What makes for good service

Last reviewed: July 2011

Stellar service starts with the person in charge, industry consultant Abelson says. If he or she is truly interested in customer service, the company will provide an easy-to-find phone number that consumers can call at all reasonable hours to speak with a representative who’s in a position to help.

To see what differentiates the best from the rest, we had our mystery shoppers anonymously contact a handful of companies and record their attempts to get an answer to a simple question. Most experiences were pleasant, but some weren’t perfect. Among the lows—and highs:

At USAirways, one of our losers for customer service, an automated voice told a caller that she’d be on hold for about 3 minutes, yet she waited almost 20. At a Walmart, a caller was disconnected while waiting to find out whether a certain coffeemaker was available. When she called back, the rep checked a computer and said, gruffly, that the item wasn’t in stock. He checked the sales floor only when asked, then admitted there were “a few on the shelf” but didn’t offer to set one aside.

On the other hand, reps at L.L.Bean and Zappos were quick and courteous. Asked whether the company would fix an old, broken duffel bag, L.L.Bean reps offered to replace the bag or refund the price. Asked about shoe sizes, Zappos reps answered fast. For one shopper, even the Zappos phone tree was fun. One option: “Press 5 to hear joke of the day.” (“What kind of shorts do clouds wear? Thunderwear!”)