The Golden Rules of Customer Service

For businesses that want to succeed, customer service is no longer an option. It’s a requirement. Customers may initially choose you because of your product or service. But they will stick with you (or not) because of the service that you provide. And that creates a domino effect. The more happy customers you have, the better reviews your business will get and the more customers you will get in return.

Lee Cockerell, author of The Customer Rules: The 39 Essential Rules for Delivering Sensational Service, agrees wholeheartedly. And if there’s someone who knows a thing or two about customer service, it’s Cockerell. After all, as the former Executive Vice President of Operations for the Walt Disney World Resort, it was his job to deliver excellent customer service day in and day out.

In this blog post, I’d like to review each of the 39 customer rules that Cockerell talks about in his book. You may find that you and your team members are already following some of the rules…while other rules might seem blindingly obvious to you. But chances are, there are at least a few rules that you (and the people you work with) aren’t already following—at least not 100%.

And at the end of the day, there are always ways to improve upon your customer service. 

Rule #1: Customer Service Isn’t a Department

The first rule of The Customer Rules is that customer service is not a department. It’s everyone’s responsibility—yes, even those who don’t work in client-facing roles.

Rule #2: You Win Customers One at a Time and Lose Them a Thousand at a Time

It’s not easy to gain customers. But it sure is easy to lose them. Nowadays, thanks to social media and online reviews, if you lose one customer, you can easily lose many more at the same time. Even just one negative review or tweet can taint the image of your business.

Rule #3: Great Service Follows the Law of Gravity

Customer service flows from the top, which means that leaders must “create the right agenda, allocate the necessary resources, establish the appropriate priorities, and set the proper tone. The best of those leaders also serve as role models…”

Rule #4: Don’t Get Bored with the Basics

Cleanliness, personal appearance/hygiene…clear communication, thoughtfulness and knowledge…these are the five basic things that Cockerell mentions that many businesses unfortunately neglect to think much about.

One time last year, I went to get my car serviced at a shop in San Diego. The man who worked there was so nice and when I went back several weeks later, he remembered not only who I was but little things about me that I had mentioned the first time around. For that reason, I wrote him and the shop a stellar review and highly recommended him to my colleague who was also looking for a car repair shop. His attentiveness and kindness stuck out in my mind and was the reason that I wanted to go back.

Rule #5: Ask Yourself, “What Would Mom Do?”

You know those old sayings that your mom used to tell you when you were growing up? Apply them to your customer service. For instance, think about the adage: treat others as you would like to be treated. Then ask yourself: How do you like to be treated as a customer? Are you treating your customers the same way?

Rule #6: Be an Ecologist

As the author talks about, think of your organization like an ecosystem. Everything you do affects your customer service, from the decisions that you make and the people you hire to “every back you slap” and “every hand you shake.”

Like any good ecosystem, you need to let your organization “self-regulate,” as an ecosystem does. To that end, the author recommends that you hire the right people and then make sure that your employees have the knowledge, training and resources to excel on their own.

Rule #7: Look Sharp

First impressions mean a lot. And the way that we look affects the way that we feel. So set some guidelines for how your employees should dress and look—and then make sure that they actually abide by those guidelines.

Rule #8: Always Act Like a Professional

Professionalism is not about your job title; it’s about the way that you carry yourself and how you behave around your customers. The unfortunate reality is that some of you out there may hate your job. Or maybe you see it only as a stepping-stone to something else. Whatever the case, put your all into it. Care about the work that you do, and it will pay off in the end.

Rule #9: Hire the Best Cast

The author talks about how many interviews are “counterproductive” and “make it easy for the person on the other end to respond in a positive way.”

For example, the answer to the question “Tell me about a time when you went above and beyond to satisfy a customer” doesn’t reveal much. Because everyone can find at least one example of when they went above and beyond at work. But that one example doesn’t tell you, the employer, what that candidate is like on a day-to-day basis. Instead, phrase your questions in a more open-ended way, like “Tell me about a specific time you had to deal with an irate customer.”

Remember: Skills can always be taught. Hire people for their attitude instead.

