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Lessons from an “amazing” evangelist

Shep Hyken has watched, chronicled and traveled the world speaking about customer service for more than three decades. His books have made The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and New York Times bestseller lists, his client roster reads like a who’s who of top companies and he was recently featured on SAP’s list of the Top 60 Customer Experience Influencers. He’s seen the good, bad and ugly of customer service from every angle and through a generation of change.

If you read anything Hyken has written, listen to any of his speeches or even look at his business card, you’ll quickly note that his favorite word is “amazing” – when it comes to evangelizing customer service, he skips right by “good” and even “excellent.” I asked Hyken to share a few examples of companies that have earned this highest praise from him, and why:

Ace Hardware: One to say yes, two to say no

Hyken says that the 4,700-unit chain encourages its store owners to require employees to get management approval for saying "no" to a customer, not for saying "yes." This flips traditional retail practice by giving front-line personnel authority to accommodate, not to refuse. According to Hyken, one Ace Hardware owner said that once he implemented this “one to say yes, two to say no” policy, he found that customer complaints dropped by 80 percent.

Ritz Carlton: Put your money where your mouth is

The venerable luxury hotel chain believes that it all starts with good hiring. Well-selected, well-trained employees should be trusted, given latitude, and allowed to make mistakes and learn from them. The company famously backs up this philosophy by allowing every employee to spend up to $2,000 per day per guest to make people happy or make things right. Hyken said, “If Ritz is willing to place a bet that big on its employees’ judgment and customer attitude, you can bet the company has hired and trained them well.”

Disney: Stoop to excellence

Walt Disney, founder of the entertainment titan, stressed leading by example and creating a service culture that transcends rank or hierarchy. He made sure that his employees saw him doing everything they were expected to do, even bending over to pick up litter in his theme parks. Disney called that approach “stooping to excellence,” and it’s a role-modeling philosophy that has stayed with the company. As Hyken said, “You don’t need a title to be a leader.” 

Southwest Airlines: To be the best place to buy, be the best place to work

“Put employees first and the rest will follow,” said Hyken, whose favorite example of the principle is Herb Kelleher, the larger than life, chain-smoking founder of Southwest Airlines. As Kelleher once said in an interview, "The business schools used to pose it as a conundrum. They would say, 'Well, who comes first? Your employees, your shareholders or your customers?' But it's not a conundrum. Your employees come first. And if you treat your employees right, guess what? Your customers come back, and that makes your shareholders happy." The bottom line, Hyken said, is that for a company to be customer-focused, they must first be employee-focused. What’s happening on the inside of an organization is felt by everyone on the outside.

It’s no coincidence that all of these examples have employees at their core. Hyken believes that no matter the business or industry, the very best customer service companies are employee-centric. “If you want proof that top customer service companies are employee-focused,” he said, “look at the perennial lists of the best companies to work for and see how many of them are also on the best customer service lists.”

There’s also an interesting side story among the companies Hyken mentions: Southwest is almost 50 years old, Ace and Disney are both 90, and Ritz Carlton is 100. In an era when most large companies are lucky to make it past their teen years, it seems that being amazing -- and staying that way -- isn’t just good for your customers, it’s good for your health.