One of the first casualties of scale tends to be customer service: What once was personal becomes anything but as you add processes, systems, and people to your operation.

And when that happens, it's not unusual to find someone trashing a company's product and service on a major forum.

What is unusual is when almost 200 customers respond forcefully to that comment.

Here's another in my series in which I choose a topic, pick someone smarter than me, and we trade emails.

This time, I talked to Edward Wimmer, co-owner of Road ID, a company that custom manufactures personal-identification gear for fitness and outdoor enthusiasts, kids, and people with special needs. (Think of a Road ID as a cross between a military dog tag and a medical alert, except a lot cooler.)  

Quick disclosure: Everyone in my family has one. Or two.

Here's my premise: Growth and scale are the enemy of outstanding, personal service.

Jeff: Let's start with the thread on Seeing detailed criticism about your product on a popular forum had to suck. (Readers: Here's a link to the thread.)

Edward: I read it and felt horrible, because it was completely different from how we do things. Then I started reading the eight pages of comments, and what followed was nothing short of remarkable. Our customers defended us, said "dude, you've got it all wrong, if you have a problem, they'll take care of you..." It blew my mind our customers would come to our aid in that way. Maybe I shouldn't have been so surprised. The way we do business does inspire our customers and create evangelists.

Now we like to say our customers would show up to a fistfight--on our behalf--if we asked them to.

Jeff: I might not show up, but then again I'm kind of a sissy.

You've averaged 50% year-over-year revenue growth for nine years yet maintained a service level that generates that kind of response to criticism. What's the secret?

Edward: I wish I could tell you we have a secret sauce, but it really isn't hard. It's easy. We do have systems, but they are based on common sense and how we would want to be treated.

Say you call a large company: You enter an automated phone system, press a bunch of numbers intended to theoretically "better help us serve you..." but that process is designed to make it easier for the company, not for the customer.

When customers call, they hear me say: "Thank you for calling Road ID. We are routing your call to a real person as I speak, so just hang out for a second and someone will be right with you."

We would want to talk to a real person, so that's what we do.

Jeff: You take that approach farther than most companies do and frankly farther than I might. For example, if a customer makes a mistake on their ID, you'll replace it for a nominal fee. And that's even after making it really easy for people to see what they'll get, because they can create and review their IDs onscreen. I know companies that see it as a bonus when customers make mistakes on personalized products, because that can turn one sale into two.

Edward: I realize most customers would understand, if they made the mistake, that they would have to pay full price for a new ID; because it's personalized, it's not like they can return the ID and we can sell it to someone else.

We let our employees make the right decisions. Maybe it's a refund, and we let the customer keep the product. Maybe something didn't come out right, and we overnight a replacement. In those cases, that individual order does result in a loss.

But the key is that every customer doesn't have to generate a positive ROI. If we generate a positive ROI on most of our customers, the bottom line takes care of itself. When you aren't trying to squeeze every nickel out of every transaction, it's easy to do the right thing for an individual customer.

Jeff: I get that concept if you make a mistake, but it's still a pretty bold approach to take when the customer makes the mistake. Again, it's not like they ordered the wrong size shirt and you can return it, unopened, to inventory.

Edward: If a customer has an issue, we'll take a loss if we need to. We'll solve their problems so they will want to shout from the proverbial rooftops about how they were treated at Road ID.

Jeff: When I need to call a company, I feel like I need to gather up all my evidence ahead of time so I can present my case. I think we're conditioned to see the complaint-resolution process as adversarial, because it often is.

Edward: That's why when companies just do a mediocre job of helping customers with a problem, people take note, and when you truly get it right, customers really start evangelizing your brand, your company, etc.

It shouldn't be a battle. You shouldn't need to get your "stuff" together to prove your case.

As a company, all you have to do is picture yourself on the other end of the line. What would you want to happen? Not what would you expect to happen, but what would you really want to happen?

