Hallmarks of stellar customer service across industries

Good customer service is good customer service, no matter the industry. Consumers build their customer service expectations based on their best—and worst—experiences, whether it’s with a grocery store or an online retailer. So, what lessons in innovative customer service can community banks learn from companies in other industries?

By Julie Kendrick

Even with the energy and focus you bring to becoming an invaluable part of your customers’ lives, the truth is that your community bank represents just a small percentage of their daily service interactions. All day long, whether online or in person, they’re experiencing interactions that might make them even more loyal to a brand—or so frustrated that they vent on social media, write a negative review or demand a refund.

When you consider customers’ lives in total, not just in those moments when they’re banking with you, then you’ll be closer to understanding where you might fall in their internal ranking of customer service experiences. That’s important, because the way other companies treat your customers can make a big difference in what they’ll be expecting from you.

According to a Salesforce.com survey, 73% of consumers say one extraordinary experience raises their expectation of other companies. That means a terrific shopping visit to Trader Joe’s or a great stay at a Ritz-Carlton hotel could mean that those customers will be looking for a similar level of surprise and delight from their community bank too.

Improving your customer service should begin with a review of more than just your own direct competition for customers’ financial services. Instead, look at the places and sites they frequent, so you can understand who’s getting it right and how you can adapt those nonbank customer service best practices to the way you do business.

We talked to top brands and leading customer service experts to get their advice for increasing satisfaction in every area of operation.

See’s Candies’ sweet customer service

For a long run of high satisfaction, it might be hard to find a company that’s had as successful a track record as See’s Candies in Los Angeles. The chocolate and candy company, established in 1921, recently was ranked as the top chocolate or candy store in an America’s Best Customer Service list from Newsweek.

The company’s three customer service principles are “serve customers with a smile, ensure employee excellence, and earn product and service quality.” Its motto, “Quality Without Compromise,” extends to its dedication in offering free samples, something it continued to do even with the complication of COVID-19.

“It is something we have always done for our customers, and even during a pandemic, we figured out how to keep the tradition going,” a See’s Candies spokesperson says. “Now, we offer individually wrapped samples to keep our customers safe.”

The company shared a few critical aspects of good customer service. “First, it’s important that you know the customer, their needs and wants. Next, you need to be a great listener, and finally, be authentic and genuine,” the spokesperson tells us. “I would add that humility and openness to change is critical.”

One aspect of See’s Candies customer service that is unique among candy companies is its policy to right a bad experience through a 60-day guarantee policy. It also interacts with customers online to make sure they come back.

“We also seek to address all customer comments or complaints and have now expanded that to handling some customer service matters over social media,” the spokesperson says. “It isn’t always easy to cover that amount of customer interaction, but it’s essential to customer satisfaction and retention.”

No more “policy cops”

“Companies that treat the customer as their greatest asset are the ones who are already on the path toward excellent customer service,” says Jeanne Bliss, a Seattle-based CustomerBliss consultant who coaches C-suite clients. Bliss, whose latest book, Would You Do That to Your Mother? The “Make Mom Proud” Standard for How to Treat Your Customers, says smarter customer service begins with the way you empower employees on the front line.

“We have data showing that if you are able to provide great customer service, customers will stay with you longer, buy more from you and have an increased lifetime value.”
—Kate Leggett, Forrester Research

“If you don’t trust those employees to make the right call, then you’ll turn them into ‘policy cops,’” she says. While customer service or return policies are important, so is the potential lifetime value of a customer. “If you send a late fee to a top-tier customer, especially in [the business-to-business space], the first two questions they ask themselves are: ‘Don’t they know me?’ and ‘Why didn’t they call me first?’” she says.

That policy cop role doesn’t just have a negative effect on customers. It also wreaks havoc on internal morale. “You diminish employees’ spirit every time you make them enforce policies across the board or when you require them to ask for permission to do the tiniest little thing for a customer,” she adds.

No, the customer isn’t always right

Virgin Group founder Richard Branson has famously championed the idea that customers do not come first—employees do. “If you can put staff first, your customer second and shareholders third, effectively, in the end, the shareholders do well, the customers do better, and you yourself are happy,” he told Inc. in 2020.

So, how do high-performing companies manage the issue of difficult customers, and how do they help their front-line employees deal with them?

Pamela Danziger, president of Unity Marketing, Inc., a research firm in Stevens, Pa., says, “First of all, it’s important for everyone to realize that the customer’s perception is your business reality. Helping them shift that perspective requires a couple things. First, you need to hire ‘people persons,’ because some of those soft skills can’t be taught, and you need a front line staffed with friendly, understanding people who have strong emotional intelligence. If you have a good customer service experience anywhere else, you should be on the lookout and recruit those employees for your bank. Next, you need to realize that employee training is critical in dealing with difficult people and situations.”

For Jeanne Bliss, it’s a two-way street, one that requires respect on both sides. “Angry customers can’t talk to your people any way they want, and you can’t ‘give away the store,’” says Bliss, who was the first vice president for customer satisfaction and retention at the insurance giant Allstate. “We trained people on how to reject claims in ways that were as empathetic as possible, and also to include friendly reminder-type customer coaching on how they might do things differently next time. Doing things that way means you don’t leave the customer feeling hollowed out but allow them to keep their dignity intact and to leave with the feeling that you are good people who are trying to understand [them].”

Emphasis on empathy

For high-performing companies, stellar customer service isn’t just nice to have. It has a measurable impact on the bottom line.

