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Outrageously Good Customer Service

There are not many strong incentives for individuals to provide great customer service. There may be small financial rewards that accrue if customers routinely tell an employee’s supervisor what a great job they did; but if someone owns the business, the rewards are greater because positive word of mouth will generate new customers. Not surprisingly, many reports of great customer service (one instance of which we’ve blogged about before) are associated with small business owners.

For most employees, the only real benefit of great service is the good feeling that comes with making another person happy and the pride of doing a job well. Add to that the chance to be written up in

In the last week, I have had two shockingly positive experiences with major airlines. The first was with American Airlines — a connecting flight through LaGuardia as I headed home to Chicago. (Note to self: never, ever try to connect through LaGuardia.) I hadn’t realized it, but my arriving flight let me off in one terminal, while my departing flight left from a different terminal. To get from one to the other, I had to make my way across no small distance via a makeshift sidewalk.

The walk, along with a slight departure delay, got me to the ticket counter too late to check in for my original flight. The machine could do no better than to put me on standby on the next flight. I dashed through security to reach the gate from which my original flight was scheduled to depart. There were people everywhere – literally dozens of standbys who would not be accommodated because every seat was taken.

Halfheartedly, I approached the counter and said that I had a seat on this plane, but it was probably long gone. The woman behind the gate, Carlene Boyd, replied, “Is your name Steve Levitt?” I said, “Yes.” She said, “I thought you might show up. So I saved your seat until the last second. Here it is, feel free to board.” I didn’t think to ask her why she thought I would show up so late. But that one simple act was enough to make me loyal to American Airlines until the end of time.

That is, until United Airlines did one better yesterday. Once again, I was returning home via LaGuardia. Because of weather, all the flights were delayed two hours or more. I arrived an hour early, which meant at least a three hour wait. Because of an earlier cancelled flight, the person at the counter told me there was no way I could catch one of the earlier (but also delayed) flights.

As I sat down to a dinner of fast food Chinese, my cell phone rang. The caller was a United Airlines employee named Michael. (Sorry, Michael, I can’t recall your last name.) He said, “I see that you’re at the airport and your flight is delayed a few hours. A seat opened up on an earlier flight, so I grabbed it for you in case you wanted it. It leaves in forty minutes, so you’ll have to hurry.”

When I met up with Michael to get the boarding pass, I asked him what his job title was. It turns out his job is to watch out for the interests of frequent flyers and make sure things go as smoothly as possible for them. Who knew United had people specifically employed to handle that job? I asked how he got my cell phone number, and he said it hadn’t been easy — he’d had to make four calls before anyone would give it to him. That is great customer service.

I have no illusions as to why American and United are nice to me: I travel way too much and they are the major airlines serving Chicago. I am a good customer. Still, compared to all the other things that airlines can do — serve warm nuts, show good movies, give a few inches of legroom — I would trade it all for a few more instances in which the airline does something out of the ordinary to get me home faster to see my wife and kids.

Finally, one last example of amazing customer service that has nothing to do with being a regular customer: This spring I was visiting my best friend from college, a fantasy baseball co-owner and high school principal extraordinaire named Matt Spengler, at his new house outside of Boston. For dinner, we ordered take-out from Bertucci’s in Needham, MA. Somehow, the order was miscommunicated over the phone — we’d ordered two pizzas, and when we arrived to pick them up, they’d made us one pizza, half of it covered with the first pizza’s topping and the other half with the second pizza’s topping.

The manager was incredibly apologetic. “No problem,” I told him. “But I need you to make me a second pizza exactly like this first one.”

Matt and I sat down for a beer at the bar. Within ten minutes, there were three pizzas: the original one, and two more. I thought that there had been another mix-up (three pizzas instead of two), but the guy was so nice that I wasn’t going to say anything. “How much do I owe you ?” I asked, since so far I had only paid for the first pizza. “Nothing,” he said. “It was our mistake.” Matt and I argued with him for about five minutes, but he refused to take any more money.

My guess is that Matt will order enough extra pizza from this restaurant over the next ten years to pay them back for their kindness twenty-fold. If that is the case, this kind of service makes good business sense. But if it makes good business sense, why is it still so rare?