If you order a shirt, wear it once, and then realize it's the wrong size, most people would expect the company to say, "Oh, no, sorry. You wore it, we can't take it back." You would love the company to say, "I'll replace it for free," or at least at a very low cost.

When something goes wrong, just take care of it. You might lose money on that one sale, but that customer will tell a lot of people about their experience. Plus, think about how much you spend acquiring a new customer. Doesn't it make sense to spend a little to keep a customer?

Jeff: Another against-the-grain move is your use of email. The first thing the average entrepreneur does when they start a business, even if they are the only employee, is set up email accounts such as admin@, info@, service@, sales@ to try to make the company seem larger and more established than it is.

Edward: My dad and I started Road ID in his basement in 1999. We were the only employees, and every email came to us. So we replied directly to every email. Sure, we were worried about the perception of our size, but at no point did we think we shouldn't do business like people.

I'm always shocked when I receive an email from noreply@. Why would you do that? Why would you send an email and make it hard for the recipient to reply?

We encourage people to reach out to us. Customers aren't just important because they buy stuff; they're important because they are closer to your product than anyone else. They can point out issues, help improve your website and systems, and generate the next great idea.

Jeff: I assume that's why order confirmations and ship confirmations come from EdwardW@. That always fools me; I see an email from Edward Wimmer in my inbox and think it's something from you and not your order processing system.

Edward: Those emails are from me: Though you ordered from a business, real people run that business. Wouldn't you rather do business with people than with a faceless corporate entity?

Jeff: Do you actually get people who recommend new products or suggest ways you can improve? I don't mean complaints--I mean constructive suggestions.

Edward: Absolutely.

I once read an interview with Amazon's Jeff Bezos in which he was asked if the purchase of Zappos was an attempt to incorporate the Zappos customer service philosophy. In summary, he said no, Zappos does have a great customer service philosophy; they will get out the yellow pages to help a caller find a pizza place. But the Amazon customer service philosophy is to seek out and eliminate the cause of any and all customer service actions.

I don't see those two goals as mutually exclusive: You can deliver bang-on customer service by eliminating the root cause of problems, but at the same time you can deliver an experience that makes people feel they have done business with a real person.

We're extremely available on our website and on social media, but our goal is to make it so you don't have to reach out to us. Want to reach out? Great!  Have to?  Hopefully not.

Jeff: This isn't customer service related; then again, maybe it is. You have a lifetime guarantee on the stainless-steel ID; as I think you put it on your site, you challenge customers to try to wear them out (short of using hand grenades).

That goes against the common thinking with low-price-point products, in which planned obsolescence is designed to generate future sales.

Edward: Obviously, we take a different approach. Instead of hoping customers will need to replace their IDs, we focus on adding products to our line that people will want to own. That's why we introduced a product line with a 24/7, 365-day emergency response system that allows customers to keep their IDs up to date with comprehensive information.

Also, keep in mind our market is very large. Though we've grown significantly, there is still a boatload of opportunity out there.

That's why we're not focused on generating tons of repeat sales. We're focused on growing our market. When a customer finally realizes they need an ID, they tell other people. One customer generates multiple customers.

And if someday we do completely saturate our demographic, rather than be upset we'll probably plant the flag and say, "Job well done." Our dream is that wearing an ID for active people is as common as strapping on a seat belt is for drivers.

Jeff: That's a pretty difficult target. Safety isn't exactly cool.

Edward: Years ago, seat belts and bike helmets weren't cool. Those are large paradigm shifts that only happened recently.

Jeff: No doubt. When I was younger (admittedly that was a long time ago) the last thing I wanted to do was wear a bike helmet. To me, only dorks wore helmets. Same with seat belts. Now I feel naked without a helmet and not wearing a seat belt feels creepy.

Edward: We think the same shift is occurring in fitness sports and outdoor activities. It's our dream that someday you won't leave the house to run or bike or hike without an ID, whether that ID is a Road ID or not.

Currently, we're at the forefront of that movement, and if we stay there, we'll be excited and proud to have played a role in helping to change that paradigm.

Check out other articles in this series: