Customer Experience Success Story at AT&T

Customers view service relative to their expectations. 

  • Good service meets expectations.

  • Poor service falls short of expectations.

  • Outstanding service exceeds expectations.

Here’s an email I received from my friend Larry. He expected to receive poor service from AT&T, but was pleasantly surprised in several ways.

Hey Jeff,

I wanted to share a GREAT customer service experience with you.

While I was out of town this weekend there was a power outage and I thought I lost my internet modem. I have not always had the best of luck when dealing with AT&T and am quick to say it. But I want to also be quick to point out my good experience.

First, I went to the local store. I got there about 15 min before they opened at noon. The parking lot was packed and there was a line at the door. 

When the door opened at noon, it was an amazing sight…there were a ton of employees inside and everyone who came in the door was immediately greeted and helped. No waiting at all. This caught my attention in a positive way.

I was met by a young lady who took me to a table and I explained my problem. We trouble shot the modem and immediately determined that it wasn’t the modem, but the power cord. We got the cord from another new piece of equipment and everything worked just fine. 

A power supply costs $10. A new modem costs $100. I asked for the $10 option. 

Initially she suggested we order one and I could have it come to my house or to the store and pick it up. She was unable to find the part # for the cord, and went to ask for help finding it. 

After a few minutes, she came back and I asked if there was a cord in the store I could borrow or rent for a few days until it arrived. She didn’t object and tried to order the cord for me. After another couple minutes, she just took my broken power cord and replaced it with the working one from the new modem box without charging me and said they will fix it on their side because she could not order a new one.

This is a great example of a front line employee taking the initiative and going above and beyond to FIX a customer issue. Instead of being without internet for several days or having to unnecessarily purchase a new piece of equipment. I was out of service for a couple hours and left a very satisfied customer who wanted to share that experience.

I am also sharing this on FB.

~ Larry

Notice how expectations played a role in Larry’s experience.

Larry’s initially low expectations made it easier for him to be pleasantly surprised by good service.

He was worried about wait times when he saw the large crowd. Excellent staffing levels allowed Larry to receive service much faster than he expected. 

Larry expected to pay for the repair. The associate took the initiative to find a solution she was empowered to deliver and gave Larry a replacement power cord at no charge.

These pleasant surprises prompted Larry to share his experience with AT&T on Facebook and with me. It all came down to one customer, at one store, served by one associate.

AT&T promises smart, friendly, and fast service at their AT&T stores. It sounds like they delivered.

Have companies defined outstanding customer service?

In his famous book, Built to Last, Jim Collins observed that companies that endure over a long period of time possess “cult-like cultures.” This is certainly true in customer service. Think of the companies best known for outstanding customer service and you’ll almost certainly find a strong, customer-focused culture.

These cultures are anchored by a clear definition of what outstanding customer service should look like. It gives employees, managers, and executives clear direction when making decisions that impact customers. Without a shared definition, it is very difficult for companies to provide consistent service since everyone has their own idea of what's best.

I recently conducted a survey to discover whether companies have created their own unique definition of outstanding customer service. 

Is outstanding service clearly defined?

Only 62 percent of respondents were positive that their organizations have defined outstanding customer service.

Has your organization created its own definition of outstanding customer service?These results indicate employees at a large number of companies may not have clarity when it comes to how they should treat their customers. 

Does company size matter?

Yes. The larger the company, the more likely it is that outstanding service has been clearly defined. The chart below shows the responses from small, medium, and large companies (based on number of employees).

Percentage of companies that have defined outstanding service, arranged by number of employees.

What do you think is the explanation for such a big gap between small and large employers?

Are employees aware of the definition?

Respondents that indicated their company had defined outstanding service were asked to estimate their employees' awareness of this definition on scale of 1 - 5. The responses indicate awareness is generally high when a shared definition exists. There wasn’t any variation among companies of different sizes so I'm showing the aggregrate data.

If your company has a definition of outstanding service, how aware are your employees?

This question was tricky because respondents were asked to estimate their employees’ awareness of their company’s definition of outstanding service. Do you think the results would be different if we actually quizzed employees in each of these companies?

In my own experience, and this is purely anecdotal, leaders tend to overestimate how well their employees know the company's definition of outstanding service. 


If your company doesn't yet have a clear definition of outstanding customer service, I suggest you create one right away. You can use my customer service vision worksheet if you're not sure where to begin.

If your company does have a clear definition of outstanding customer service, you've taken the first step on the journey to a customer-focused culture. You can use this guide to keep your company moving in the right direction.

Do you really care how your customer is today?

For many customer service professionals, “How are you today?” is really just another way of saying, “Hello.” It’s a rote question where the expected response is “I’m fine” and the person asking is totally unprepared for anything different.

You can miss out on some pretty big opportunities when you ask a question like this without caring whether or not you get an answer.

Last week, I saw firsthand how powerful it can be when someone actually listens to how their customer responds. I was checking in to the Westin Portland where Liza greeted me at the reception desk. She recognized me from many past visits and said, “Welcome back!” in her usual cheerful way.

She then asked the question as she started the check-in process. “How are you today?”

The truth is I wasn’t fine. The tragic bombings at the Boston Marathon earlier that day had left me feeling sad for the city and enraged at whoever did it. I spent several years living in Boston, including two years just a few blocks from where the bombings occurred, so the scene felt particularly vivid. I was also worried because I hadn’t yet heard from all my family members and friends who live in the area or were there for the marathon.

I deviated from the script and told Liza the truth. “I’m sad.”

Liza asked me why and I told her I was thinking about Boston. We proceeded to have a very nice conversation where Liza’s empathy and attentive listening were comforting. It’s amazing how simple human interaction can lift our spirits. 

I went up to my room and dropped my bags before heading right back out for dinner. When I got back from dinner later that night I was surprised to find this waiting in my room:

The card contained a handwritten note from Liza letting me know that she hoped all of my family and friends in Boston were okay. It was an amazingly thoughtful and kind gesture and yet another reason why the Westin Portland is my favorite hotel.

Liza’s warmth and caring provide a great reminder that we should care about the answer if we’re going to ask a question like, "How are you today?"