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updated 1/25/2011 4:15:14 AM ET 2011-01-25T09:15:14

I have always liked Sam Cooke's old hit song, "Chain Gang." It comes in handy when I'm talking about customer service. That's because delivering good customer service requires frontline workers to receive support from co-workers -- in effect, a chain reaction of teamwork that is consistent from beginning to end. And the chain of assistance is only as strong as its weakest link.

I love hearing reports of good care, especially when they're shared by a Virgin customer. But no matter what the source, there's usually a lesson to be learned. To prove I'm not always bashing our competitor, British Airways, I'll tell a consummate customer story that involves that other British airline:

An Executive Club passenger left his leather coat in the airport lounge. He rushed to the front of the plane and asked if he could get it. "Sorry, sir, too late," replied a member of the cabin crew. "But don't worry. I'll tell the ground crew and they'll have it sent to you." He was convinced he'd never see his favorite coat again. Seven and a half hours later, when the flight arrived in New York, an agent met him at the door of the aircraft with his coat. They'd put it on a Concorde flight that beat his slower 747 across the Atlantic! (Of course, British Airways can no longer pull off that trick, since the Concorde is no longer in service.) The airline could have put the coat on a later flight and the customer would have been just as grateful. But going the extra mile builds massive customer loyalty and brand-enhancing benefits. You can be sure that passenger talked up the airline for years, and now even the founder of a rival company is telling the tale. How great is that?

Another story that demonstrates the importance of the service chain involves Virgin Atlantic. An Upper Class customer's free limo failed to connect with him at his New York City hotel. (It turned out the customer had been waiting at the wrong door.) He jumped in a cab to Newark Liberty International Airport, a fair distance from the city. Traffic was bad. By the time he got to the airport he was angry, late, and panicking. But the Virgin agent calmed the fuming customer, apologizing profusely and assuring him that he would not miss his flight. From her own pocket, she refunded his taxi fare and rushed him through to the gate with 10 minutes to spare. Like the leather jacket incident, it demonstrates how great customer service can convert a negative into a positive.

But here the chain breaks. The agent told her supervisor what happened and asked to be repaid the $70 cab fare. Rather than congratulating the agent on saving the day, the supervisor asked for a receipt. When her answer was, "There was no time for that," he chastised her. He said, "No receipt, no reimbursement. You'd better take more care next time."

One thing was certain: Any Virgin employees witnessing their supervisor's scornful reaction to a colleague's exemplary deed would be unlikely to display the same resourcefulness. Which means that the customer loses -- and so does the entire company.

Happily, the story came to the airport manager's attention and he quickly took steps to redress the imbalance between company procedures and customer service. He advised the finance team that he'd approved the cash shortfall, while the supervisor got a quick refresher on how important we at Virgin think it is to "catch people doing something right."

Eventually I heard this story, and it truly impressed me. The next time I flew through Newark, I made a point of seeking out the agent who had made us proud. I remarked, "I don't have a taxi receipt, so you probably can't help me." Her astonished smile said it all.

No company can train its front-end people to handle every situation, but you can strive to create an environment in which they feel at ease "doing as they would be done by."

Good customer service begins at the top. If your senior people don't get it, even the strongest links further down the line can become compromised, as the story shows. Finally, poor customer service can also be relished … if you experience it at the hands of a competitor! At such moments you might catch me humming another old favorite, Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools."
 

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