Customer Service: Can You Kill Your Company with Kindness?

Foam #1 Finger As content director for Arment Dietrich and Spin Sucks, I get to travel every so often. This weekend Gini Dietrich and I flew to Ottawa for the Social Capital Conference, where Gini was keynoting.

Living in downtown Toronto, I always fly Porter Airlines. Porter is a boutique airline that flies out of city center Toronto, literally a 15 minute walk from the financial district and tourist areas. Catering to the business traveller, the airline prides itself on its white-glove customer service and amenities – harkening back to the good old days of air travel when the customer was treated like gold.

Flying Porter is truly exceptional. Until it isn’t.

Fails and Frustration

Last Thursday there was a kerfuffle at the check in desks. From what I gathered, a young lady’s booking couldn’t be found. Unfortunately, they only had one check in counter staffed, and that person spent an inordinate amount of time on this one issue. Other check in clerks casually meandered about doing anything but check ins. The line up behind me grew and grew, and people became more and more frustrated.

My first (angry) thought was “Come on Porter! This is not how you do business!” My second thought was “Ha! If I were at Pearson right now (Toronto’s international airport) this wouldn’t even be a blip on anyone’s frustration radar.” Pearson is notorious for crowds, delays and lineups (though from what I hear not as bad as O’Hare is). It would have to get REALLY bad at Pearson for people to start protesting.

This experience got me thinking. Might it actually be detrimental for companies to provide top-notch customer service?

We Try Harder

Then at dinner that night the subject of being number two versus number one came up. How difficult it is to be on top, and remain there. How people instinctively start to poke and dig in order to topple the winners (here in Canada we call that “Tall Poppy Syndrome”). Naturally, someone mentioned the classic Avis car rental campaign: We’re Number Two. We Try Harder. What a wonderful position to be in, right? Things can only go up, and people really aren’t expecting to much from you. I mean sheesh. It’s not like you’re number one! That ad campaign – and I would posit the fact they weren’t trying to maintain top dog status – saved Avis from certain financial ruin, and they continued to use the slogan for 50 years before finally dropping it last year.

No Really. Email me.

Then on my flight home, while reading the newspaper, I came across a full pager from the newly appointed CEO of Canadian Tire. For those of you not up on your Canadian business icons, Canadian Tire opened in 1922 and is Canada’s largest retailer. It is said 90 percent of all Canadians live within a 15-minute drive of a Canadian Tire store; nine out of ten adult Canadians shop there at least twice a year; and 40 percent of Canadians do so every week.

It was a nice introductory ?ªletter to Canadians’, his customers, highlighting the many things Canadian Tire stores do to give back to their communities etc. Then I read the last sentence: “…if you ever feel that isn’t the case, send me an email at (email address) and I will make sure your feedback is heard.”

The newly minted CEO of one of Canada’s largest businesses just gave out his company email address. To all of Canada. Incredible marketing move. Very human of him to do so. Clearly, he cares. But wait. What? When did things like this start happening? What about when he can’t respond to the deluge of emails. How soon before people start getting upset and angry when their buddy CEO Allen doesn’t get back to them for a few days? (I know, I’m sure he has systems in place, and he won’t be personally responding, but still…!)

Once again, can customer service be too good? Are businesses setting themselves up for bigger fails and face-palms by trying to be the kings of customer service?

Loyalty and Trust

I figured I would go to the customer service king of FeedBlitz, Phil Hollows, and ask him.

Phil Hollows: “Short answer – yes. Because if you drop the ball it is more visible. Especially if to date customer service has been a differentiator. What can offset that is loyalty and trust – so if you have built that over time, customers can be more forgiving if things get bad for a while. But obviously there are limits to the reservoirs of good will. And to not exhaust those reservoirs you have to recognize the issue, deal with it, and communicate that you’re dealing with it.”

