I'm sure you, like me, have spent too much time in customer service hell as a consumer. With apologies to Dante, it’s at least nine circles:

  1. The never-ending voice mail phone tree
  2. The requirement to repeat your name, account number, etc., ad infinitum
  3. Hold, hold, hold
  4. The ominous sound, mid-conversation, of the dial tone
  5. The disappearing clerk
  6. The line that's always 20 people deep
  7. The agent who doesn’t understand your question
  8. The “I’m sorry, but I don’t have the authority to do that” response
  9. The clerk who's busy texting someone who's clearly more important than you

I'm sure there are more. (Leave your personal favorites in the comments!)

You don’t want this happening at your company, nor do I at mine. So here are nine ways to create, if not a heaven, at least a pleasant customer experience.

  1. Staff up with the right people. How? Insist on people with a propensity to serve others. Test them for service orientation. Ask them how they have gone beyond expectations in customer service.
  2. Train them well—and keep it up. Teach them to look customers in the eye and listen well, asking probing questions before making assumptions about a customer’s needs. Insist on appropriate tone and personal appearance. Observe them frequently and provide meaningful, specific, and candid feedback.
  3. Check your policies. Your frontline employees need to thoroughly understand your exchange and return policies, for example. They also need autonomy to make decisions with minimal upward approval. Those who handle elevated issues should train the people below them so fewer issues become elevated.
  4. Benchmark. How long is it acceptable for customers to wait on hold before they speak with a live person? What do you do when the time becomes unacceptable? What can you do to decrease the time? What’s an acceptable call-abandon rate?
  5. Consider your accessibility. What are your service hours? On what days? Does your schedule correspond with your customers’ needs?
  6. Connect good service with compensation. A percentage of your employees’ compensation should be based on customer satisfaction (gathered through surveys, ratings, reviews). Consider compensating for the company’s overall score, as well as individual scores.
  7. Think about your focus. Are you a low-cost operator or high-touch, with customer intimacy? Deciding will help you determine how much money you should spend on customer service.
  8. Tweak your technology. Can people schedule appointments for service and, if so, how long do they have to wait? If customers call, and there’s a long hold time, will your system automatically call them back so they don’t have to wait? Do your customer-service agents have all the information they need at hand so they can meet customers’ needs without having to transfer them to someone else or call them back? Is your customer-identification data accessible quickly so customers don’t have to repeat it?
  9. Mind your store. If you run a store, how accessible is the customer-service counter? Look closely at the area: Are the lines long? Is there a place for customers to sit down?

So many business people I know say they provide excellent customer service. But sometimes I think they’re not quite sure what that means. Although I enjoy the Dante analogy, this list is by no means exhaustive. Please pipe up with your own suggestions.