Learning Great Customer Service Habits From Nordstrom, Zappos, And Virgin

[Originally published in Forbes.com. The author, Micah Solomon, is an author, consultant, influencer, keynote speaker, and trainer in customer service, customer experience, customer service culture, and hospitality. (Here are three ways to reach Micah: email, chat, web).

If you invest the time now to establish the essential habits of customer service excellence at your company, you can later sit back and, to a large extent, watch your business drive itself.

This is the approach I take as a customer service consultant. It’s intended to give a company the legs it needs to continue in the right direction long after I have left the building. And my suggestion to you is the same: Focus on habits of great customer service, and you’ll soon enjoy the dividends.

Calling some of the following items “habits” may be imprecise, but the idea behind every item on this list is similar. Each is a practice that has the potential to become a repeating ritual, an established standard, or, yes, a habit. Together, these can drive customer service excellence, and spare you from having to reinvent your service commitment or service practices every day.

• Compile a language lexicon for your company–and get in the habit of using it. This lexicon is a company-specific phrasebook (or even a single sheet of paper) with recommended and discouraged phrases, and it’s one of the first things I encourage a company to put together when I’m on assignment as a customer service consultant. For example:

Avoid: ‘‘You owe . . .’’

Try: ‘‘Our records show a balance of . . .’’


Avoid: ‘‘You need to . . .’’ (This makes some customers think: ‘‘I don’t need to do anything, buddy—I’m your customer!’’)

Try: ‘‘We find it usually works best when . . .’’


Avoid: ‘‘Please hold.’’

Try:‘‘May I briefly place you on hold?’’ (and then actually listen to the caller’s answer)

(Although these three examples are simple and universal, your lexicon can also include more complex phrase preferences that are specific to situations that only come up in your particular industry.)

• Build the habit of “wow.” Wow moments, by definition, are unexpected instances extraordinary, memorable customer service. But just because they’re unexpected for the customer doesn’t mean you can’t plan for them. There’s a chalkboard in the Zappos contact center tallying all of the flowers, cookies, postcards and other “wow gifts” that have been sent to customers in the previous month and previous year. This isn’t so much intended to keep track of resources as it is to remind employees to keep up in their efforts to create “wow.” On a smaller scale, consider how a Nordstrom sales-and-service superstar like Joanne Hassis at the King of Prussia, PA location will maintain a pen-and-paper system to prompt her to send, say, Girl Scout cookies to faithful customers when they least expect it (and keeps track of their flavor preference to boot–Thin Mint? Tagalog?).

And you? What’s your habit of wow?

• Get in the habit of yes–“The answer is yes; now, what is your question?”–rather than looking for ways to say “no,” “we’re closed,” “not my department,” and so forth. This habit of defaulting to yes is an essential building block of a successful culture of customer service. At Richard Branson’s Virgin Hotels, defaulting to “yes” is considered such an important principle that the company’s done away with a half-dozen extraneous buttons on their guestroom phones and replaced them with a single big button with cartoonish red lettering saying “Yes!” Pick up the handset, press the “yes” button, and a Virgin employee with an audibly great attitude will do her best to arrange a “yes” for you, no matter what your request may be.

• Develop the habit of great hellos. The two easiest moments for your customer to remember (everything else being equal) are how they were treated at the beginning and ending of their time with you. So make it habitual to apply your best customer service skills in the very moments when you answer a phone or when a customer first encounters you in person.

• Create a ritual for goodbye. It’s easy to overlook the importance of the ending of a customer interaction, even though it’s one of the two most likely moments to stick in a customer’s memory. A solution is to build a ritual that commemorates this moment, whether it is sending a thank-you note, or having the person closest to the exit door being tasked with wishing the customer well, or cheekily unique like the famous CD Baby shipping confirmation. (Disclosure: A company I founded is now a sister company of CD Baby.)

• Become systematic about customer service recovery. Service recovery–pacifying and satisfying a customer when things go wrong–is hard enough without having to reinvent your approach every time. I recommend my AWARE approach, though there are multiple alternative frameworks that are excellent and time-tested. Here’s an article of minethat lays out this approach, and if you would like a formatted, print-ready version of the AWARE system for customer service recovery, let me know and I’ll send it your way.

• Develop the habit of 10-5-3. This is a way to get systematic about making customers feel acknowledged and welcome while they are on your premises. There are many varieties of the 10-5-3 approach; here is how it is practiced by GM Jeroen Quint and team at Hotel Irvine in Orange County, California, where every employee is expected to use the 10-5-3 system whenever they encounter a customer, as follows:

At 10 feet: Look up from what you are doing and acknowledge the customer with direct eye contact and a nod.

At 5 feet: Smile, with your lips and eyes.

At 3 feet: Verbally greet the customer and offer a time-of-day greeting (“Good Morning”). Use a tone of voice appropriate to your work area or where you encounter the customer.

• Implement and sustain the daily habit of a “customer service minute” or “lineup.” This may be the most important habit on this list, because it can support all of the others. A customer service minute is a very brief huddle or lineup at the beginning of each day (or shift) entirely focused on customer service excellence. Here’s an article of mine on what this looks like and what its value is.

• Develop the habit of “having the last word.” In every interaction with a customer, and every part of every interaction, make it habitual to answer any time a customer speaks to you. Two examples: When you tell a customer on the phone that you’re going to look something up for them, they’ll likely answer, “thank you.” You, then, instead of consigning them directly to dead air or hold music, should answer reply with “you’re welcome,” or “my pleasure” (not, by the way, “uh huh” or “no problem”; more on this here). At the very end of a conversation, a customer may say, “Talk to you Tuesday.” It’s now your turn to say, “Thank you for choosing us!” or “I look forward to speaking with you then!” rather than disconnecting without “having the last word.”

• Finally, develop the habit of saying “thank you” to employees. If you want to have employees make it a habit to deliver exceptional service, you need to make it a habit to recognize them when they do. Whether it is a thank-you note or public praise, build a ritual of showing your appreciation for those who support you.

Credit where credit is due: This article includes a contribution from Bill Quiseng, a thought leader you should be following at @billquiseng, as well as from the author, Micah Solomon.

Micah Solomon is an author, consultant, influencer, thought leader, keynote speaker, trainer, and subject matter expert (SME) in customer service, customer experience, customer service culture, hospitality, innovation. (email, chat, web).