Ok, pretty simple, and I 100% agree with Phil. The biggest issue I had while waiting in that airport lineup was the lack of communication. We didn’t know what was going on, or how much longer we would have to stand there (im)patiently. Even a simple “Hey, sorry everyone, we have another person opening up in ten minutes” would have helped. But, as Phil also mentioned, I’m a loyal, borderline rabid Porter Airlines fan, and that won’t change with the odd misstep.

I’m curious to hear what you think. Certainly there’s a fine line. One doesn’t want to purposely provide BAD customer service.

But that said, have customers’ expectations – and the bar – been raised too high?

Lindsay Bell is the content director at Arment Dietrich, and works in Toronto. A former TV producer, she’s a strong advocate of three minutes or less of video content. She has a cool kid, a patient husband, two annoying cats, and just welcomed Hank, a Vizsla/Foxhound cross, into her home.


  1. Gini Dietrich says:

    When Steve Jobs was alive, I was always interested when he’d answer emails. Of course, if he didn’t agree with you, he’d tell you so, no matter how valuable you might be to Apple, but the mere fact that he did answer them was pretty incredible. Like your Canadian Tire guy, though, he had a process in place. He didn’t answer all of the emails, but when he did, it was a big deal. Notice the verbiage, “I will make sure your feedback is heard.” That means, “I can’t answer them all myself, but I will make sure someone does.”

    I think this is also an issue of scale…and something we’ve talked about before with Phil (hi Phil!). You can’t scale a person’s time so you have to use technology and find other ways to make it work.

    • Lindsay Bell says:

      Oh, I agree, I have no illusions that the CEO of Canadian Tire will actually be answering all of those emails, and Gini, I have to give you PR props for noticing that finely worded verbiage! LOL But still, pretty cool, and a sign once again of the changing times when it comes to customer service.

  2. Phil Hollows says:

    Hi Gini! Great post, Lindsay, even if you spoiled it by uncluding a quote from me ;)

    I think Gini’s point about communication not being the same as agreeing with, or accomodating, is exactly right. As to scale – yup! And Gini herself has a great post this morning on that topic here:

    • Lindsay Bell says:

      Your comment was perfect Phil – just what I needed to prove my point – one CAN get in too deep by being perfect (trust me. I know. ;) ) – however, most people will forgive a misstep or two in order to get such stellar service 99% of the time. Again, proving the power of building community and brand loyalty among your consumers!

  3. Rebecca Todd says:

    Great post Ell Bee! Imagine that Yanks don’t even know how the arrival of the weekly Canadian Tire flyer is cause for a family gathering. If you dare toss it before my Redneck Bro reads every line, there will be trouble!

    This is a tough one for me. I struggle to hand off any customer contact to anyone, even reliable team members. But I was just looking at my thousands of customer records, and realizing the day is nigh where I will have to do just that. So far, our strength has been in the whole Avis thing- we are number two, number one is a monolith and ain’t going anywhere. That works for us- the differences between us give our customers choice in who they want to deal with and why.

    We take great pride in our personal customer contact, and just today we dropped the ball. A team mate spelled one of my customers name’s wrong. He shot back with a note asking if this typifies our attention to detail. My colleague was so upset, came to me directly. So I stepped out of my meeting and wrote back to him immediately, taking ownership, but also cracking a joke and reminding him of a great chat we had recently. He replied kindly, and all is well. Yes- mistakes are going to happen. But dealing with your mistakes openly and directly just gives you another chance to demonstrate your value.

    • Lindsay Bell says:

      Oh Rebecca – the Canadian Tire flyer is right up there with the Loblaws one in this household! LOL Loved your story (though sorry it happened) and funnily enough I am on the side of the customer. While it seems like such a trivial thing (and I would never get snarky at someone about it), it speaks volumes about doing your research and double checking your work. That said, you handled it brilliantly – as you mention above, dealing with mistakes openly and directly demonstrates your value – but dealing with them *immediately* raises you to a higher level all together! Mistakes happen, most people understand that (the whole glass houses/stones thing) but I’m sure it made that person’s day to get such prompt personal attention from you. And *that* is what will stick in his mind, NOT the original error. Well done my friend! :D

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