Rule #10: Be Your Own Shakespeare

Write out a script or story for how things should play out with your customers, from start to finish. For example, if your business is a clothing store, your script might start with the following: A couple walks into the store. The sales clerk immediately greets them with a cheerful “Hi folks! How are you doing today?” And then asks them if there is anything she/he can help them find…

Get as detailed as possible in your story description. The more detailed you are, the easier it will be to visualize the story taking place. And visualization is the key to turning something into reality. Once you have completed the script, send it around to everyone you work with so that they too can visualize (and eventually act out) how things should unfold.

Rule #11: Become an Expert at Creating Experts

If your employees aren’t knowledgeable about your company and its products/services, how can they properly answer any questions that your customers might have?

As the author talks about, “experts serve customers quickly; non-experts tend to ramble on and beat around the bush.” Often, they “beat around the bush” because they don’t know the answer to something. So train your employees to become experts, so that they will be able to answer any questions thrown their way. And make sure that your employees are all on the same page, so that you don’t have two employees giving out different answers.

Rule #12: Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse

In order to make sure that your employees are “experts,” get them to role-play customer and employee and act out different scenarios (like where the customer has a question and the employee must respond or the customer is upset about a situation and the employee must react). You might find that some of your employees are unprepared, unknowledgeable about a certain topic or unaware of a certain policy or procedure.

Rule #13: Expect More to Get More

Keep your expectations high at all times. Expect nothing less than the very best from everyone that you work with (and yourself).

Rule #14: Treat Customers the Way You’d Treat Your Loved Ones

Think about what you would do if you were serving a good friend or family member, and treat your customer the same way. Would you make sure that their coffee is still hot before giving it to them? Would you spend just a few more minutes getting something just right?

And remember to also treat your employees the same way you treat your customers (or loved ones), with “ARE” or appreciation, recognition and encouragement. If you treat your customers well, then they will put more effort into their roles and end up providing your customers with excellent service.

Rule #15: Be Like a Bee

Walt Disney once compared himself to a bee that “flits from flower to flower, taking a little pollen here and a little pollen there, and I build up all the honey in the honeycomb.” Everyone at your company should be like that bee, always questioning how things are done and what can be done better. As the author states, “whatever your position in the company, you are both the bee and the flower.”

Rule #16: Know the Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth

Never assume that your customers are satisfied. Chances are, there are things that you can improve upon—even if your customers don’t admit it. Push for answers, and when you get them, keep track of them. What are people complaining about? Are they things that you can change?

Rule #17: Listen Up

I don’t know about you, but I know that when I am talking to someone who is only half-listening or seems uninterested in what I’m saying, I frankly don’t feel like speaking anymore.

The key is to really listen and not just hear. In order to really listen, you need to first make sure that you are in a quiet place conducive to listening. Get rid of the distractions around you and devote 100% of your attention to the person you’re speaking with. Take notes; don’t interrupt or react right away; ask questions as needed; and at the end, paraphrase what was said.

And as Cockerell mentions, also listen to what that person doesn’t say. If you feel like they are holding back from saying something, try to gently encourage them to speak up.

Rule #18: Be a Copycat

Look at what other businesses are doing well (both competitors in your industry, as well as those outside of your industry), and think about the ways that you can apply those things to your company. Better yet, how can you do it even better than they’re doing?

Rule #19: Fish Where the Fishermen Ain’t

Likewise, you should also be looking at what your competitors aren’t doing and thinking about how you can fulfill those unmet needs. For example, I found that Enterprise rental car is the only rental car agency to offer both pick-up and drop-off for customers. As a customer, this makes a big difference and personally, I would choose a car rental agency just for that, even if it cost me a few dollars more in the end. Enterprise found a way to differentiate themselves from all the other car rental agencies out there—and are therefore able to price their cars higher.

As the author mentions, you can also do the opposite of what your competitor is doing. For instance, if they have a massive selection, you can go more niche. If they are open from 9-5, you can be open from 8-6. Get creative.

Rule #20: Be a Wordsmith—Language Matters

Pay attention to the words that you use both internally and externally, since they can have a big impact. The author points out how certain words like “subordinates’ have a negative connotation…The phrase “How can I help you?” is better than “what can I do for you?” and “It’s my pleasure” is nicer than “no problem.”

Rule #21: Make Yourself Available

When all is said and done, customers just want to be heard. To that end, make sure that there is always someone available to answer phone calls, including managers. There might be an issue that an employee is not equipped to deal with and the customer isn’t going to want to sit on hold for a while or be told that the manager is unavailable to talk. Whether you’re CEO or an intern, get out there “on the field” like Disney does (they have a policy in which frontline managers must spend 80% of their time out in the park).

