The Myth of Customer Service

There’s a pervasive myth about customer service that, if you believe it, could have devastating consequences for your small business. It’s one you’ve probably heard dozens, if not hundreds, of times over the life of your business. The myth goes something like this: “Customer service is the most important thing your business can do”, or “Customer service is the one area where your business can distinguish itself from the big guys”, or “Customer service matters more than anything else.”

I have to admit, I’ve been guilty of spreading this myth myself. But I had a revelation recently while listening to a friend’s experience getting a product manufactured. What seemed like a simple process, using a manufacturer recommended by a trusted colleague, had turned into an endless cycle of receiving a flawed product, getting promises it would be fixed, and having the same thing happen over and over again. In the end, my friend almost missed a crucial shipping deadline for his product launch, which would have cost him a lot of money (in addition to the gray hairs the experience already caused). Throughout the whole fiasco, he told me, “Their service is great. They’re really nice, and they always get back to me right away with how they can fix the problem.”

There was only one problem: They weren’t fixing the problem. While by many measures of customer service—responsiveness, calmness, offering to make the fixes at no charge—this company was stellar, that didn’t make up for the fact this manufacturer simply lacked the technical expertise and quality control systems to deliver.

Like all myths, the myth of customer service isn’t entirely untrue.  Customer service is a distinguishing factor for small businesses, and customers do care more about it than ever in this world of Zappos, Southwest Airlines, and other customer service stars. But if you can’t deliver what you promise, the sweetness of those promises won’t matter much in the end.

You might pride yourself on how well your business handles problems, but perhaps you should be paying more attention to eliminating problems in the first place. Is it better to go back and forth with a customer 15 times in a friendly fashion, or to simply provide what they ask for (without all the chat) the first time around?

What should you do if you’re worried you might be falling prey to the myth of customer service?

  • Assess your interactions. How often are customer service reps or other frontline employees “touching” customers? What’s the average for a purchase and why? Figure out a number that makes sense and what number indicates that something may have gone wrong.
  • Control quality. Some simple QC procedures such as having a second person check products coming off the assembly line would have prevented the hassle my friend went through with his manufacturer.
  • Implement systems. As your business grows, it’s easy for systems to get sloppy. Review your manual (or create one) that details common procedures in your business so that no matter who handles the process, it’s always done the same way. (Think of fast food franchises, which have strict rules down to how many slices of ham go on a sandwich, or how big a scoop of ice cream is.) Procedures ensure all customers not only get the same level of service, but also the same quality of product throughout your business.

I’m not suggesting you become the Soup Nazi (a “Seinfeld” character based on a real New York restaurateur whose soup was so delicious customers put up with his gruff demeanor). But even in today’s customer-centric culture, service with a smile doesn’t matter unless you’ve got the goods to back it up.

Genie Lamp Photo via Shutterstock


Rieva Lesonsky Rieva Lesonsky is a Columnist for Small Business Trends covering employment, retail trends and women in business. She is CEO of GrowBiz Media, a media company that helps entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses. Visit her blog, SmallBizDaily, to get the scoop on business trends and free TrendCast reports.

16 Reactions
  1. Rieva, perhaps it all depends on how we define “customer service.” To me, customer service includes solving the customer’s practical problem or issue (for example, the technical product issue that your friend was not able to get the manufacturer to resolve). To the extent a company fails to or is ineffective at providing solutions to its customers’ practical problems, then that company is not providing effective customer service.

    Of course, customer service must encompass more than just solving the practical. Companies also need to identify and meet the emotional need of the customer tied to that practical need. For your friend, that meant the confidence and relief associated with knowing that his product launch would not be jeopardized.

    Finally, customers want companies to be easy to do business with, i.e. they want a low-effort experience. There is some compelling research out there to support how important this factor is in connection with creating a great customer experience.

    If a company can nail those 3 components (practical, emotional and low effort), they will hit home runs when it comes to customer service. That’s how companies like Zappos and Amazon do it!


