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5 unconventional approaches to customer service

5 unconventional approaches to customer service Greg Kihlström

We all know how important customer service is to our organizations, and we can certainly share some examples of our own experiences doing a good (or bad) job. While there are things we should always keep in mind (e.g., "the customer is always right"), it is good to explore some more unconventional approaches to customer service.

5 unconventional approaches to customer service

The following are five examples of how several brands have taken a unique approach to customer service -- and how you can apply these ideas to your own customers.

Make customer service everyone's job (Zappos)

Think customer service isn't part of your job? Try working at Zappos!

It's no surprise that Zappos has a great understanding of customer service in its corporate culture. The brand requires every new hire in its corporate office to undergo four weeks of customer service training, meaning they spend about a month taking customer service calls in the Zappos call center. Because of this, absolutely everyone has first-hand experience and a good appreciation for the needs of customers, as well as an understanding of how important they are to the company.

Zappos is so well-known for its customer service that it now provides training for other companies through a three-day boot camp and the Insights blog, both all about customer service.

How you can apply it to your company
While you may not have the resources to give everyone a month of training or to start a division of your company solely dedicated to customer service, you can still find ways to instill a healthy customer service mentality in your employees.

Get your customers involved in product development (Hyatt, Starbucks)

Who better to help you develop new and innovative products or new ways to use existing ones than the customers who use them every day?

In mid-2012, Hyatt started using nine of its locations as testing grounds for some of its innovative ideas. While not all of the ideas were successful, what better way to test out new ideas that could cost millions of dollars once implemented than on a small scale with immediate feedback? Since Hyatt began its program, many hotels have followed suit and used similar methods of gathering customer feedback on a more localized basis.

Starbucks' My Starbucks Idea provides a forum for customers to provide not only ideas for new products, but ways to improve stores, processes, and other aspects of the company. With well over 150,000 ideas submitted, it's obvious that the brand's customers have a lot on their minds. Many new products and ideas have come from this initiative.

How you can apply it to your company
Don't have a couple of locations you can turn into product development labs? Don't worry; you can still get ideas from customers that help with developing products, tailoring services, or improving customer service. Even with free social media tools, you can gather this insight and reward your customers for their participation.

Listen to your toughest customers (Marlin Steel)

Sick of people complaining? Be careful, they might be your most valuable customers.

Marlin Steel, a company that specialized in the manufacturing of bagel baskets for franchise bagel shops, learned that by moving up-market to producing metal baskets for the likes of Boeing and Pfizer, they were going to run into some more demanding situations. Along the way, they ran into more than a few difficult customers. They quickly learned that sometimes the most difficult customers can provide valuable insight, push you to be your best, and even turn into the most loyal long-term partners.

Instead of backing away from the opportunity to grow the company and reach a new, much more profitable customer base, Marlin Steel approached it head on and took every opportunity to learn along the way. By doing so, the revenue has grown tremendously, and the company has found a sustainable business model.

How you can apply it to your company
Most successful companies are going to have a lot of happy customers and (generally) only a few difficult ones. Instead of treating these difficult ones as annoyances or flukes, take the time to understand them and what is causing their issues. You might discover that even your happiest customers could be even happier if you would address the issues the less-than-happy group is having.

Crowdsource your customer support (Telstra)

Who knows your product better: a newly-hired customer service rep or a customer that has been supporting your brand for years?

Australian telecommunications company Telstra's CrowdSupport "Videos by You" campaign puts customer service in the hands of the company's most loyal customers. These videos contain varied subject matter and were generated by real customer questions or issues. By providing a contest with monthly themes, Telstra was able to solicit some great content from its customers, allowing real customers to help and solve other customers' problems.

How you can apply it to your company
There are many great opportunities to get feedback from your customers. Finding a way to share this feedback in a way that allows your customers to help one another is a win-win. Telstra's contest idea was a great one, as was the idea of giving some constraints on what the subject matter could be. Other companies use online forums or social media for this.

Have a sense of humor (Netflix)

Does good customer service require a complex, enterprise-wide change? Sometimes the simplest tactic in your customer service arsenal can make a big difference.

Recently, Mike Mears, a Netflix customers service rep, gained national attention by engaging in a chat with a customer while "in character" as a Star Trek captain. The conversation itself was viewed by many after it was shared on Reddit and Mike even appeared alongside William Shatner on national television.

This was not a complete one-off for Netflix, though. Its customer service philosophy is a little different than other companies. With fewer restrictions on what employees can say and little to no pressure to up-sell or try to talk customers out of cancelling their service, employees are free to be creative, just as long as they can solve their customers' problems. Beyond just the use of humor where appropriate, customer service is so central to the culture of Netflix that even CEO Reed Hastings reportedly still answers customer questions from time to time.

While impersonating a Star Trek captain may get a company like Netflix some good press, you obviously need to be careful of how you might apply this idea to your own company. There are certain situations and subjects that would make this type of humor inappropriate, but carefully applied, it can be a great opportunity to connect with your customers.

How you can apply it to your company
This is certainly an approach to tread lightly with, but given the right circumstances, throwing in some humor can make a tedious process enjoyable and leave a positive impression in your customers' minds.


As you can see, there are a number of ways that your company can create better relationships with customers, and from these stories, you can see that companies that took a chance on these new methods also gained even more happy customers.

Hopefully, these five examples inspire you to give your own company's customer service a boost. Even if you can't change your processes quite as much as these companies did, there are some good lessons to learn. An unconventional approach can lead to happier customers, more engaged interactions, and even new product ideas.

Greg Kihlström is VP of digital strategy at Carousel30.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"A service bell in a hotel" image via Shutterstock.

Greg is SVP of Digital at Yes&, a performance-driven marketing agency in the Washington, DC region. He was founder and CEO of Carousel30, a digital agency he started in 2003 which was acquired in late 2017 by PCI Communications which, together...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Carl Hartman

2014, January 21

I've had my customers doing most of these kind of things for years, so I am not sure how these are new or innovative. I tell all of them, the customer experience should be like Disneyland. Customer Service should always be an amazing experience and want you coming back over and over. Everyone is a cast member. Tell your story through the words of your raving fans. Most of this stuff is just basic good customer service that has been around for many years.