Cockerell follows his own advice; he makes himself so available that he even gives out his cell phone number on his website and promises to answer the phone himself every time.

Rule #22: Always Be the Giving One

Are you providing “services” or “service”? Hopefully it’s the latter, first and foremost. “Services” are the things that you are providing your customer with, whereas “service” is the actual act of serving a customer directly…and not expecting anything in return.

Rule #23: If They Say They Want Horses, Give Them a Motorcar

Here’s the thing: Your customers don’t know what they want. Before touch screen phones were invented, everyone was content with flip phones. Before cars were invented, people were fine riding horses around. That’s precisely why your organization should constantly be thinking about what types of things your customers might want in the future. Innovate. Think ahead.

Or think about what they might want right now. For instance, Cockerell gives the example of how he walked into a shop and was offered some coffee. For that reason, he continued to return. Anticipate the needs of your customers and then do your best to meet them.

Rule #24: Don’t Just Make Promises, Make Guarantees

Guarantees are essentially promises that you are making to your customers. Put your guarantee in writing and post it for everyone to see.

Note that guarantees should not come with exceptions. Otherwise, what’s the point? Also, make sure that the guarantee is something that’s meaningful to your customers. For instance, if you are a fresh market selling health food, then your customers will appreciate a guarantee that states something like “If you find a food item in this store that isn’t fresh, then bring it to the checkout counter and we will give you a fresh version of the item free of charge.”

Don’t make empty promises. Be sure that you provide a way for customers to reach you should they want to take advantage of your guarantee. Don’t make it complicated for them to redeem.

Rule #25: Treat Every Customer Like a Regular

 Have you ever bought a Groupon and, when you go in to redeem it, find that the company treats you differently? This is a common complaint that many people have when using Groupons. And this is exactly what you and your employees should not do. I never understand why this is so often the case either. How is that going to make someone want to return when they are being treated substandard?

Whether an employee has been a frequent customer for many years or whether they are a first-time customer redeeming a Groupon, treat each person with the same courtesy and respect. Treat them like a VIP.

Rule #26: Serve to WIN

At every point in time, you should be asking yourself: What is important now? (WIN). When in doubt, remember that the customer comes first, and everything else is secondary.

Rule #27: Make ASAP Your Standard Deadline

When getting something done for your customer, a good rule of thumb is to get it done ASAP. Don’t put it off. But when providing them with an ETA, it’s always a good idea to overestimate the ETA rather than underestimate. If something will take two days to complete, tell your customer that it will take five days. That will not only give you a bit more leeway in case something goes wrong, but your customer will also be pleasantly surprised when the task is completed earlier than anticipated.

Rule #28: Know the Difference Between Needs and Wants

Your customer comes to you because they have certain needs. But they stick with you because you fulfill not just their needs, but their wants too. You might go to a restaurant for the first time because you are hungry and need to eat. But you go back to that restaurant because you want to eat the food again…or you liked the ambiance…or the service was excellent.

As the author explains, needs are practical, whereas wants are generally emotional. Disney surveyed 6,000 of its guests and asked them what they expected when they came to Disney. Their top four wants were: “Make us feel special. Treat us as individuals. Show respect to us. Be knowledgeable.”

Businesses that only respond to needs are going to lose in the end; if you want to hold on to your customers and keep them coming back for more, you’ve got to find out their wants—and respond to them.

Rule #29: Have a Geek on Your Team

In this day and age, Cockerell notes that it’s crucial to have at least one person on your team who is tech-oriented and can still provide great customer service.

Rule #30: Be Relentless About Details

It’s the little things that count. The author recommends using checklists to make sure that you don’t forget anything. You should also create specific policies and procedures for your organization, and more importantly, make sure that everyone is aware of those policies and procedures. Company-wide communication and dissemination of information is key. Encourage your employees to look out for any possible issues that arise and give them the freedom to be able to easily report them.

Bottom line: never assume that things are working smoothly, just because they were the day before. Treat each day different from the last and always have your antenna up for potential or current issues, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem.

