If you ever want a quick lesson in customer service, call the phone company.

I just experienced the best and the worst customer service when trying to reactivate my Internet, phone and cable TV service after an extended time away. I had called the company ahead to switch from vacation mode to full service but when we arrived home again, there was no signal.

The ecstasy part started when a competent and friendly person named Ram showed up on Sunday morning. It took him an hour to string a new coaxial cable and all three services got activated. Still some TV boxes did not recognize the signal so Ram made various office calls, rebooted the signals and bingo, it worked. He did not have to do this but went the extra mile.

Now for the agony: a third cable box, which also records TV programs while watching others, was still having problems. Whenever I called the customer service, I got rerouted to the wrong customer representative. The reason: I have both residential and business service from this company, due to my home office setup. Keeping this straight turned out to be a major challenge for the call center.

When I called the 800 number, I spoke first to residential representatives, but then got kicked back to business representatives--creating a loop I could not break without a “warm handoff.” After waiting 25 minutes, with many reassuring pre-recorded messages that my call was very important, I finally got through, then got dropped again, had to start over, reached wrong desk etc.

Here are four imperatives that any business owner can pull from this experience:

1.Keep customers happy all the time. My provider really excelled at getting a new line set up quickly but crushed the experience when it came to keeping me, an existing customer, happy. If you want to really delight customers, all systems need to integrate and focus on the customer experience, rather than your internal needs and departments. Try to maintain a high quality standard across the entire value chain so that ecstasy on one side is not ruined by agony somewhere else.

2. Follow through all the way. On the phone, each agent seemed narrowly focused and would quickly pass the problem onto someone else, without staying on the line. They may be rewarded for how quickly they solve a customer problem or pass it on. This is how customers end up in infinite loops. American Express excels at tracking and following customers across various channels, as does Macy's department stores. You can’t hold customers responsible for follow up - this is your task since customers routinely drop or lose the ball.

3. Know your customer intimately. Cable and other service providers often suffer from amnesia once a customer is transferred internally. The whole information gathering routine starts all over. Excellent customer service means having records at every touch point about your customer, including a retrievable footprint. Amazon and Target do this very well in mass retailing. Four Seasons does it well personally - they remember your room, food and wine preferences.

4. Put your executives on the front line. Have executives call in from a regular customer number, with a normal set of issues, so they experience your service the way customers do. Ask execs to do a stint in the call center, stand behind the sales counter, or check-in guests at the front desk if you are a hotel. Don’t just smell your own perfume but reach out to customers as well. Try to staple yourself to a work order (figuratively), so you experience the entire customer buying process.

Above all, don't assume that your customers are a captive audience. Mobile technology and social media are making consumers very smart and nimble. Also, non-traditional competitors (like Apple, Google, Amazon) will weaken your grip on customers through new technologies that will disrupt your business model.

For company leaders, this means peering into the future through scenario planning, segmenting your business from multiple angles and running war-gaming exercises to stay ahead of rivals. The aim is not just to delight customers today but to build organizational capabilities to do so tomorrow as well, when a new generation of customers will be in the driver seat.

Published on: Jan 27, 2014
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.