Like most of us, I seem to find myself at the end of the year interacting more than usual with retail, travel and service companies and organizations. Holiday shopping and travel explain part of it, while end-of-year deadlines and extra time off also mean more time spent on the phone and online chats.
This past holiday season, I decided to stage a little private competition: Which enterprise would win my personal Award for Excellence in Customer Service? I wasn’t just looking for friendly chat experiences or a quick resolution to a problem. I wanted to be blown away. The contenders, in alphabetical order, were: Apple Computer Corp., Capital One, Comcast/Xfinity, the Montgomery County (Md.) Council and Tesla Solar City.
Before you read further, how would you rank each of these based on your expectation of their level of customer service?
Okay, here are my experiences with each, worst to best:
— There’s a reason why Comcast is considered
America’s Most Hated Company
: They’re so easy to dislike. Every year I must untangle my mother-in-law’s Xfinity bill, which tends to bump up in price and subscribe her to a higher pricing tier as soon as her annual contract expires. The wi-fi in her home is weaker than an extraterrestrial signal in a sci-fi movie. And it took me 15 minutes fumbling with her on-screen menu to figure out how to ensure she was watching channels in HD. Hold times were 45 minutes on Dec. 26. After considerable effort, a grandson was able to get someone on Comcast’s chat line to help activate a set-top box that had sat unopened for a year.
4. Tesla Solar City
— We decided to install a solar roof, but hoped to do it before the end of the year, fearing new tariffs on panels in 2018 and uncertainty about federal tax credits. Because solar panel hardware is essentially a commodity business, with little to no maintenance after the sale, it’s all about customer service during the process of permits and installation. Tesla’s local Solar City rep was a nice guy, and very knowledgeable. But even after telling him we would be getting at least two competing offers, we felt rushed into an anonymous corporate sales funnel, with documents to sign and site visits to schedule. When I tried to call our guy with a simple question, I found myself routed to Solar City’s national customer service center. We ended up choosing a lower-pressure, experienced local contractor with great ratings and a CEO active in state-level solar policy.
3. The Apple Store
— Our college-age daughter is a music student who processes a lot of audio. When she needed a new laptop, I expected the millennial rep in the Apple store to try to up-sell us on extra storage, gigabytes of RAM and processor speed. Instead, the guy, who is a film student, said the MacBook Pro we were looking at would be more than sufficient for her needs. He also did some quick research to find us the biggest employer discount we could qualify for. Despite the holiday crush, we were in and out in 20 minutes.
2. Montgomery County (Md.) County Council
— When the new tax bill was signed into law, municipalities everywhere scrambled to address homeowners’ questions about whether they could maximize their property tax deductions by paying their 2018 taxes early. After meeting in an emergency session on Dec. 26 (with one member flying in from Florida), our local county council voted to allow prepayment, and quickly provided a form and a multilingual checklist with deadlines and clear instructions. Yes, the IRS might still weigh in on whether states can allow prepayments. But from a customer service perspective, it was a swift, well-handled resolution to a confusing issue on a very tight deadline.
1. Capital One
— The winner, by a long mile. What can I say, Capital One? You get me. It’s been two years since I last had to make a call to your fraud alert hotline. Now you send convenient emails when you see a questionable charge and ask me if “everything is okay.” I no longer have to notify you when I’m traveling abroad. And I haven’t had to replace my card because of a fraud concern since 2015 (knock on wood).
But those aren’t even the best things. Two interactions with Capital One over the holidays proved it is, hands down, the best. One was when they emailed me this message: “We noticed you gave an extra generous tip on 12/23/17, for your service at Aloft Detroit: $13.75 Cost + $10.00 Tip = $23.75 Total. We hope you left this tip because your service was exceptional. So, if it’s not a mistake — or if you’ve already addressed it — there’s nothing you need to do.”
The reason for the large tip was that my room came with two free drink coupons at the hotel bar (I ordered four for our group). I never like to penalize a bartender for a free-drink coupon, so I tipped closer to the actual price of the drinks. Capital One’s fraud alert is so well-refined it picks up stuff like this.
A few days later, I purchased a new flat-panel TV for our den. The charge was declined by Capital One, which didn’t surprise me (it was the holidays after all, and I did have a lot of other charges on my card that week). When I didn’t get the usual “Is everything okay?” email I was able to quickly chat with a representative online. Sure enough, they were concerned about a series of purchases. I confirmed each one and they sent me on my way. What got me was the agent’s last note to me: “We try hard to protect your from unauthorized charges, but it looks like this time we’ve simply inconvenienced you. For that we apologize.”
For every company and institution above, customer service isn’t just a part of their business: It IS their business. For obvious reasons, Capital One wins my Award for Excellence in Customer Service, with the Montgomery County Council a strong runner-up. Who wins yours? Send your best anecdotes to