Customer Service

Costco shines as a model of consistent customer service

By Mark Lusky | April 7, 2017

Between CRM technologies, customer-facing protocols verging on obeisant, and attempted customer service upselling, the customer service mindset is getting really confusing. There are data mining, tracking and training challenges galore.

And that’s just for the customer service workforce. The poor customer often is left with a spinning head and/or feeling of just having been examined by aliens. That seemingly simple outreach to answer a routine label printing question, for example, can turn into a complicated conversation that asks for survey feedback along with queries about other wants or needs. Frustration ensues over the perceived needless complication of a simple request.

For those exasperated by this state of customer service affairs, there’s an excellent model to follow. It’s one that has proven itself worldwide and has led to this specialty retailer shining brightly among many also-rans.

Yep, it’s Costco. If you’re a devotee like me (actually, I border on addiction), you already have a picture of what I’m talking about. Besides bullet-proof return policies that dwarf anyone else in the big-box store arena, Costco just “gets it” at all levels of customer service interaction (and feedback).

Following are Costco’s policies and procedures that just about any company can model to evaluate and improve their customer service efforts:

Straight answers, no sizzle. As a rule, Costco customer service reps answer your questions, period. There are no phony, scripted follow-ups asking about your just-completed customer experience and what else they can do for you today. They figure, correctly, that customers will take the initiative to get more information if needed. And there is definitely no upselling.

Translated to the rest of the business world, this means three requirements for the customer-facing service rep: a) listen closely and ask confirming questions if necessary; b) address the query as truthfully and completely as possible (and get back to the customer if needed to ensure providing the right information); c) ask if the response is sufficient. Flowery, long-winded commentary beyond that is not necessary and can be counter-productive.

Common-sense alternative to survey mania. Just like any other company, Costco offers surveys and feedback systems. But, instead of slamming the customer with requests during phone calls, constant emails, and follow-up calls/texts, Costco employs “old school” methods. There is a “suggestion box” strategically located within stores, and occasionally they ask for feedback regarding a specific issue via snail mail. It’s non-intrusive, and allows the customer to respond if/when it’s convenient. The very clear message for all the survey-manic companies out there is to back off. Wanting to know how your customers feel and where to make improvements is extremely important, but use discretion in how and how often to reach out.

Somewhere along the line, the corporate model switched from one of indifferent, even hostile, customer service to making the interaction as fulsome and full of purposes as possible. Customer service has, in too many cases, morphed into a sales and survey experience.

Quit apologizing so much. This non-Costco customer experience can be infuriating: A customer contacts a service rep, upset and agitated. The first response from the rep is to apologize for the issue (usually in an obviously semi-phony scripted way). Whatever happened to addressing the problem straight-on, with a statement about doing everything possible to correct a deficiency? Customers typically don’t want apologies; they want resolution, or at least a sincere effort to get there.

In contrast, Costco’s apologies are few and far between, and are appropriate to the situation – not a one-size-fits-all salve. Customer service reps are problem-solvers. Their demeanor is professional and generally friendly without being ingratiating. Of course, they don’t need to apologize a lot. Costco’s return policy covers most concerns.

It’s a primary reason why they do so much business. Customers know they won’t have a tussle returning items, unlike many restrictive retail policies that make people think long and hard before making a purchase.

They sell high-quality stuff. Costco vets its products exhaustively, meaning that both quality and customer confidence in that quality are high. Since part of customer service is to offer a superior product or service in the first place, this should be a no-brainer. But how many times do customer service exchanges occur because of quality deficiencies, followed by a draconian return (or perhaps no-return) policy that leaves the customer stuck?

In the final analysis, making sure your products and services are all they can be, coupled with top-notch return guarantees, will solidify customer confidence – and longtime loyalty.
By examining and following the Costco model, companies can achieve excellent customer service results without having to invest in a bunch of new technology or training.


Mark Lusky is a marketing communications professional who has worked with Lightning Labels, an all-digital custom label printer in Denver, CO, USA, since 2008. Find Lightning Labels on Facebook for special offers and label printing news.