I recently bought a custom picture frame from Pictureframes.com that suffered significant damage in transit to my doorstep. I braced myself for an inconvenient return process: the frame was large and awkwardly-sized, and would certainly be expensive to repackage and ship back to the framer.

Imagine my surprise, then, when after just a few minutes of emailing back and forth, a replacement frame was already being built for me. I sent a photo of the damaged frame, and the customer service agent told me I could “feel free to donate or discard it,” but there was no need to send it back.

In a climate where return authorization numbers and restocking fees are increasingly common characteristics of a difficult and inconvenient return process, this experience served as a refreshing reminder of how customer service should feel: like the company’s first priority. They responded immediately, shouldered all the responsibility, and exceeded my expectations, leaving me a happy customer.

I ordered several more custom frames from them soon after.

When it comes to customer service, author and entrepreneur Seth Godin calls for a self-evaluation: Does your business exist to serve its customers, or do your customers exist to serve your business? Many organizations, having lost sight of the meaning of the phrase “customer service,” have come to focus on the value of the customer rather than on service to the customer. This distinction–a subtle but important one–is the hidden enemy of a successful customer service strategy.

In an organization that is truly customer-oriented, however, the priorities are reversed: as was the case in my interaction with Pictureframes.com, a focus on first providing the customer with a good experience often results in that satisfied customer becoming a brand advocate.

What qualities demonstrate a focus on service to customers?

  • Immediacy: When customers have questions or concerns, businesses should be prepared to act. Instant Checkmate, for example, provides answers to questions on their Facebook page within hours.
  • Empowerment: Giving customers the tools to help themselves, such as a comprehensive FAQ section on your site, often contributes to a successful customer service strategy. However, employees must also be empowered to help customers when necessary. My experience with Pictureframes.com “worked” because the first representative I spoke to had the autonomy to solve my problem immediately.
  • Personalization: Studies show that customers still prefer interaction with live representatives over other customer service channels. Creating a personal connection builds rapport and trust and makes customers feel like people rather than prospects. Zappos is legendary in this department: they once, for example, sent flowers to a customer who had been too distracted by her mother’s death to return a pair of shoes.

It’s easy to dismiss customer-driven customer service strategies like these as overly idealistic. Dissenters will likely want to remind wishful thinkers of the bottom line: the goal of the business is to make money. But prioritizing the transaction and viewing the customer experience as merely a means to an end is the wrong approach. A shift in thinking to focus on the customer first will lead to a more organic transaction that ultimately benefits everyone.

This post was originally published on the award-winning Desk.com blog.

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