“A thousand things advance; nine hundred and ninety-nine retreat: That is progress.” – Henri Frederic Amiel

As a general rule, customer service today stinks. Little businesses tend to be sloppy and forgetful. Big businesses and organizations are even worse. They seem to have policies specifically designed to infuriate you. Trying to get satisfaction after some screw-up by the IRS, the local power company, or your telephone provider is a joke.

There are exceptions — and the businesses that provide old-fashioned customer service stand out. Like LL Bean when it comes to catalog sales. Or Southwest Airlines when it comes to air travel.

It’s not an accident that both of those businesses have a golden reputation for customer service. They have made it a priority, not only in their corporate mission statements but also in the most important way you can ensure customer service: by the way they hire and train their people.

Southwest, for example, looks for people with “integrity, adaptability, and self-motivation.” According to Pat Williams in “The Paradox of Power: A Transforming View of Leadership” they get such people by asking job candidates the following questions:

  • About flexibility and judgment: “Tell me about the last time you broke the rules to serve a customer in need.”
  • About teamwork: “Tell me about a time when you went beyond the call of duty to assist a co-worker when you received no credit or recognition.”
  • About the ability to deal with conflict: “Tell me how you’ve used humor to defuse a tense situation.”
  • About friendliness under fire: “Tell me about how you’ve worked successfully with a very difficult person.”
  • About responsibility: “Tell me about a time when you made a serious mistake. How did you reconcile it?”

There is no question in my mind — the best way to improve your customer service is to improve your customer-service staff. Once you do that, everything else is easier. Training works, because your employees care enough to pay attention to what they are being taught. And so does an ongoing review and updating program. (See Message #940.) Most importantly, the only way you can set and achieve high standards is to have people working for you who like the idea of high standards, who see them as a challenge and not a burden, and who will work hard to achieve them.