For our fifth anniversary, my boyfriend and I splurged on a trip to Austria. When we arrived at our beautiful hotel in Salzburg six hours late due to travel delays, we were exhausted. Dripping with relief as we walked up to the check-in desk, I gave the manager our names. She looked up at me with a puzzled expression and said, “But you reserved a room for next month.”

The mistake was undeniably mine. However, it was the busiest weekend of the year, and the day-of rates were astronomical.

The manager calmly asked me to call American Express because I had booked the trip with my credit card. She took the phone from me and worked with the customer service representative on the phone. They rebooked me for the current weekend — at no extra cost, and with a free upgrade to a suite, which was the only room available.

Thirty minutes later, my boyfriend and I were drinking complementary champagne and eating chocolate cake in our beautiful room.

Table of contents:

What is exceptional customer service?

Exceptional customer service is the unconditional commitment to giving the highest level of product or service to every person, regardless of the circumstances.

It doesn’t matter if the customer is at fault for the issue. It doesn’t matter if it’s a once-in-a-lifetime situation. When you’re thinking about how to deliver exceptional customer service, remember this simple motto: Do anything and everything within your power.

Great acts of customer service aren’t isolated events. Team members depend on leadership that gives them the freedom to do the right thing over and over again. For support teams to elevate the customer experience, they need to exist within a company that values their role on the front lines, gives them significant ownership, and empowers them with a voice at the executive level.

Why is exceptional customer service important?

Many leaders mistakenly view customer service as a cost center. They spend their energy and resources tightening their team’s spending and moving customer support offshore. The results: high employee turnover, unhappy customers, and PR debacles galore.

By contrast, exceptional customer service is a revenue generator. It gives customers a complete, cohesive customer experience that aligns with an organization’s purpose.

When leaders understand that customer support is a lynchpin in the entire customer journey, they leverage customer service as an opportunity to delight customers and engage them in new, exciting ways.

Exceptional customer service is all about shifting from reactive action to proactive action to solve issues before they arise and mend customer relationships that would otherwise fracture.

How to deliver exceptional customer service

There’s no exact formula that ensures your team will know how to deliver exceptional customer service every day. The details depend on the size of your business, your industry, and your product or service.

But there are always some key ingredients in the mix, even and especially as your processes evolve and improve over time. Here are four elements that are present in any exceptional customer service example. If you can weave these into your support team’s priorities, you’re setting a strong foundation.

1. Create policies that put customers first every day

Imagine that you’re a support professional, and a customer calls you to say that there’s a difference between the online price for a product on your website and the in-store price that they paid. They want a refund for the difference. If your company won’t allow you to match the online rate, there’s nothing you can do other than apologize.

Bad company policies sabotage exceptional support. If your company hasn’t set customer-centric guidelines in place, start by advocating that support leaders have a voice in decision-making.

When these team members have the opportunity to help shape policy, it creates alignment with the feedback they get from their team (and customers) every day. It’s a lot less likely for there to be a disconnect between what customers need and what they get.

While you’re at it, make sure to use balanced metrics when assessing the performance of support staff and the company as a whole. If you solely look at speed, you won’t encourage team members to take the time to go above and beyond for people every day.

Include a Net Promoter Score or a Help Scout “Happiness” score in your assessment of support performance. Customers can choose from Great, Okay, and Not Good buttons in each customer email, which is a simple way to ensure that your customers think you’re meeting their needs every day.

2. Hire empathetic problem-solvers

There’s a persistent myth that anyone can be an exceptional customer service professional. It’s just not true. The best team members walk into their first day with some key similarities, which include empathy, high levels of emotional intelligence, and a knack for problem-solving.

When customer service professionals understand and reflect other people’s feelings, they can help a customer feel heard and supported. Empathy goes a long way in any difficult situation, especially when it’s paired with great problem-solving skills.

Team members who enjoy diagnosing and fixing challenges are more likely to get straight to the issue and work toward a resolution when trickier problems arise. Plus, if you hire support professionals who are natural “helpers,” they’re also likely to enjoy learning how to deliver exceptional customer service.

3. Empower team members with training and tools

The last thing you want to do is stick someone in the queue who doesn’t have everything they need to give exceptional care. Even the most qualified customer service professional needs training and tools to succeed in the job.

With a thorough onboarding plan, product-specific knowledge, and intuitive customer service software to manage inquiries, people have a strong foundation to deliver great support every day.

Start by introducing people to your customer culture before you even begin to train folks on the product or service they’re working on. Make onboarding interactive and build out real-life simulations so that support professionals can practice in true-to-life settings. Use job shadowing to build relationships between new hires and current team members, which can also serve as one-on-one training.

Most of all, prioritize a support stack that’s easy to learn and chock full of built-in resources, from documentation to video tutorials. Any tool your team uses should make their jobs — and the customer experience — better from day one.

Help Scout’s tools give team members context for every support request and organize complex information in an intuitive way. Customers benefit from the highest level of care without ever feeling like they’re talking to a robot. People aren’t assigned a number in the queue or told “Do not reply to this email.” Instead, they benefit from real interactions centered around their needs.

4. Give team members permission to be generous

Have you ever had a boss who micromanaged you every day? You never got anything done because the approval processes were so long and cumbersome. When that’s the case in a support scenario, team members don’t have the freedom they need to deliver exceptional solutions.

Prepare your team to perform with thoughtful guidelines on offering customers refunds, upgrades, discounts, gifts, and extra technical support. Get specific with dos and don’ts, as well as helpful examples of what has thrilled customers in the past.

When team members have clear guidance on best practices, they don’t have to hold back when they’re helping customers.

Make sure that everyone has access to a budget for helping customers and understands the rules around dipping into the account. Having the flexibility to make decisions will serve everyone, especially people who want to grow on the job.

Remember: Without resources, it’s nearly impossible for a support team to “wow” their customers when they need it most.

4 examples of exceptional customer service

Now you know how to deliver exceptional customer service, but how do these principles come alive in real life? Customer service and support teams all over the world are getting creative and breaking the mold rather than sticking to the status quo.

Not only does investing in these acts of kindness make customers’ lives better, but it also makes people’s work lives better. When team members can spend their days doing great things for wonderful people, they’ll never want to leave their jobs. Here are some exceptional customer service examples to inspire you to think big.

1. Rackspace

When you think about over-the-top customer service, you probably imagine brand names doing exceptional things for their B2C customers. But excellent support isn’t limited to the consumer space — and it’s just as important when you’re serving other companies.

Rackspace, a cloud infrastructure company, anchors its premium prices with top-notch solutions and even better service. The organization regularly wins industry awards, and for good reason. They call their approach “fanatical support.”

Here’s an example of that ethos in action: A Rackspace employee was in the middle of helping a customer through a marathon troubleshooting session when she heard the customer tell a colleague that she was hungry. The support professional put them on hold and ordered her customers a pizza.

They were still all on the phone when it arrived 30 minutes later. The customers were delighted, and the support professional knew that everyone would have fuel to power through until all was resolved.

Takeaway: Not all exceptional customer service examples require the big bucks. You can turn a difficult situation around when you meet the customer where they’re at with a spontaneous act of generosity. It didn’t take a four-course meal to get this relationship back on track — just a pizza.

2. JetBlue

The beloved airline JetBlue set a lofty goal of delighting customers when they took to the skies in 1998. Their Customer Bill of Rights set new standards for the industry, and their remote customer service team set a new precedent for remote work from the comfort of their homes.

Last year, JetBlue’s VP of Customer Support Experience, Operations and Recovery, Frankie Littleford, told Forbes about how her team got their start.

“When we decided that our mission would be ‘to bring humanity back to air travel,’ we knew we would have to build a great culture internally or great customer service would never take root externally, with the traveling public. We needed to build a culture of respect, trust and communication, a culture where we take care of each other.”

That culture took root and gave way to fun, customer-focused traditions. For example, JetBlue has a mysterious “People Officer” who surprises customers on flights and in airports with rewards and gifts.

One time, the People Officer stood up mid-flight and began hosting a game of trivia. He announced that the winners would receive flight vouchers for the mid-flight games and gave away a dozen tickets.

JetBlue bet that a quality flight experience could overturn the status quo, and they continue to raise the bar. During the coronavirus crisis, for example, they offered free flights for medical personnel and supplies, even while their own business was in jeopardy.

Takeaway: A positive culture is the only environment that can yield exceptional service. If leaders prioritize culture from the beginning, their team members will love their jobs and share the fun with customers, too.

3. CVS

Since the first CVS opened its doors, the company has empowered people to stay healthy and get the products they need. For over 30 years, CVS has also run a service that has everything to do with helping people and nothing to do with its role as a pharmacy.

With the CVS Good Samaritan Van, they serve stranded customers with car troubles. The cost for the customer? Just filling out a comment card.

This free service helps people get back on the road and to their destination without extra hassle. There is no catch, just a memorable experience that fortifies customer relationships and aligns with the company’s values. Customers feel cared for, which is exactly what executives want them to feel when they walk through the pharmacy’s doors.

CVS has a long history of making value-based decisions. In 2014, the company stopped selling tobacco products, even though it hurt sales. And in 2018, it began offering discount coupons to customers without insurance to buy Narcan, a lifesaving medication to reverse opioid overdoses.

When a company takes actions that align with their values — across every context — customers respond to that consistency with trust.

Takeaway: Think about a way to help your community one-on-one every day. It doesn’t have to relate to your product or service — just make sure it aligns with your values and gives customers the same feeling that you want to create when they use your product or service.

4. Trader Joe’s

Trader Joe’s has a cult following for a reason. The privately-owned grocery chain with locations across the country always prioritizes employees and customers. The company gives excellent benefits and promotional opportunities to team members and passes on the savings from their private-label approach (all their products are “Trader Joe’s” brand) to customers.

Everyone has a favorite Trader Joe’s customer service story, and so do we. One day, an 89-year-old man was snowed in at his Pennsylvania home around the holidays. His daughter was concerned about getting him food and called a bunch of stores to see if anyone delivered.

Trader Joe’s broke their own policy to deliver the gentleman items that fit his low-sodium diet free of charge. In fewer than 30 minutes, a Trader Joe’s team member was knocking on the door with a full delivery.

Takeaway: If your team members don’t have the flexibility to bend the rules, they won’t always be able to do the right thing for people. Make sure there’s an easy way for customer service staff to get approval for acts of kindness that make people’s lives exponentially better.

Make exceptional customer service your new standard

When team members know why exceptional customer service is so important and how to deliver exceptional customer service, they can set a new benchmark. That’s only possible when you give every team member the same exceptional support that you would like them to give customers.

Leaders can’t ask their team members to go above and beyond when they’re not willing to do so for their own employees.

In an industry that often prioritizes profit margins over people, you can carve out a new normal, too. Hire talented team members and empathetic managers, prioritize training and mentorship, and invest in a support stack that makes it easier to help people every day.

Elizabeth Wellington

Elizabeth Wellington

Liz writes about business, creativity and making meaningful work. Say hello on Twitter or through her website.