In the fall of 2016, Rahul Vohra was testing a powerful email service called Superhuman. Between meeting potential customers, he would demo his $30-a-month service and spend nearly an hour training buyers. After 200 or so of those one-on-one calls, he began to notice something remarkable: "The retention of customers was high, churn was low, and they were making a lot of referrals," he says. Today, Superhuman's onboarding process, condensed to 30 minutes, teaches new users the ropes, including shortcuts to help them achieve inbox zero. It's key to the Bay Area startup's popularity.

33 percent
Percentage of customers who ditched a brand in 2017 because the service lacked personalization.
Source: Accenture
67 percent
Churn that can be prevented by fixing issues the first time.
Source: Ameyo
25 percent
Additional profit that can result from boosting customer retention by 5 percentage points.
Source: Bain & Company
90 percent
Percentage of customers who want service issues to be addressed online.
Source: Microsoft

Why would anyone pay for email when they could get it for free? "With Amazon having nailed price and convenience, you need to have resonant customer service," says David Bell, co-founder of advisory firm Idea Farm Ventures. Megan Bent, founder of Harbinger Ventures, which backs female-founded consumer-product startups like Fourth & Heart, says, "Consumers are aware of the social contract they've created with companies." They have high expectations for quality and value in exchange for handing over their personal data.

You could call it customer bonding as much as customer service. Brooklyn-based shoe company Atoms includes a prepaid return label and a nifty collapsible box for returns with each order. Bloomscape, a Detroit-based plant-delivery service, sends a beautifully designed care card with every order. The kicker, though, is 24/7 access to Plant Mom, a six-person team of plant-care experts who can talk you and your orchid through a crisis. "You can Google pretty much anything," says founder Justin Mast. "It's finding it in a way that's personalized to you and feels human that's the hard part."

In the age of chatbots, humanizing customer relationships is a differentiator. Personal care company Harry's sends flowers upon learning that a subscriber has died. Artifact Uprising, a photo book company in Denver, helps guys with their marriage proposals. In November 2018, a Los Angeles man told an Artifact Uprising agent he planned to carve out a box-shaped compartment in his book for an engagement ring. Insisting that wouldn't be necessary, the agent tapped the production facility herself to whip up the custom book. Chad Reinhart's proposal to his girlfriend went smoothly--and was as memorable as the company that helped make it happen.

1. Make your site their site.

When e-tailer Glossier wanted to expand the range of color shades across its complexion line, the user-experience team tapped community members for ideas. When they voiced concern about not being able to see what a product might look like on them, the team cast 48 models to demonstrate how the shades work on different skin tones. The result, says research lead Samantha Law: an intuitive shade-finding tool that shows what a product looks like on a broad range of people.

2. Make it personal.

Verb Energy, a Boston-based health bar startup founded by three Yale students, has a "customer experience team" that consumers can contact directly. The founders may even respond personally. "A lot of companies use chatbots or robots," co-founder Bennett Byerley told CNBC, but "we insist on having an authentic human interaction." Old-fashioned gestures also speak volumes. Catherine McKenzie, co-founder of Min & Mon, a quirky handbag and accessories label in New York City, slips a handwritten note to the purchaser into every order. In an era of limitless choice, "it's a privilege for us to be chosen," she says.

3. Empower your reps.

Bonobos was among the first online companies to take its "ninjas" off script and grant them the freedom to resolve issues quickly. This gave the brand buzz and also built loyalty--an extraordinary feat in a $4 trillion retail industry loaded with big players, says Forrester analyst Sucharita Kodali. Understanding that there's a human at the other end of the line is where you should start, says Artifact Uprising CEO Brad Kopitz, who gives every agent a budget toward helping customers. "There is no official handbook at all," he says. One agent, Taylor Powers, helped replace an album for Katie Johns, who lost her home in California's devastating Woolsey fire; other agents coached Eleanor Cox through a memorial project to honor her late husband.

 

Great Moments in Customer Service

2003: Zappos changes the game with its free 60-day returns policy. By year's end, that is extended to 365 days. 
Source: Zappos

2013: A father whose son is having liver transplant surgery contacts Bungie, the maker of Halo. The game developer visits the boy in the hospital and gives him a custom Master Chief helmet. 
Source: Reddit

2016: Krystal Payne, a Starbucks barista in Leesburg, Virginia, studies American Sign Language so Ibby Piracha, a deaf customer, can have "the same experience as everyone else."
Source: Stella Connect

2017: Sixteen-year-old Carter Wilkerson tweets Wendy's, asking how many retweets will earn him a year's supply of chicken nuggets. #NuggsForCarter goes viral and he gets his nuggets--and Wendy's celebrates with a $100,000 donation to the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.
Source: Wendy's

2019: Spectrum cable employee Rob Kinney calms a fussy toddler by holding him off and on for 45 minutes, allowing his mom to fold and put away laundry. 
Source: Good Morning America