Nine people’s favourite thing

August 12 2008 by Ellen Roseman

Spent last week in New York and caught the hot Broadway plays. We saw South Pacific, the revival of a 1949 Rodgers & Hammerstein musical; August: Osage County, the 2007 Tony award winner for drama; and Thurgood, a one-man show with Laurence Fishburne about the first black U.S. Supreme Court judge.

But the one that stuck with me was (title of show), a self-referential musical comedy about two guys writing a musical comedy. They performed it at a theatre festival in 2004, then had an off-Broadway production and finally made it to Broadway last month. It’s an inspiring story.

The show has a song that I can’t get out of my head.

I’d rather be nine people’s favorite thing
Than a hundred people’s ninth favorite thing

Those nine people will tell nine people
Then we’ll have eighteen people loving the show
Then eighteen people could grow into
Five-hundred and twenty-five-thousand, six-hundred people
All loving our show

It’s about viral marketing, says this blogger. I think it’s also about excellence. Companies succeed and prosper when they strive to be the very best at what they do, even if for a small audience, rather than aiming for bland, middle-of-the-road mediocrity.

Leonard Lee, the founder of Lee Valley Tools, springs to mind. He’s an entrepreneur who started his Ottawa-based mail order business for gardening and woodworking tools in 1978 and gained a worldwide reputation for service quality.

What bothers him most about the way business is conducted now, he told reporter Gordon Pitts in an interview published this week, is the outsourcing of customer service.

What I find most amazing is watching Canadian and American businesses farm out their customer service. You might as well put a gun to your head and pull the trigger. It’s Russian roulette if you farm it out.


Because the [outsource specialists] don’t know your business and they don’t know the culture. When you’ve farmed out customer service, you’ve lost the connection with the customer, and you will eventually die a horrible economic death.

So you will never outsource customer service?

Never. You will never find, I hope, a screened telephone call when you phone Lee Valley. Anybody who has called me in the past 30 years was put through without asking what they were calling about or what their name was.

When you have a customer who gets directly though to a senior officer in a firm, it’s like a dog that’s caught a car. The customer doesn’t know what to do now that he or she has hope.

They’ll say, ‘But I didn’t expect to get through to the president.’

‘Well, you got through. What can I do for you?’

‘Well, it wasn’t really that big of a problem.’

‘It must be a problem. What can we do?’

So you’ve won the battle just by not putting up screens and blockages between you and your customers.

Lee Valley is a $100 million company, not the multi-billion-dollar companies that draw hostile comments here for their lacklustre customer service. But the 70-year-old founder thinks it’s a myth that big firms have to outsource.

There are so many choices today, people ought to be able to rely on their suppliers. But if you can never get in touch with them, you can’t rely on them.

I’m still in awe of (title of show) and its clever marketing campaign, using YouTube and other online ways to build an audience and become nine people’s favourite thing.

So, indulge me. Tell me your stories of being knocked over by great customer service. What companies have you dealt with that exceeded your expectations and made your life more pleasurable and less stressful?


  1. brad

    Aug 13 2008

    Not a Canadian company, but I’ve been consistently impressed with L.L. Bean’s customer service. It was good in the 1960s and ’70s when my father was buying stuff from them, and it’s even better now.

    They answer email requests promptly (less than a day, in my experience), and they’ve called me at home to tell me about delays in my order or to tell me that a backordered item has shipped.

    I’m not actually a huge fan of their clothing and don’t order things from them very often, but when I do I’m always blown away by their customer service; it’s the best I’ve ever experienced.

  2. Lior

    Aug 13 2008

    Oh wow, I seriously can’t answer that question. All the companies I deal with are “blah” at best when it comes to customer service.

    My cellphone provider Fido may be a small exception, but even there I ran into some first class morons working the phones. And I should know superior service because I work in customer service myself. I try to make customers feel welcome, promptly handle any complaints they have without too much bull$%#@ and even cheer them up at times because I know that I would appreciate the same personalized service if I was a customer.

    I think the main reason why we don’t get high standards any longer is just the lack of training given to current generation of employees. It’s also partly because many companies these days don’t really care for their customers as much as for their shareholders. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, I know, because after all it is the customers who keep you in business in the first place. But that’s exactly how it is. Many companies find it more profitable to just farm out customer service to a third world country. They find it easier to have outsourcing firms in those countries bid on who can offer the lowest price.

    Most of the time, these offshore agents do not know the product well or the service, or the mentality of the people of the calls they’re handling. They are just there to answer the phone, quite often not in very coherent English, and even if they don’t resolve the problem, at least they can say that someone was on the other end of the line.

    That’s the mantra that many corporations abide by these days. It’s not about retention through superior customer service but rather market penetration through monopolization. They’d rather give you their product for a cheaper price and with that mediocre customer service than giving you a product for a slightly higher price but one that delivers superior customer service whenever you have any questions or run into problems.

