Brand, customer retention, business development, profit, and sustainability; these long-term, big-picture elements of a company can each be built or toppled by day-to-day customer service. Designers can develop attention-grabbing looks, marketing strategists can launch aggressive campaigns, and entrepreneurs can develop compelling business models, products and service offerings. However, if the person on the front line – the person who deals with your customers – drops the ball, he or she can turn a loyal customer into a business-busting, bad-mouthing machine in no time at all. Allow me to illustrate.

The other day I was at Costco. Eager for my requisite Costco hotdog, I withdrew $40 from the ATM and lined up at the food court. As I approached the cash register, I put a $20 on the counter and put the other $20 in my wallet. The cashier didn’t seem to notice me; she was busy counting the previous customer’s change. As she scooped up the coin pile, she also scooped up my $20 bill. A moment later, she asked me for $3 for my order, and I explained how she had already taken my money. That’s when she called the supervisor.

Her inclination to report the “incident” made me slightly uncomfortable, but since I wasn’t in the wrong, I stood there and awaited vindication. When the cashier said, “If what the customer is saying is true…” to her supervisor I quickly interjected, “What I am saying is true.” I’m no thief! The supervisor asked for my Costco ID, “For the record.” By that point I was frustrated, and a little paranoid about the whole Costco ID thing.

Was I going to be blacklisted? Uncomfortable as I was, doubts began to fill my head, and I recalled the last time I had spoken to the police. I remember having felt guilty, yet I hadn’t done anything wrong. Was I going crazy? Did I really give her the $20 bill? I had to check my wallet to make sure there was only one $20 bill and not two. Of course, there wasn’t a second one; I watched her scoop up the $20 – it was right there in her till.

Even though I got my order and the change from the $20, I was frustrated. Had I left right then, I would have been angry, and I probably would have complained to anyone who would listen for the rest of the day. Instead, I decided to change the direction of things. I decided to share my experience with their manager. I explained that I had had a negative interaction with two of the customer service staff. On some level, I sincerely hoped they could learn and grow from our experience, and on another level I just wanted him to know I was… “unhappy” with the service I received.

I shared with the manager that the cashier who served me need not have rushed to the extent that she did, though I understood that it was busy. I stated that her comment, “if what the customer is saying is true…” was out of line and led me to wonder if Costco’s policy was “the customer is guilty until proven otherwise.” I also suggested it would have made a difference if the supervisor had explained in detail why he wanted my Costco ID. The manager was great; he listened. He didn’t make any excuses. He thanked me for the feedback and genuinely apologized. As a result, he sent me on my way feeling I had been heard and feeling a lot less frustrated.

The moral of the story is that you can spend years building a strong brand for your company and yet it can be demolished within seconds if your customers experience bad service from your staff. On the flip side, an apologetic and authentic manager can do wonders to restore brand loyalty (if the customer gives them the opportunity).

Ultimately, it is up to you to hire well and to train your staff to provide the kind of customer service your brand, your business, and your customers demand. Inspire your team to want to deliver excellent customer service (even if they are having a bad day) and manage people to ensure that they provide the required customer experience consistently. Train your managers to listen, to be genuine about the customer’s concerns and to always work to alleviate their concerns. Managers should NEVER make excuses for their staff. Frustrated customers do not want to hear excuses, and ultimately, managers should know that they are there to defend and maintain the brand, not the poorly performing customer service staff.

Often, people don’t need to hear much more than, “I’m sorry that you had that experience, we will rectify that situation immediately, and thank you for taking the time to give us the feedback. It takes commitment on your part, and we appreciate that.” The old phrase “A little goes a long way” is very appropriate when it comes to customer service and brand integrity. Of course, if the situation deserves it, managers could offer a gift card or some other type of compensation to a customer who has received poor service. It is amazing how quickly a small gesture can rebuild a customer’s loyalty. And if you can obtain the customer’s address, send them a follow-up letter thanking them for their time, and update them on any changes you have made based on their feedback.

Customer service has never been more important than in today’s tight economic times. Businesses are fighting to keep customers loyal. At the same time, the amount of people looking for jobs has increased substantially. Teens are competing with 50-somethings, so take the opportunity to hire individuals who are going to represent your brand to your customers best. Manage them well and train your managers to respond appropriately when your customers tell them what they think you are doing right, and what you could do better.

Now, allow me to tell you a little story about exceptional customer service to highlight the role you can play as a customer to build better businesses. A few months ago I was shopping at Save On Foods and was served by a delightful lady, Maggie, who was probably in her early 50’s. I had my bicycle with me, and she enquired into my day and my ride. It was not the usual generic “how are you” that we tend to revert to in Northern America. It was a genuine conversation. We joked, laughed and connected. It was refreshing.

My personal commitment is to ‘report’ excellent customer service to managers too. I enjoy seeing the manager’s face when they realize that you are there about a compliment, not a complaint. In this case, I happily reported that I had received said service from Maggie and that the customer service initiatives they have in place for their staff were seemingly working well. As customers, one of the most effective ways that we can demand excellent service, and get more of what we want from a company, is to praise them when they get things right.

As business people and as customers, I believe it is time we take a stand and demand better customer service. Let’s report poor service and let’s celebrate great service. Let’s tell our friends and colleagues what we are doing and encourage them to do the same. If we want exceptional or even good customer service, it is in our hands as customers, as managers, as business owners, and as employees to demand this and to be proactive in making it happen.

At the end of the day, customer service is relatively straightforward: be genuine, be polite, and go beyond the expectation of the customer.

Let’s strive for a community where a $20 bill never disappears again, and where brands everywhere are safe from the destructive forces of disgruntled ex-customers and ex-employees.