How to do great customer service

It's easy to pay lip service to customer service. But companies like Netflix and Virgin America have shown how hard it is to get this right. You can do more than learn from their fiascoes. The companies that build close relationships with their customers don't outsource customer service; they put it right at the heart of the business.

The best example of this I've ever seen was at Method Home Care. Located in the center of San Francisco, this company has, over ten years, dared to take on the likes of Unilever and Procter & Gamble. One way they've been able to succeed is by having a direct connection to their customers, one that is not filtered through a hundred layers of bureaucracy.

Instead, Method customers can email the company or use the 1-800 number; in either case, their question or complaint will be answered by Meghan. Meghan sits in the middle of the company's offices, right next to co-founder Eric Ryan and right behind the company's creative team. If she is suddenly getting a lot of questions about a product change or a particular ingredient, everyone knows it because they can hear it. If she has a question, she can turn to any number of colleagues who will know the answer because they created the product themselves. The company has formal feedback loops but scarcely needs them because feedback is instant.

Meghan doesn't just sit there, answering questions. She also attends weekly product meetings. That means she knows why products are made the way they are, why decisions were taken and by whom. She's an intimate part of the entire product cycle - which is why she knows most of the answers to the questions that come her way. And if there's a problem, she can make sure it's never repeated.

That Meghan is at the center of things is fundamental to Method because the company's positioning is all about safe, non-toxic products that customers can trust. Building and preserving that trust is an essential part of the company's strategy. Outsourcing to a call center could never achieve the immediacy and authenticity of Meghan's work - and incorporating feedback from a long way away would end up being more costly in the long run.

What Method does seems so obviously right that it's important to remember how unusual it is. I think of British Airways which actually charges its customers to call about their lost baggage. Or Microsoft which penalizes you when its software crashes. Method demonstrates that doing customer service well doesn't have to be difficult. But you do have to mean it.

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.