Whenever I ask business owners what sets their companies apart from the competition I almost invariably get the same answer: exceptional customer service.

While that may very well be true, it's an answer I'm usually reluctant to believe. After all, I'd rather hear about good customer service from, you know, a customer.

But this is one outstanding customer service story I can vouch for, since it happened to me.

I recently scheduled an appointment with my orthopedist, using ZocDoc, a company that lets users find and review doctors and book appointments online. After choosing an appointment time, I got a call from my doctor, saying that time was no longer available. In less than five minutes, we found a slot that worked for the both of us and hung up--a minor hiccup, but certainly not what I'd call an inconvenience.

But 10 minutes later, I got a call from a ZocDoc customer service representative, who apologized profusely for the mix-up and, though I told her it was no problem, offered to send me a $10 Amazon gift card for my troubles. That, I thought to myself, is exceptional customer service.

And so, I decided to head uptown to ZocDoc's New York City headquarters to find out more about how the company has institutionalized great customer service.

How It Started

ZocDoc was founded in 2007 after CEO, Cyrus Massoumi, popped his eardrum on a flight from Seattle to New York and couldn't find a doctor in New York City for four days. The ordeal inspired him to come up with a better way to find medical care using technology. But despite being a technology-oriented company, ZocDoc's three co-founders, Massoumi, Oliver Kharraz, and Nick Ganju, were committed to preserving a human touch with customers, or as they like to call them, "patients."

In the early days, that job fell to Kharraz. A doctor by training, he's now ZocDoc's COO. On my recent tour of ZocDoc's headquarters, he told me that during the first few years after ZocDoc was founded, whenever patients had a problem--say, a long wait time--he'd meet them at the doctor's office with a bouquet of flowers and chocolate to personally apologize for the trouble.

"People were definitely surprised that after using a free service on the Internet, which they kind of expected not to work perfectly anyway, they find a guy with flowers and chocolate waiting for them," he says. "Obviously that wasn't scalable, but we wanted in every instance to understand if something didn't work out, what was the root cause? We need to make it right for the individual and all of those coming after her to make sure the problem gets eradicated."

In ZocDoc's office, which is rapidly expanding to accommodate the company's nearly 500 employees, there's a wall covered in chalkboard paint, known as the Patients First Wall, which features a new piece of feedback from a ZocDoc patient everyday. On the day of my visit, the anonymous post read: "Thank you. Thank you, Thank you!!! ZocDoc has forever changed my life!!! It makes me want to be sick so I can use this amazing system/service."

"We hear all the time from patients about how cool the service is or how we solved a problem for them, and we like to make sure we share the love with the entire organization," Anna Elwood, director of operations, says.

Learning From Zappos

Since joining the company three years ago, it's been Elwood's job to formalize some of the informal policies Kharraz introduced during those early days. For inspiration, she started off with an office tour of that old paragon of customer service, Zappos. "We wanted to learn their best practices," she says, "and now, we have people touring with us!"

One stop on the ZocDoc tour that Elwood is particularly proud of is a monitor that hangs in the customer service section of the office. It displays all the Tweets coming in about ZocDoc, as well as the percentage of emails being answered within one hour and the percentage of calls answered after just one ring. On the day of my visit, those numbers were 93 percent and 78 percent, respectively. "If we're trying to offer access to healthcare, we need to be accessible ourselves," Elwood says. "If there's any industry where service should be paramount, it should be healthcare."

According to Elwood, the customer service team is expected and empowered to do whatever it takes to answer a patient's question, whether that means staying on the phone for hours to help an elderly patient browse the Internet or helping a concerned mother track down her son during a snowstorm to make sure he gets to his appointment on time. Then, there are the more mundane cases, like my own, for which ZocDoc has policies in place. Last year, for instance, the company launched its check-in service, which allows patients to fill out their medical forms online, so they don't have to bother with paperwork at the office. At the time of their appointments, patients get a text prompting them to reply if they have any trouble with their paperwork once they get to the office. Replying to the message triggers an automatic call from one of ZocDoc's customer service reps.

Elwood recently took one of those calls herself. "I was like, 'I'll talk to the receptionist for you or I can call them directly, and we'll figure it out,'" she says. "Ultimately, we did figure it out, and he Tweeted something very nice about us." 

That patient, it seems, wasn't the only one. A quick search of ZocDoc on Twitter turned up mostly glowing feedback from users. "I am yet to see the doctor yet but I feel better already using @ZocDoc!" read one Tweet. "@ZocDoc great customer service, especially on a Monday morning. Thanks!" read another. At a time in which patients and the health system too often have an antagonistic relationship, ZocDoc's popularity among patients, which has propelled it to some 4 million members using the site every month and a reported valuation of $700 million, seems to be proof that exceptional customer service really can go a long way.

 "I was trained as a doctor. If I do something, it should work, and if it doesn't work, I need to minimize the fallout," says Kharraz. "We have the aspiration to be part of the solution to all the challenges of healthcare, and we can only do that if we earn the patients trust. We want to make sure we deserve it."