How do startups make customer service scale into awesomeness?

This is a guest post by Andrew Scott, a serial entrepreneur in London, CEO Rummble, Non-exec, Founding board m.Love & and “lover of all things mobile”.

In 1901 a Swedish immigrant to America called Johan Nordstrom founded the Nordstrom department store. In 1975, by now a national chain, a Nordstrom customer walked into one of their stores to return a set of tyres he’d bought. The salesperson gladly took back the set of car tyres and gave the customer a refund. Nothing weird about that, right? Except Nordstrom has never sold tyres.

Many of you may have heard this story before; it’s one of many legendary tales of great customer service from Nordstrom and best of all it’s true.

According to a chap called Efraim Turban “Customer service is a series of activities designed to enhance the level of customer satisfaction – that is, the feeling that a product or service has met the customer expectation.”

Like us all I have copious tales of despair dealing with corporate giants. I’d say the worst offenders used to be banks, but in today’s world of mobile everything, the mobile network operators have definitely claimed that crown. They whine about infrastructure costs while continuing to fleece consumers with roaming and data charges; and all while delivering a deeply inconsistent customer service experience which can drive grown men of good demeanour to the edge of sanity. I’m one of those grown men.

This got me thinking. As the internet envelopes our world, one of the biggest challenges facing online brands will be to avoid becoming the customer service dogs of the next decade.

With the expectation of “free” which the internet engenders, there’s an inherent danger of a cultural ethos in business in which non-paying “users” don’t have the right to a personal customer service experience.

This would be naïve on two counts: firstly today’s free user is tomorrow’s paying customer, but secondly we ARE paying. The personal data I give (even if out of self interest) to MyFace when I join a group, FPost when I send an email or Chatter when I update my status, is MY data. We trade this in return –hopefully– for value; and ACME Inc get, consequently, to push us advertising.

There are many better places to read about the relationship between giving up personal data in return for delivering value (my friend JMacs blog is as good as anywhere to start) because what I am interested in are the Nordstrom car-tyre returns of the online

If this is all very obvious, then when was the last time you heard someone say “Awesome! gave me such incredible service, I clicked the link and they called me back instantly”. It’s rarer than you think. That’s because at scale, it’s really hard. For excellent customer service to survive as a start-up grows into an incumbent, it has to be –and then remain– a deeply rooted driving goal of the organisation.

37 Signals have a fanatical following; but they’re almost equally infamous for a slew of “we know better than our user” style diatribes. Jeff Bezos in contrast says quite simply “Amazon wouldn’t exist if we didn’t obsess about the customer above all else”.

So which online brands are glowing examples of amazing customer service?

I have recently known very happy customers who’ve used Twitter and received prompt, sometimes exceptional, service from brands. @ahousley a friend of mine tweeted in frustration @easyjet (a large UK budget airline) when his girlfriend accidently booked four seats instead of two on the same flight after a double-click incident on the purchase button. @easyjet sorted it out: fast and without fuss.

If Alex had used “normal” channels, he’d have had to dig thru the website to find a buried telephone number, wait on hold for eons (probably on a premium rate telephone line) and then be told the tickets were binding and non-refundable. I suspect we are experiencing a temporary ‘Golden Age’ of customer service via Twitter. Enjoy it while it lasts, because sadly it’s not going to scale.

Kevin Roberts, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi claims “Brands are running out of juice.” He’s concluded that “love” is what is needed to rescue brands. He asks “What builds loyalty that goes beyond reason?” Customer service – which includes any interaction with your customer – is a huge part of this. Roberts coined the term “Lovemark” as a step beyond the concept of a simply having “a brand.” I love this idea, of a Lovemark; of irrational loyalty.

What are your Lovemarks? Mine include Virgin Atlantic, my Blackberry and Pret (a sandwich store in the UK). In all cases, I’ve at some point experienced a sub par product* but I’ve always received amazing customer service. I’ve become an irrationally loyal customer. Online that’s probably true for me with, but probably not Facebook.

