Best Companies for Customer Service

Last Updated May 20, 2011 6:33 PM EDT

It would be tempting to dismiss the latest customer-service rankings -- this time delivered by market research firm Nunwood -- as more validation of the best companies and confirmation of the worst.

That might be a mistake.

Let's have a quick look at the winners.

1. USAA
2. Amazon
3. Red Lobster
4. Charles Schwab
5. Olive Garden
6. Netflix
7. Southwest Airlines
8. Krispy Kreme
9. Zappos
10. Apple

Some of these names look familiar, don't they?

But before we go there, let's take a quick look at Nunwood's methodology. It surveyed 4,853 customers across the US to find out why the top performers "provide an exceptional customer experience" by asking them to evaluate brands based on a number of factors, including price, quality, consistency, responsiveness and ability to exceed expectations.

I don't want to downplay the achievements of these companies, but it seems certain brands in certain industries have a way of showing up frequently in these lists. Tech companies like Apple, Amazon and Netflix. Food (Darden has two brands represented, plus Krispy Kreme). How much of this is earned, and how much is halo effect?

As before, one takeaway for business is that sometimes, you just get lucky. Another takeaway: sometimes you don't. Consider the bottom 10:

91. AOL
92. Allstate
93. Roadrunner
94. Gap
95. Continental
96. US Airways
97. Borders
98. US Bank
99. Office Depot
100. Travelocity

Once again, there are several favorite categories, including travel (Travelocity and two airlines) and financial services. AOL, which routinely makes the "worst" lists, is also represented. No surprises here, either.

No, I'm not going to call it the "horn" effect. Oops, I just did.

But my theory of customer-favorite clusters doesn't always hold up. Why would Southwest be in the top 10, but Continental and US Airways be in the bottom 10? How about USAA, which supplies military financial services and insurance? It ranked number one while other financial service didn't do so well.

It's possible a company gains an advantage by being in the right industry, but it's by no means a guarantee.

And while it might be great to find your employer listed in the top, a bigger concern must be how to keep your business from the bottom. I spend a lot of time thinking about the worst companies, since that's where most of the customer complaints come from.

Generally speaking, the biggest offenders have corporate cultures that are hostile to customers, are focused on pinching pennies, lack vision or are on the verge of bankruptcy because their business model is dying. Often, it's a combination of these issues.

Some of these things can be controlled, but others can't.

It is, as before, the luck of the draw.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He also covers customer service for the Mint.com blog. You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.
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Photo: Alexandre Dulaunoy/Flickr
  • Christopher Elliott

    Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and journalist. A columnist for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the Washington Post, Elliott also has a nationally syndicated column and blogs about customer service for the Mint.com. He is at work on a book about customer service issues.