“We’ve researched 40 different industry verticals, and we have data showing that if you are able to provide great customer service, customers will stay with you longer, buy more from you and have an increased lifetime value,” says Kate Leggett, vice president and principal analyst for customer relationship management (CRM) and customer service at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research. “There is absolutely a clear correlation.”

With all that cross-industry experience, Leggett offers insight to community banks looking to up their customer service game. “We look to three key principals as defining an exemplary customer service experience: easy, effective and empathetic,” she says. “In general, we’ve found that banks are doing a good job with ease and effectiveness. Where [some] fall short is in understanding customers and their situations, and in becoming that trusted advisor that customers want. They could use a stronger focus on proactively, even preemptively, serving up the right answer and the right product to the customer at the time it’s needed most.”

How Alaska Airlines makes good experiences

To make a positive impact on customer satisfaction, you’ll need to understand that empowering employees requires giving them the tools they need to delight customers.

Customer service consultant and author Jeanne Bliss points to SeaTac, Wash.-based Alaska Airlines, which consistently ranks in the top tier of J.D. Power’s customer satisfaction scores. In a field of larger competitors, the airlines attempts to set itself apart by providing all employees with an “empowerment toolkit” of miles, cash, restaurant vouchers and fee waivers.

Whether an employee is a baggage handler, a gate agent or a pilot, they’re authorized to do what they can to make things right—such as giving customers $50 to spend in airport restaurants after a delayed flight—or to give extra recognition to a couple celebrating an anniversary with a free round of cocktails.

Bliss references a quote in Bloomberg from the airline’s president, Ben Minicucci, to employees: “We trust you. You’ll never get in trouble for making a decision. And we don’t want you to call the supervisor.”

Expectations of the post-COVID-19 world

Technology was already a defining aspect of any community bank’s customer service experience. In the wake of the pandemic, it has become even more so, especially for younger customers.

“The effect of COVID is that it created a clearinghouse for humanity,” Bliss says. “We’ve cracked open the corporate veneer. Once you see the CEO speaking to you directly from the couch in her living room, you really can’t go back to that formal, stuffy way of communicating. I believe that this pandemic has raised everyone’s desire to work with companies and institutions that put humanity first.”

“Community banks are the ultimate Main Street business, and they’ll do better with post-COVID customers if they keep their feet firmly planted in the community, because the bigger players just can’t do that as well.”
—Pamela Danziger, Unity Marketing, Inc.

Bliss says that younger people, especially those who came of age during the Great Recession, are going to insist on doing business with those who share their values. “They’ll be seeking out places that are growing because of admirable practices and how they choose to conduct themselves,” she adds.

Pamela Danziger is president of Unity Marketing, Inc., a research firm in Stevens, Pa., focused primarily on affluent customers. She sees an opportunity for a shift from transaction-focused businesses to ones that are relationship builders.

“The goal is to become part of people’s lives,” she says. “Every business is a people business, and being part of the community is more crucial than ever. In the retail world, that’s why big national retailers are failing, because they’re no longer reflecting the needs and personality of the local community.”

That’s where community banks can make a difference with existing and potential customers. “Community banks are the ultimate Main Street business, and they’ll do better with post-COVID customers if they keep their feet firmly planted in the community, because the bigger players just can’t do that as well,” Danziger says. “I think we’ll see more people wanting to keep their money local, and that extends to their bank, as well.”

3 customer service philosophies

Learning more about the objectives, policies and practices of customer service superstars can be an excellent source of guidance for improvement at your community bank. Here are some top examples.

1. Take care of your own.
No wonder Trader Joe’s employees are always smiling. They don’t just love their work; they love the way they’re being treated, too. Trader Joe’s employees start out with wages that are higher than the national average and are reviewed twice a year, with, on average, the potential to receive a 7% to 10% annual increase. Add in health insurance, retirement and increasing amounts of paid time off, and you’ll see why those employees are all smiles. Those happy employees are the secret to happier customers, too. A new COVID-19 retail study by the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) shows that while supermarket ACSI scores are down overall by 3.8%, Trader Joe’s remains at the top with an 84 rating, tied with East Coast regional grocery store chain Wegman’s.


2. Empower problem solvers.
In the highly competitive luxury hospitality market, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company stands alone. For more than 30 years, the hotelier has consistently earned recognition, including the rare achievement of twice earning the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award from the U.S. Department of Commerce. One way it engenders such high satisfaction is by empowering each employee with up to $2,000 to fix any guest problem, no questions asked. “[Ritz-Carlton employees] are not servants, because unlike a servant, I want you to be engaged with the customer—you have a brain, you have a heart and I want you to use them,” cofounder, president and chief operating officer Herve Humler told International Business Times.


3. Sell happiness.
Online shoe purveyor Zappos takes the idea of “above and beyond” and goes, well, even further beyond. It offers unlimited free shipping and a 365-day return policy. Its in-house, never-outsourced customer loyalty team, which communicates by phone, chat and email, is known for obsessive customer engagement, including a record-setting 10-hour, 51-minute customer service call that earned a Zappos rep commendations, not reprimands. It’s all part of what’s called a “happiness in a box” philosophy, one that stresses customer satisfaction above all else.

Boost your customer service

Community Banker University online courses cover customer relationship-building and mastering basic sales strategies. icba.org/education

Julie Kendrick is a writer in Minnesota.