Customer service lessons from Michael Dell, Jeff Bezos and Mickey Mouse

I strongly believe that the key to having a successful business is a relentless focus on not just good customer service, but totally awesome customer service. This holds true for companies of all sizes and in all industries, but also for IT departments within companies. Let me define my view of customer service: It’s that feeling of goodness, that warm calm inside, that justification (even if distorted) for spending money, that someone gets from a positive interaction with your service or people.

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Flickr/Loren Javier (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Let me begin with my opinion of the greatest customer service I’ve ever seen, and it happens every day - theme park characters. Someone just like you or me climbs into a very heavy and very hot fabric suit and acts as a larger-than-life character for children. They deliver what is potentially the most important customer service act possible and uphold the belief that something make believe is indeed real. The customer service has to be perfect every time or a child's beliefs can be ruined forever. That is the high bar we must all think about!

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with many companies, many leaders, and many IT departments. As I think back to my experiences, I am reminded of the good, the bad and the ugly experiences. There are too many bad and ugly experiences to list, and they would seriously embarrass companies (you know who you are). Therefore, let me focus on a couple of stories about the good:

I’m going to guess the year was 1994, and I worked for a Fortune 500 company as a software engineer. We had just received shiny new PCs for the department from Dell. They were Dimension XPS machines in a beautiful beige color. After the unboxing and setup, they worked great -- except for mine. The hard disk drive sounded like a noisy washing machine. I called customer service. They said it was “normal” and there was nothing they could do about it. They were reading from a script and not thinking for themselves with any common sense. Just because a computer can read and write without errors doesn’t mean any unusual noises it makes while doing so are irrelevant to customer satisfaction. I was very angry. In just a few days following my phone call to Dell Customer Service, I probably told 100 people how bad Dell products were and how bad their support was. After several more days of affliction by “the washing machine” and in some desperation, I sent off an email to an address I conceived out of thin air: michael@dell.com. The email read simply “Is this the real Michael Dell?” Within 30 minutes I received a reply which said “Yes, how can I help?” Amazed, I replied, including details of the situation.

Within a day I had not only a new hard disk, but a new machine with a faster processor! I have no idea if it was really him, or if it was just an on-the-ball customer service agent, but either way it did the trick. My faith was restored and I have now told thousands of people of my POSITIVE experience with Dell. Also, I’ve spoken with Dell customer service hundreds of times since then and never again have I received the same poor service as I did during that first call. Maybe it was my complaint that made the difference.

My second story is also about Dell. Many years after that initial experience with the noisy hard drive, I was working for another Fortune 500 company responsible for all PCs (over 120,000). One of the benefits of making purchasing decisions on that scale was receiving invitations to private briefings and events. One year in particular -- I think it was 1998 -- Dell held a customer event at the newly opened Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas for about 500 customers. I walked in and said hello to a Dell representative who, within just a few seconds, turned around and introduced me to Michael Dell. I hadn’t noticed him before but there he was standing two feet from me. “Stu from company x,” he said. “How is Dell treating you and what can I do to help? We’re selling you products in Europe, Latin America and Asia. When are we going to get North America?” There was no way he could have been briefed in the time it took me to walk in and stand next to him. He didn’t have a cheat sheet in his pocket. Of course he receives briefings on large customers and no doubt stays in close contact with his sales team. He could have kept to a cordially neutral, non-specific greeting, or said nothing at all. Instead, he turned the interaction into a customer experience to remember. By the way, the peeled shrimp was the best any of us had ever eaten - nice work Bellagio!

At the end of every Dell briefing, whether there are five or 500 people in the room, Mr. Dell will stand around greeting and chatting with anyone and everyone who wants to chat with him. He never leaves a line before everyone waiting gets the chance to talk with him. By contrast, I have never seen any of the other CEOs of technology companies do the same thing -- they are always the first to leave. None of the others seem to have the same customer focus that Dell does.

Now back to the connection with you and the IT department. Dell gets it, and I also believe Amazon gets it. I have never had a negative interaction with anyone at Amazon -- ever! Good customer service and customer experiences translate into revenue -- period. Consider that a decade later I not only remember these stories, but I’m telling you about them! I even remember at the time wanting to work at Dell just because of these positive interactions. Therefore, good customer service also translates into positive recruiting practices.

Here at Covanta, every employee knows a top priority is our customers and the products and services we offer. But think specifically about the lessons here for IT. We are a manufacturer that delivers a product and a service, and therefore we must be customer service focused. Two things to clarify: I don’t believe that the employees within my company are ‘customers.’ The customer is the person who buys our products. People inside the company, who use IT services, are peers and we all work together. However, thinking about them as customers is a good operational practice. Additionally, I don’t believe the customer is always right and that anything they say goes, but that’s sure what I want them -- the customers -- to think. It’s been written that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos places an empty chair at the conference table to remind everyone not to forget about what the customer wants and expects. What a great idea! We can all learn a lot from that concept.

Delivering great customer service is not an option, nor is it easy to get right. It’s also not a policy or procedure you can write down and mandate. It takes the right people, attitude, training and common sense on the part of everyone involved. Yet achieve it, and it can overcome almost any obstacle.

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