* Virgin Atlantic on 3 flights the entertainment system didnt work, my Blackberry Bold keeps hanging and Pret? well actually Prets food has always been fantastic

Emotions being as they are, this can work in reverse. I was so frustrated with Microsoft Vista on my new laptop last year, I found myself typing “I hate vista” into Google. As a general search it gave 3,310,000 results; being a nice chap I thought I’d do an explicit search instead. Let’s have some fun…

I hate…**

I love…

For every hater, X love you
37 Signals 2 1,070 535
Amazon 2,470 20,700 8.3
Apple 27,800 133,000 4.7
Google 16,800






Microsoft 37,200






Starbucks 10,800 53,000 4.9
Virgin Atlantic 4,700 261 0.05
Vista 37,600 21,300 0.56

(Bing in brackets) It’s all rather haphazard of course…no scientific logic was harmed during this experiment and apparently I’m rather alone on my love of Virgin Atlantic.

** BTW not to escape, “I hate Rummble” produced only one result, a tweet [rightly] complaining about the friend connect process –we’re fixing it this week– but “I love Rummble” was equally scant; so I guess we’ve got some serious work to do to.

Traditional business avoids confrontation “What ever we say people will always complain” said an executive to me recently “[Twitter] would be a minefield…” he said. This is akin to letting the bully in the playground simply carry on bullying. Brands must stand up to their customers and be human, apologising where necessary and engage (note, I didn’t say argue) when the claims are unfair. Patience and a measured response are key.

Be careful though, engagement without substance is almost worse. I was recently forwared this reply to an extended query about Facebook privacy: “Thanks for the suggestion. We will certainly keep it in mind as we continue to improve the site. Thanks for contacting Facebook,” I am Robot. Well, actually, allegedly the customer support guy was “Craig”; the point is, he didn’t actually answer the question which was asked.

As anyone in business knows, there are many tombs written on the subject of customer service, along with blogs, podcasts, qualifications, training camps, methodologies and of course the inevitable slew of government supported “standards” with customer friendly titles. In the UK these include “TICSS” and “ISO 10002:2004”.

Much to my frustration, none of these outline why customer service agents who hold ALL my personal details #FAIL on an epic scale when they refuse to give me THEIR full name, extension number or a direct email address. Don’t scream data protection, WTF should I trust you’re not a stalking axe murderer if you don’t trust I’m not? IMHO (lets keep the acronym theme going) these accreditations are all a load of crap. I’m with Johan (remember him?). Good customer service is really rather simple.

Until very recently Nordstrom staff when joining were given only one thing: a card with just 75 words written on it, the core of which said:

“Our number one goal is to provide outstanding customer service. Nordstrom Rules: Rule #1: Use good judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.”

As modern health & safety madness and litigation has got worse, that same card is now accompanied with an employee handbook, but this simple guidance when combined with employee empowerment remains hugely powerful.

When building your start-up, make sure the zeal today with which you reply to tweets and emails, good or bad, continues tomorrow and into next year. As you grow, there’s no question it is going to be hard. Look at the ACME Inc’s of today; Facebook has a considerable customer service challenge. I got to 25 clicks to find a customer contact form and stopped counting. With no telephone number and “contact facebook” ranked no.1 in Facebook Help’s own search terms, one could argue they’re failing currently that challenge.

Services such as UserVoice, GetSatisfaction and even Twitter, are certainly helping empower the user to provide feedback easily, but you have to go further. My humble advice to your company is find Mr Nordstroms 75 word mantra online, replace “Nordstrom” with your own company name and stick on your office wall, today. Then stick it on the back of the toilet door. Then before you become the size of FaceSpace, work out how you’re
going to live up to it when you’ve got ten or one hundred times the number of users you have today.

I’m a customer. I don’t care whether I’m paying for the service or not; however unreasonable that sounds. Just serve me well. If I AM paying for your service, then I expect to be treated like a God. I’m your customer and I’m the reason your company exists! Johan Nordström understood that.

At the end of my last published article I said I’d write next time on the subject “It’s about the data, stupid.” Well, in terms of delivering valuable functionality to users, that statement remains true; but in terms of your brand and business, it is most definitely all about the customer, always.