Business Columns & Blogs

Late Southwest Airlines and Nordstrom leaders never lost sight of customer service

Blake Nordstrom, co-president of Nordstrom, helped make customer service the thing that set his company apart from other retailers.
Blake Nordstrom, co-president of Nordstrom, helped make customer service the thing that set his company apart from other retailers. Associated Press file, 2014

“Your call is very important to us; please continue to hold for the next available operator,” drones the recorded message repeatedly, reinforcing the point that the sponsor of the message didn’t value its customers’ time enough to have sufficient personnel on board to handle the call volume, never mind fixing the underlying problem that prompted the call in the first place.

“We apologize for the inconvenience,” says a woman’s cheerful recorded voice on the cable-and-internet company’s customer-service line, “inconvenience” being a euphemism for “we’re taking down your internet service for the entire day (welcome to 1990). We’ll give you service-restoration times we’ve made up to give you false hope. We’ll throw in some sound effects of someone typing, as though there’s an actual human on this end entering your information into the system, even though there’s nothing but a voice-recognition system here. And don’t even think about trying to talk to an actual person.”

Never knew so much could be packed into one little word, did you?

Look, we don’t expect perfection in business life. Mistakes happen, windstorms and other natural disasters occur, stuff gets lost or stolen, deadlines are missed, people have a bad day. But attention to customer service, both before and after the sale and especially before and after problems occur, can go a long way toward mitigating disgruntlement and customer defections. Done frequently and well, customer service can actually cement loyalty.

This diatribe on customer service was brought to you by news items on the recent passing of two prominent business executives, one of them local, who built their companies in part on their reputation for customer service.

Blake Nordstrom, one of a trio of brothers running the namesake Seattle-based retailer, had to balance the twin challenges of maintaining the company’s legendary customer service with the decline of traditional apparel stores and shopping malls as online competitors emerged. It wasn’t always a smooth ride. But it can be argued that the fact that Nordstrom as a company is in better shape than many legacy retailers is attributable to its customer service. That service helped serve as a competitive point of differentiation, provided some support for Nordstrom’s pricing strategy (no one would confuse it with a discounter) and kept customers coming back despite the turmoil and temptations to go elsewhere.

Southwest Airlines was definitely a discounter, and many of its practices – no assigned seats, no meal service – would seem to be the antithesis of customer service. But the airline Herb Kelleher built into a national and – rare for the industry – consistently profitable carrier wasn’t based just on cheap airfares, close attention to operating costs and efficiencies or cutesy marketing gimmicks. You could fill the skies with carriers that put all the emphasis on price and none on service; many of them are no longer flying.

Kelleher got at the customer relations problem through good employee relations. At Southwest, employees had authority and flexibility to handle issues; a no-layoff policy helped build loyalty from employees, who didn’t have to feign enthusiasm working at Southwest or interest in solving customer problems.

Customer service still matters in the internet era, even though convenience and price have been sold as the main attributes. Can I track my order as the merchandise wends its way across the country? What happens if it gets lost? How easy are returns? Can I talk to a human if I need to? One reason why Amazon has endured as long as it has is that it never, at least in personal experience, botched an order (and understand, this is praise coming from someone who owns a business in a retailing sector that has lost massive amounts of customer revenue to Amazon). Getting it right the first time is an important aspect of customer service.

Because service matters, businesses will continue to tell you how important you are to them, even if you’re being told over and over while on hold for 45 minutes. How well they back up that pledge will determine whether you give them another chance to prove it.

And speaking of Amazon, which we always seem to be doing in business news …

Jeff Bezos’ announcement of a split from his wife of 25 years triggered the predictable tsunami of jokes – we are Americans, after all, and making jokes about everything is what we do – but there are serious business implications to the divorce, should the couple carry it that far.

The big issue is how the split is structured with regard to Bezos’ holdings in Amazon and his other ventures including Kent-based space company Blue Origin. Bezos held 16.3 percent of Amazon’s stock as of the last proxy statement. Since she’s entitled to half of that, does he give her the shares, pay her in cash or negotiate some other settlement?

Of course, not all Americans were making jokes about such a sad, solemn important event. A few were looking at the numbers and wondering, “hmm, how do I cut myself in on a piece of that action?” Because we do a lot of that, too.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.
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