Today I went to Whole Foods to shop for dinner. I love Whole Foods, so much so that I am a proud shareholder (and a not-so-proud investor, who bought the stock at $65). I was pushing a heavy cart of groceries through the store, my son perched in the child seat, and as I came to an intersection between aisles, a Whole Food employee was coming at me in the other direction – there was only room for one of us to make it by. Without missing a beat, he kept on walking, blocking my way and forcing me to wait for him to pass.

This sort of stuff happens so frequently in our society today, that many of you may be wondering why it is even worth noting. I fundamentally believe, however, that tiny acts of rudeness like this can be killers for businesses. I’m sure that this employee had somewhere to go – he may in fact have been on his way to help another customer – but that’s not an excuse. From my perspective, this was a case of an employee in a service business not being polite to a paying customer.

As I said, this is pretty commonplace these days. Employees talking to each other while customers wait, or perhaps talking on their cell phone, giving directions in a store by pointing in the general vicinity rather than walking you to your destination, and generally showing indifference or indignance (is that a word?) to customer complaints. Service is at a premium, so much so that often the most basic customer support amazes us.

I started an SEM agency in 2008 and I’m doing my best to provide my clients bona fide good customer service. In the last year or so, my job has become even more challenging as I’ve started to hire team members. So with that in mind (and I will be sending this to my team members to read . . .) here’s my best practices in SEM consulting customer service.

  1. The customer is always right, unless he’s wrong, but even then, he still may be right. Every client has different needs and different objectives. As a consultant, it’s important to understand these objectives, but also to question them. Clients occasionally make requests that go against SEM best practices. A consultant needs to bring this up to the client and help them understand the consequences of their decision. If the client still wants to move forward with the original plan, you have to accept this decision. The customer is right, unless he’s wrong, but if he insists he’s still right, he’s right.
  2. In a connected world, response time matters, all the time. We all have cell phones and Internet connection at home, so unless we are sleeping or in a movie theater, we’re always available. If a client sends an email or phone call, assess the urgency of the message. Urgent messages should be returned immediately, or within an hour, during the week, and within a few hours on the weekend. Less urgent messages should be returned within a few hours during the week, and by end of day on the weekend. SEM spend doesn’t stop on Saturdays and Sundays – good customer service demands that SEM consultants are paying attention whenever a client’s money is being spent.
  3. Admit – and compensate – for mistakes. We all make mistakes and sometimes those mistakes cost clients money. Admitting a mistake is important, but I also believe in giving clients credit for our mistakes. In one case last year, my team made a $10,000 over-spend for a client and I compensated the client the full $10K. It hurts to lose that kind of money (I was in Las Vegas at the time, so it made my casino losses seem more manageable), but if you promise to provide a service to a client and you fail to deliver on your promise, you need to take ownership.
  4. Every customer is the most important customer. If you accept a company as your client, they are your most important customer. Even if you have one client paying you $500 and another paying you $10,000, once you sign a contract with a customer, you are promising to give them the absolute best service, and there is no clause in the contract (at least in my contracts) that states that lower revenue clients will be given less respect than the biggest ones.
  5. Don’t work with jerks, they’ll turn you into jerks. You can’t give good customer service to jerks, because they will never be satisfied no matter what you do. And you’ll get frustrated and you’ll probably become a jerk yourself. Jerks ruin customer service for everyone.
  6. The little things matter, a lot. That Whole Foods employee who cut me off today might well be the nicest, most helpful person in the Whole Foods organization, but his tiny decision not to give way to a customer has resulted in an entire blog post discussing a bad experience at Whole Foods (but, please, as I mentioned, keep going there and buy lots of their stock!). Customer service is not about giving someone a fruit basket during the holiday season or answering the phone with a friendly “good afternoon”; its a state of mind, an ongoing quest to delight every customer every day.

I know I have yet to perfect my customer service. This post is most definitely an “aspirational” one because I don’t always deliver the level of service I describe above. But I work on it every day, and I try to instill this same ethic in my team members. And I do believe that simply thinking about customer service every day – making it a part of your identity as my friend Stacy would say, is the way to move down the right path.

2 Comments

  1. Mike June 9th, 2010

    Its too bad youve never had the oppertunity to push a 500+lb cart around a busy store. I wish you would apply your own logic towards not working with jerks to what a typical employee in the service industry faces when you consider who these people have to work with. The painfull reality that “The Public” includes Whipllash willies looking to sue at every opertunity, Quick change atrists, and professional shoplifters tryng to return stolen merchandise for the drug money they really meant to steal when you judge the clerk serving you. It isnt allways possible to stop that heavy cart on a dime when you have to take responciblity for the safety of yourself, and everyone around you as well as the product on the cart. But hey just tell him not to work with jerks so he doesnt turn into one.

    Mike

  2. davidzhawk June 9th, 2010

    Actually Mike . . . I worked for a year at Eagle Foods, which I believe is now part of the Jewel Supermarkets empire. I started as a stocker but eventually also did bagging and checking. I also worked for a year at Pizza Hut delivery. In both jobs, I did encounter my share of jerks, but I still contend that when you work in a service profession, you must always err on the side of “the customer is always right”. And in the example I gave in my post, it was a “tie” at the intersection and I was not being a jerk, thus the employee should have let me go first!

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David Rodnitzky
David Rodnitzky is founder and CEO of 3Q Digital (formerly PPC Associates), a position he has held since the Company's inception in 2008. Prior to 3Q Digital, he held senior marketing roles at several Internet companies, including Rentals.com (2000-2001), FindLaw (2001-2004), Adteractive (2004-2006), and Mercantila (2007-2008). David currently serves on advisory boards for several companies, including Marin Software, MediaBoost, Mediacause, and a stealth travel start-up. David is a regular speaker at major digital marketing conferences and has contributed to numerous influential publications, including Venture Capital Journal, CNN Radio, Newsweek, Advertising Age, and NPR's Marketplace. David has a B.A. with honors from the University of Chicago and a J.D. with honors from the University of Iowa. In his spare time, David enjoys salmon fishing, hiking, spending time with his family, and watching the Iowa Hawkeyes, not necessarily in that order.