  2. Nice post; it challenged my thoughts on this a bit. I think you can still put customer service on a pedestal compared to everything else. Your example does that – your friend’s supplier has great customer relations, but customer service is off as shown by their inability to manage the complete customer experience. I suggest the customer service definition includes the beginning to end experience of the customer throughout the entire life cycle from the first touch to the last one.

  3. Yes, customer service is a big factor and will make lots of customers happy and they will hang around. But if you are making the same mistakes over and over soon or later, your so called good customers will start to question their own loyalty to you and move on.

    A company has to have procedures, written, communicated and understood procedures that everybody knows and is able to follow each and every time through out the processes.

    If the procedures are not written, they are nothing more than feathers in the wind. One good puff and everything, including customers are scattered.

  4. This is the most frustrating of situations. I repeatedly dealt with a customer service unit, pleasant experience, hung up feeling everything was fixed or in process of being fixed. Never was, called repeatedly same situation thought it resolved was not. Only with a letter to the President of the Company was anything ever resolved.

  5. Hi Rieva,

    I like your main question: “Is it better to go back and forth with a customer 15 times in a friendly fashion, or to simply provide what they ask for (without all the chat) the first time around?”

    I still believe that customer service is #1, but like Caleb I would broaden the definition to include how easy it is get what you paid for in the first place.

  6. Linda Harding-Bond

    I loved this article. With regard to the spa industry I have visited many high end spas which are known for their customer service. But to me a smiling face at the front desk is secondary to the expertise of the technician. Excellent customer service means that my esthetician knows without a doubt how to work with my brown skin. I am at the spa to relax. If I don’t feel secure then all of the heated sheepskin bedpads, green teas and multiple shower heads don’t mean a thing.

  7. No matter how good our customer service is, if the product or service you sell doesn’t do what it is supposed to do, the customer will go elsewhere. This article emphasizes that customer service alone won’t make your customers happy and keep them from going to the competition. It takes service and quality (product). When you have both, it is a winning combination, where the sum is greater than its parts.

  8. I laughed as I read this post. Sooooo true. It doesn’t matter how nice Bobby is, if your product sucks you are doomed. It starts with having a great product or service then it is complemented by strong customer service.

  9. Customer service isn’t just about how you deal with your customers…it’s about fulfilling their needs and solving their problems. If the product or service you provide doesn’t meet those basic requirements then your “customer service” has failed.

  10. I guess the myth here is that customer service is only about being kind and returning phone calls. True customer service goes much further — it ensures that the problem is fixed in a timely manner, or the customer will be fairly compensated. I can’t even begin to tell you (although we probably all know from first-hand experience, unfortunately) how frustrating it is to consistently call customer service to receive no solution.

    I believe this customer service problem could be easily fixed when training the employees. A lot of time, I’ve found that the rep is hesitant to transfer me to someone who can actually help, and just continues to be sympathetic. But I don’t need sympathy — I need solutions! If reps knew exactly when to pass the baton — if managers communicated clearly what warrants a call transfer — and if companies had policies that made sense for the customer (that’s the big one, right?) — then we’d see a lot more productivity in customer service.

    And the bottom line? If you can’t fix the problem, then find a way to make that person happy — and not on the hundredth call.

  11. what is the success story behind well known brands like Google, Coca Cola, Microsoft, Starbucks, Pedestal is 88% quality, 72% service, 50% price. As Shep Hyken wrote winning combination is service and quality.

  12. Interesting spin, but actually providing your product, and it being “acceptable” or more so, is something that shouldn’t even be mentioned an accomplishment…if you that doesn’t happen you don’t have a business and customer service is a moot point, non-existant.

    If you have a product that actually “works” as in, is viable, then I still believe customer service is the absolute most important aspect of your business.

    So yes, you’re kinda right, you need something that actually works before customer service can be the most important thing, before that, I’d question if you have a business at all.

  13. Yeah, I think customer service is a lot more than just being nice to customers. It definitely includes solving the problem your customer is facing. No one is happy with customer service when they’re still facing an issue.