Rule #31: Be Reliable

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Can your customers count on you? Or do you (or your employees) flake out, deliver things late or not return phone calls and emails as quickly as you should? Reliability is also about consistency. You may deliver things on time 90% of the time, but if you are unreliable even just 10% of the time, your customers will start to look elsewhere for business.

Rule #32: Don’t Give the Responsibility Without the Authority

You can give your employees all the responsibility in the world, but if you don’t give them the authority to make certain decisions, then what’s the point?

Give your employees the authority to make certain decisions without having to consult you. When I called Amazon recently about a package that had been delivered to the wrong address (the post office’s fault, not Amazon’s), the customer service rep that I spoke to offered to send me a free Amazon gift card for the inconvenience. And she didn’t have to speak to her manager to do so. Turns out, every customer service representative at Amazon can send a free gift card or credit a credit card without having to ask the permission of their supervisor.

The author claims that, “it’s not the problem that drives customers away; it’s the way that you resolve the problem.”

The solution? Survey your employees and find out what problems they deal with on a regular basis. Then figure out a solution and give your employees the authority to deal with those problems on their own, without having to consult you or another higher-level manager.

Rule #33: Never, Ever Argue with a Customer

As Cockerell states, “When you win an argument with a customer, in reality, you’ve both lost.”

Even if your customer is wrong about something, swallow your pride and apologize. Let them vent. Then acknowledge the problem, take responsibility for the situation, and apologize. Don’t make excuses. If you do, that will turn into an argument, and an argument is the quickest way to lose a customer, which is just not worth it.

Rule #34: Never Say No—Except “No Problem”

On that note, never use the word “no” with a customer. Focus instead on the positive and what you can offer them. For instance, if your customer is demanding that they receive a certain product that isn’t available, don’t tell them “no.” Instead, tell them, “We will place your order and notify you as soon as it’s in stock.” You see? It’s the way that you phrase things that makes all the difference.

For extremely angry customers who are demanding something that you simply can’t give them, the author recommends waiting a few days and then responding to them. That way, at least they will have cooled off a bit and will be in a better state of mind, so that when you offer them something that’s not as great as they were expecting, they will not be as upset.

Rule #35: Be Flexible

Companies that are inflexible are not the ones that gain and retain customers. Think about those stores that have a “no returns” policy or only provide the customer with store credit when they try to return something. Not exactly the best way to make customers happy, is it?

Create flexible policies and procedures. Moreover, treat each customer as a unique individual and when a problem arises, come up with a “creative solution” if need be—that’s the way to gain customer loyalty.

Nordstrom is the perfect example of that. In 1975, a man went to go return four snow tires that he had purchased several weeks earlier, but found that the tire shop that he had bought the tires from had been replaced by Nordstrom. Did this make a difference? Not in the slightest. The sales clerk accepted the tires as a return and refunded his money, no questions asked.

Rule #36: Apologize Like You Really Mean It

At some point, you or someone on your team will need to apologize to a customer. When you make that apology, be as sincere as possible—even if that means you have to fake it a bit. The medium of the apology will depend on how big the mistake was and who you are addressing. If it’s a more personal, long-term relationship, take that person out to lunch or dinner. If it’s someone you haven’t met in person before, a handwritten note or phone call will probably suffice.

Think about the timing, as well. In some cases, it might be best to wait until the customer has cooled off a bit. And when apologizing, do everything you can to amend the situation. Can you offer them something that they would appreciate? At the very least, promise them that it won’t happen again. And mean it.

Rule #37: Surprise Them with Something Extra

Think about the times that you have been surprised with a gift unexpectedly. And think about the times when you have been given a gift on your birthday. Which gift have you appreciated more? If you’re like most people, you’ve probably appreciated most the one that was unexpected. The same goes for your customers. Turns out, “our brains crave the excitement of surprise.”

If a customer ordered some wine from you, you could go ahead and throw in some chocolate, as well. Since they aren’t expecting it, a small gesture like that will be that much more appreciated. The point is to think about how you can create an element of surprise in some shape or form.

Rule #38: Keep Doing It Better

Growth is a continual journey with no endpoint. Stay present, and always be asking how you can do things better.

Rule #39: Don’t Try Too Hard

And after all is said and done, you don’t want to try so hard that you come off as desperate…or fake. Whether it’s in-person or online, stay alert for any cues that your customer gives you—but don’t go overboard.