How to Foster a Make-it-Right Customer Service Culture

Enabling and Empowering Employees to Think on Their Feet

Nearly 20 years ago, I embarked on what would become an 11-year sales career with Rosenthal Acura. It was the mid-1990s and I felt I’d lucked out. You see, after having spent the previous 8 years in the hospitality industry, I was now working for a luxury auto dealer that genuinely focused on … hospitality. We would eventually become the “poster child” for Acura in the United States – not based on our high volume of sales, though. It was based largely on receiving high marks from clients. Our fanatical, dealership-wide attention to the client experience consistently earned us top C.S.I. (Customer Satisfaction Index) rankings.

Within my first 18 months with the organization, David, our general manager, rolled out an employee empowerment program. Simply put, this meant that every staff member – from the janitor to the courtesy shuttle driver to the service manager – could spend up to $100 to fix a customer problem and reach resolution. No approval needed. No questions asked. Just make it right. What did that mean for the client? If you were the client and …

  • Got tire-shine on your pants while standing too close to a display car, we paid for your dry cleaning
  • Discovered a scratch on your door after having the car in for an oil change, we had it buffed out (often while you waited)
  • Drove an hour to purchase a rare car part that was no longer in stock, we called around, located the part, brought it in, and shipped it (next-day, at no additional charge) to your home or office

For the record, I don’t recall being given specific examples like these to draw from. We simply knew that the spirit of the program was to (quickly) make things right for the customer and create a WOW experience.

“Whatever you do, DO NOT open the elevator doors.”

I recently read the firsthand account of a hotel guest who was (1 of 12) trapped in the elevator. Instead of trying to help 12 panicked patrons, the hotel staff chose to look out for the company’s interests. You can read the entire story here, but to summarize, the guests could have easily rescued themselves by prying the doors open, but the hotel made them wait until a repairman showed up. Why? The hotel didn’t want to risk having to foot the bill if something went wrong mechanically, as a result of those guests’ efforts. Wine & cheese were later delivered as what they must have felt were appropriate “Apology Offerings.”

Having read the remarkable hotel elevator story…

You might agree that instead of being empowered to do the right thing for their guests, this hotel’s staff was more focused on operating costs.

I can only imagine their “Make-it-right chart” looking something like this:

  • Your kid loses his teddy bear; we’ll give him a grape soda. If we happen to be out of grape soda, your kid gets an oatmeal raisin cookie.
  • We gave away your reservation; we’ll give you a couple of free oatmeal raisin cookies. If you’re still upset, we’ll throw in a shuttle ride to nearest Motel6.
  • You get trapped in our elevator; we’ll bring some wine and cheese up to your room (but not our high-end stuff). Don’t drink? Lactose intolerant? We have plenty of oatmeal raisin cookies.

Had those hotel employees been empowered to make decisions that put their guests’ well-being, interests, and personal safety before anything else, the outcome (and the stories that followed) would likely be more – shall we say – flattering.

Bottom Line: Define It

It’s not enough to declare that you provide world-class customer service. It’s not enough to have your staff sign off on a formal employee manual and job description. It’s not even enough to have thoughtful hiring standards in place. These aren’t bad ideas, but the rubber doesn’t meet the road until you have effective communication, employee empowerment, and an implementation plan to put your policies to work.

You must have regular conversations that encourage and invite your staff to define impeccable customer service. You must discuss scenarios – real or made-up – that force your employees to think critically and shape solutions. And this must all take place with a spirit of humanity and genuine concern for the customer.

Remember: Your ultimate goal is to make every customer feel 1) taken care of, and; 2) as if you’ve thought of everything. This can only result from regular trainings and conversations on the topic. Remarkable, impeccable, noteworthy, world-class customer service isn’t an initiative, it’s a quest; a relentless pursuit.

Your Turn

Have you seen or been part of a situation where the company clearly acted only in its own best interest? Share your stories in the comment section below…


  1. John Linderman says

    As always, great stuff, Steve. I have always been a fan of what I call the “and then some” approach to customer satisfaction. Once you have satisfied the customer by making it right – do one more thing to exceed the expectation. In the restaurant business, it was always my policy that if we messed up the meal for a guest that was in a party of two, I would buy both entree’s. I would say – “You all came in to eat together, and we took that away from you. So not only are we taking care of your meal (the one that w messed up) but we are gong to take of yours also. Then I would look at the other parton and apologize. This is the expectation, whether you realize it or not, this is not “the exceeding” – they came in to eat together. By buying only one meal, you are just making up for your own failure. Then – as they were leaving – I would give each one a $10 gift card for their next visit. This is the “and then some” or the exceeding. In the restaurant business, you alway strive to get repeat business. This strategy was designed to do a few things.
    1. Atone for our mistake
    2. Accept responsibility for compromising their experience.
    3. Ensure that the story they tell – which they will – ends on a positive note
    4. Get’s them to come back
    5. Hopefully have a guest for life.

  2. Steve Dorfman says

    Wow, John. Simply outstanding. The restaurant business needs you back, my friend.


  1. […] patients, users, etc. do not expect you to be perfect, but they do expect you to work with them to make things right, to reach resolution, to recover quickly. (And you are likely to receive major bonus points when do […]

  2. […] you’ve had to endure. We’ve clearly dropped the ball and would love to have the opportunity to make it right for […]

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