    One example I can relate to is Dell Computers. Back in 1998, I paid $4,000 for a laptop that by today’s standards is just garbage. But every time I had an issue with the software or if I encountered any hardware failure, I called Dell’s support line and promptly spoke to an American agent who handled the call professionally and, if required, arranged for servicing.

    These days, I could get a far better laptop for about $1,000 or even less. But whenever I run into any sort of problems, instead of speaking right away with an intelligent human, I’m instead forwarded to third world countries where I get someone on the line who can barely speak English, reads a script about troubleshooting procedures that I already tried, and ultimately just spends ten minutes on the line verifying who I am!

    I don’t know about anyone else, but I’d rather pay a little more for that laptop and have far better customer service reps handling my issues than pay a little less and get a bunch of morons handling my calls and making my day even more miserable.

  3. Christine

    Aug 14 2008

    There are some good companies out there.

    I opened a single-serving size of Astro yogourt at lunch one day to find it was only half full. I filled out the on-line form and received a phone call within half an hour. The Customer Service Rep took my details, apologized and thanked me for informing them of this problem. They then sent $30 worth of coupons (really good ones!).

    Similar situation with Paderno. I contacted them regarding a lid that had broken on a new travel mug. Not only did they contact me back quickly, they asked the colour of the mug and replaced the whole thing (I would have been happy with a new lid).

    It’s obvious that these companies want my business.

  4. Joanna Alpajaro

    Aug 19 2008

    I am trying hard to think of a positive customer service story and sadly, I am unable to think of one.

    I am able to relate to the subpar performance and customer service of Sears these days, especially with their repair services. Whatever happened to the signs when you’d walk into Sears saying “Satisfaction guaranteed… or your money back”? They seem to have inexplicably disappeared, along with their commitment to customer service.

    We bought a Kitchen Aid stainless steel convection stove from Sears 5 years ago, along with one of their in-home comprehensive maintenance packages. From the first, the convection feature never seemed to work well. Two calls placed to maintenance over a three year period and both times, Sears maintenance staff assured me the stove was perfect, they could not find anything wrong with it, even though it took twice as long to cook food on convection than on regular. My warranty ended, and I had an independent appliance repair person check it out, and he found that my stove is in fact broken and needs a $457 part. I approached Sears to fix this, since it was identified during the time the warranty was in effect. They have up to now ignored my e-mail, it’s been a week.

    Then there is the nightmare of the Kenmore Elite tall tub Turbozone top-of-the-line that we bought three years ago for a top price, also with a three-year warranty. We are on the 9th breakdown in 3 years. The machine is a complete dud. I’ve been in touch with the maintenance department requesting a replacement machine, as they do have a provision in the maintenance agreement that states that if the same component breaks three times over a 12-month part, and ours has, they will replace the machine. Unfortunately, they do not classify the part that keeps breaking (the fuse kit) a major component, despite the fact that it renders my unit completely powerless and unusuable. Service is incredibly slow – they say 7 days to respond, but it’s usually ten days to two weeks before I even get a call to book an appointment and another week before they come out -meaning each breakdown means its inoperable for a month on average. They never have replacement parts with them so I have to take two days off of work with each breakdown. I’ve had to book more time off from my job for this dishwasher than for my own sick children, seriously.

    Sears corporate has indicated that even in the unlikely event that they agree to replace my dishwasher they have to charge me a USAGE fee for the years I’ve had this dud dishwasher that has given me nothing but problems and is constantly broken.

    That was over a week ago and now they are not responding to my e-mails. They also did not return my calls.

    Too bad Sears has abandoned its customer service focus. Its product quality is also questionable.

  5. Jerry Hung

    Aug 24 2008

    It’s actually a hard question to think of answers, but to me, the one I care most and use the most is TD Canada Trust, truely Canadian and a Big 5 bank I’d stand by for

    Ever since I got lured in by their FREE iPod promotions (I’ve gotten 3 Shuffles, 2 iPod Nano’s from them), I am constantly being impressed by their counter staff, phone banking, TD VISA center, TD mortgage, and TD Waterhouse reps

    Needless to say I give them 100% of my personal and business transactions, too bad I didn’t get their stocks in the low $50’s but one day… I liked the big direction they’re in, including the TD Bank North expansion

    However, being a cruel world, the moment TD starts to disappoint, consumers will notice and go elsewhere

  6. Paddy Moore

    Sep 7 2008

    Two companies which I have used and whose customer service has been exceptional.

    MNSi/MDirect, an isp based in Windsor, who have uncomplainingly and cheerfully tweaked my connection, upgraded without fanfare, and fought my case with Bell when the connection had problems.

    The other company is Asus, who have repaired my laptop on the spot when I took my laptop to their service centre and didn’t even quibble when my receipt didn’t actually have a date of sale on it, and when the problem was actually my own fault. (Spilled drink on the keyboard.)

    Even their tech support line emailed me their “only availble to their techs” instructions and tips for installing a new keyboard if I didn’t want to have to ship/transport the keyboard to their service centre.