Conventional wisdom: Customer service is just there to deal with unhappy people. It's awful, it's costly, and nobody's going to end up happy.

On the contrary: High-quality customer service is just as important as high-quality products.

When was the last time you--as a customer--had a customer service experience you didn't hate? Dealing with customer service can be time-consuming and frustrating, and your problem rarely gets fixed.

Great customer service stands out. I'd paid a hell of a lot of money for a kitchen fixture and it had some issues that involved the faucet piece falling off the sprayer hose. The paperwork I kept said the fixture had a lifetime warranty, but I suspected that meant the "useful life" of the fixture, which by that time was already over five years old. I was dreading calling the company's customer service department because I expected they wouldn't do anything and I'd soon be forking out a wad of cash for another fixture. But instead of being disappointed, I was amazed.

I was directed to exactly the person I needed to talk to. He had my order information, the part number (which I didn't even have), and was really, really helpful. Not only that, he was pleasant, very apologetic, and sincerely wanted to know all about the problem. Within a few days, I got a brand new fixture and that was that.

The company stood behind its warranty, and the entire transaction was as slick as glass. That's how it should be, but it's the rare exception rather than the rule.

What did you expect?

You can always exceed expectations with your customer service, because so many people expect the worst. Sometimes it seems like companies are intentionally making their customer service difficult, seeking to cut down on traffic at their overseas call centers. There's really no excuse for that, because good customer service is so simple: Just put yourself in the customer's position. What would impress you? Figure it out and then do it.

Yes, sometimes this will cost you money. Deal with it. You don't have to make a profit on every sale, and a satisfied customer is going to bring in more business in the long run through positive word-of-mouth. Would you rather spend a few bucks by replacing a part and making a customer happy, or lose who knows how many sales in the future because of poor service? It's a no-brainer.

Get ahead of the game

The best thing you can do to set yourself apart is be proactive with your service. Reach out before there's a problem--it's completely unexpected and it's a great way to get feedback. Here at Big Ass HQ, we have Dave, our customer advocate. He and his team reach out to all our customers after installation, making sure their products are just right and asking what we could have done better.

Proactive customer service does more than impress people. If you're open to feedback--good and bad--you can spot patterns of problems and fix things going forward, before you have to do something as costly, disruptive and reputation-damaging as an international recall. Reaching out to customers gives you a learning moment you can't pass up, and it creates a level of communication and goodwill that you can't put a price tag on.

Servicing your reputation

If social media has taught us anything, it's this: Happy customers talk AND unhappy customers talk. If unhappy customers talk to their friends instead of your service department, they're going to damage your reputation without giving you the opportunity to fix things. You owe it to your customers--especially the unhappy ones--to make your customer service department responsive and easy to work with, and give them the power to do whatever they need to fix the problem.

Impressive customer service should be just as much of a priority as making a high-quality product. The two work hand in hand--if you make a good product, you won't have a lot of problems down the road that your service team will need to fix. So pay attention to both ends, and you'll end up with truly happy customers who can do more for your brand than advertising alone will ever accomplish.

Published on: Nov 28, 2014
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.