Customer Service. Strategy or culture?

Customer Service is the great differentiator for your brand. Competitors may offer a similar product or service, but the way you treat people—the way you make people feel within the brand experience—will define the brand. No exceptions.

There are two important mandates for customer service:

The first is the experience you intend to share with your customers—the promise you’ve made. This is rooted in your strategy; fail here and you’re doomed. (But that’s a post for another day)

The second is the experience you provide when things don’t go as planned. The way you treat people in the middle of chaos—chaos you’ve caused or chaos thrust upon you—will have a tremendous impact on the brand story, perhaps even the most impact. Success here is rooted in your culture.

When the shit hits the fan—and it will at some point—we expect the brand to understand and honour the relationship we shared in the good times. We expect the brand to honour our needs BEFORE they worry about their own. We expect the brand to deliver the experience when it matters to us, not only when it’s convenient for them. And we expect the brand to know more about solving our problem that we do; we expect them to be prepared.

Customer Service, for all the tools and techniques and plans and training, is about treating human beings with respect. Respect for the promises you’ve made; respect for moment you’re in; respect for the variables that make each of us unique. It’s an art, not a science. It’s in your culture.

Anyone who has seen my Essential Brand Strategy presentation knows of my admiration for WestJet, a Canadian based airline that focuses on a fun, friendly travel experience.  A few days ago they lost my luggage.

Their customer service culture, not just a problem-recovery strategy, made all the difference.

  • I never felt like Westjet lost my bag because of sloppy staff. It was simply an error, not negligence or apathy.
  • They apologized first. They were genuinely disappointed—not in themselves or their team, but the situation. I never felt like they weren’t 100% positive they would find it, and I always believed they were in control.
  • They compensated me without hesitation, even though they promptly found the bag. The employee recognized their team dropped the ball on the relationship—the flight—and accepted responsibility.

Luggage gets lost. It’s an inconvenient reality of air travel, and like many people, I have lost luggage with other airlines. While the other airlines stopped short of blaming me, there was always the impression that my action somehow broke their system, or that my need to have my bags was now an inconvenience for the airline—a disruption of their normal duties. The report, the solution, the reconnection—all met with just enough contempt to break any promise of friendly skies. Perhaps they loved to fly, but dealing with luggage problems was simply out of scope.

WestJet didn’t just retrieve my luggage; they did it within the experience I expect.

Now, I don’t want to belittle their business model, but good customer service isn’t exactly a secret formula for success. But with WestJet, it’s not really a formula at all.

Their approach to customer service is rooted in a culture that genuinely cares for their customer. It’s in their brand. It’s not a marketing tool; it’s an HR obsession. WestJet doesn’t train nice people to do things right—they hire awesome people and give them permission to do the right things. It shows.

Customer service is never just a strategy. When it is your culture, it is your brand.

5 responses to “Customer Service. Strategy or culture?

  1. Nice post, Stephen. Seems to me a company’s commitment to customer service is in direct proporation to the location of its call center. The further the call center to the head office, the lower the commitment. Why? Because the CEO thinks of it as a cost center not a value added opportunity. BTW, love your example. I’m a WestJet fan.

    • John, i never thought of call centers that way, but it does make perfect sense. The call center can be a competitive advantage and part of our strategic plan, not strictly a call centers. This makes me wonder which companies view call centers this way!

    • Thanks for the comment, John. I think you’ve touched on a good point—when a company thinks of customer service at a distance from leadership, or as a separate department all together, it just won’t be in their culture. It’s always “someone else’s problem”, and that is a recipe for disaster.

  2. Stephen,
    Excellent post! Clearly, Westjet understands that how customers’ experience a brand can be a competitive advantage and that brand potential is realized by delivering exceptional experiences at every touch point. Thanks for illustrating this so clearly.

    • Stephen Abbott

      I’ve had plenty of good experiences on WestJet where they get me from A to B with smiles and a few jokes. It’s a simple, familiar routine. What continues to surprise me is how they step-up when things don’t go quite as planned—lost baggage, snow storms, flight delays. Thanks to their culture—one they’ve worked hard to grow—their employees see those moments as opportunities to shine, not an excuse for letting standards slide. Thanks for your comment, Andrew.

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