As a thought leader in the area of customer service and retention, that topic is always front and center in our home. People send me interesting articles and I, too, am always on the lookout for customer service stories – both positive and negative. My daughter-in-law thought I would be interested in a piece from Man Repeller entitled, “I Made Zappos My Personal Assistant For A Week.” It appeared in the April 26th edition.

The Zappos story read like a charm. The author, Haley Nahman, a customer, (we all are) discovered that the corporate mandate of Zappos is “to answer, or at least try, every query thrown their way.” Haley elaborates her disdain for customer service in general and how over the course of a week, the Zappos team “restored her faith in online humanity.”

So, how was this accomplished? Haley emailed increasingly difficult questions to the Zappos staff from “what style shoe should I wear with my capris that have been gathering dust in the closet” to “I found an expensive pair of loafers – do you have something similar for less?” Then she took out her big guns. “What do I do with my standoffish cat?” Next question: “I’m having a party and want to serve artichoke dip. Do you have a good recipe?” She even asked about relationships. The point is that every question was answered timely and sincerely offering either good advice or a step by step recipe. As the author says, “her faith in customer service is restored and she will spend discretionary income at Zappos for the next ten years.”

Let us examine the other extreme. My wife and I took a United flight last week that was delayed 7 hours because of a mechanical issue. We boarded the plane and then had to get off. The pilot told us that there was a problem – that’s it. Obviously, if we had to deplane. There was no communication during the delay even to the extent that United employees didn’t know what was happening. Zero information about when the problem would be fixed, we might take off and no compassion for the passengers even though our lives were disrupted. We, the passengers, continually received texts with updates that were false, adding to the confusion. The experience could not have been any worse.

What surprised me is about two years ago I wrote a blog about an agent from United who was “perfect” and created a memorable experience for every passenger in a similar situation. He communicated comprehensive information with confidence and even a sense of humor. Basically, he treated the passengers as “people”. At the time, United thanked me for writing the blog, acknowledged the rep, and hung the blog for all to see in the associate break room.

Perhaps, instead of just hanging the blog, United should have incorporated what the rep did for every employee so that every customer could benefit from good customer service.

As noted, the above are two extreme examples of customer service. As a businessperson, I could not recommend to our clients that they replicate the Zappos philosophy of answering any question that is posed. However, Zappos clearly has an outstanding reputation because they empower their employees to make customers happy, providing them with the tools and training to make intelligent decisions, and Zappos hires the right people. The customer, Haley, who pushed the envelope and received the ultimate service delivery, made her point and tested the system.

United, as the case for many airlines, doesn’t seem to have SOP’s (Standard Operating Procedures) in place about the best way to communicate to passengers about delays and other travel impediments. What I don’t understand is that providing customers with additional and useful information costs zero dollars but the return on investment is priceless. Seems so simple.

In 2009, Zappos was acquired by Amazon. I’m hoping that in the near future, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, will decide to purchase United. I would love to be a fly (no pun intended) on the wall to see how they would merge the two customer service models.

What do you think would happen?