

All that said, delighting customers is ultimately about more than responding to e-mails. It’s about beating expectations at every opportunity. At one of our portfolio companies, the sales team has built such strong relationships with their customers, that they regularly exchange fun text messages. The beauty of technology is that allows any business to develop fully transparent relationships with their customers. In my case, that meant get actual honest answers from an airline when I’m used to being in the dark. Every business is different. But consider what customers expect of your industry, and surprise them every time.

About the author

Ezra Galston
Ezra Galston

Consumer focused hustling @Chicago Ventures, Young Entrepreneur @Foundation Capital, Class 18 @Kauffman Fellow, and Chicago Booth MBA. Former professional poker player, with 4 years experience doing marketing/biz dev in the online gaming industry. Launched a "poker hedge fund" in 2011, a record label in College, and produced a festival screened short film in 2006.

  • Scott Mandel

    I think you nailed with “beating expectations.” Here’s an experience I had recently that blew my mind and further proves your point of how powerful customer service can be.

    Hot Doug’s is a famous Chicago hot dog establishment that will be closing it’s doors in October. I had never been there before so naturally before it shut it doors I wated to try it. I waited in line for 1 hour, finally when got to the front I was famished and ordered $25 worth of hotdogs and a $15 teeshirt (well worth it). As I went to pay I found out that Hot Doug’s is a cash only establishment… I had no idea. Instead of sending me on my way, the gentlemen working the register told me to bring the money back in the next 7 days. What? I was amazed, that’s NEVER happened to me before. I thanked him repeatedly and then asked him what his name was… you guessed it, Doug.

    Some how the most famous hot dog joint in Chicago managed to beat my expectations and I’ll never forget it.

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