Customer Service and Helping Individuals For Free

It was a cold day in February in Meadville, Pennsylvania. On most days during the winter season it can easily sink into the teens, dropping down to single digits and even into the negatives late at night while students are awake, their heads wrapped around books and little else.

Outside of my dorm, in the parking lot, someone is trying to back out of their spot. When they step on the gas to accelerate, their car chassis writhes around and their wheels spin in place with little more than slight jerk from the car. It had snowed the night before, so the asphalt was especially slick.

“Need help?” I ask the driver as he steps out of the car.

“I could definitely use some,” he insists.

And so I start trying to push his car out of his spot. I’m not very strong, but pushing works a little bit. I struggle, his car struggles more, but eventually the tires grab ahold of something and propel the car backwards and out of the spot. I feel like Superman, and he gives me a thumbs up as a he drives off.

I have always enjoyed helping people. Mostly small things, sure, but rarely have I ever seen someone disgruntled or upset if I’ve offered to help them with something. People like being helped.

And yet it seems that only individuals ever offer to help someone for free. Although business is heavily rooted in solving problems — helping people in some way or providing some sort of expertise — rarely is that advice and expertise ever free. More often than not is it provided at a cost.

How Apple and Zappos Have Seized the Opportunity

But what if your business did supply free customer service for individuals with problems or issues related to your field of expertise? What if instead of seeking out opportunities to sell individuals on your services, you instead sought opportunities to help them out in any way you could in order to make their customer service experience as seamless as possible?

That sort of mentality — the help one, help all mentality — is one that underlies such the customer service successful companies as Apple and Zappos. As opposed to simply looking for ways to sell their products (although make no mistake, that is their end-game), both companies have created brilliant strategies for helping out customers in any way they can.

For Zappos, their emphasis lies in being the most useful, efficient and effective customer service machine that they can be. They encourage customers to try anything and everything on, ensuring that return shipping is free and that turnaround time is extremely quick. Thus, customers don’t have to worry about being charged for return shipping on something that originally didn’t fit them in the first place.

Further, they enjoy listening to and speaking with customers on the phone. There are no scripts, time limits or other arbitrary systems in place to speed up and increase the number of calls that customer service can get through on an hourly basis. Instead, Zappos just wants customers to be happy with their purchasing decisions. They want to provide, as one Zappos customer put it, “happiness in a box.”

By being extremely helpful and useful to their customers at something that costs customers nothing, Zappos was able to develop a business that saw more than $1 billion in sales by 2008, and is still pursuing their essential goal of ‘delivering happiness’ even after being purchased by Amazon in 2009.

Apple: Making People Feel Like Geniuses 

When Apple first introduced their Apple stores in 2001, they weren’t concerned so much with selling products as they were with creating an experience. For one, employees aren’t hellbent on making the sale and driving profits; instead, they want customers to leave with the satisfaction that all of their problems have been solved, and all crises addressed. Apple’s ex-VP of Retail Ron Johnson compares their retail mentality to other retailers who are solely focused on upselling and cross-selling, adding that, “[Selling] doesn’t enrich their lives, and it doesn’t deepen the retailer’s relationship with them. It just makes their wallets lighter.”

And Apple stores don’t charge customers or require them to have Applecare plans in order to benefit from a lot of their one-on-one help and aid. They simply encourage customers with Apple products — regardless of whether they are old or new — to come in and seek any help that they might require, from the simple to the complex.

And obviously, that mentality has hugely benefited Apple, drawing it increasingly more and more sales year-over-year and making it the #1 retailer in sales per square foot.

Using Zappos and Apple as Models for Business

Zappos, Apple and a lot of other successful businesses have proven that profits and success don’t necessarily have to mean cutting back and focusing on the sale. Instead, they have shown us that the experience is a far more important piece of the puzzle. Having customers that return to your business again and again not because of your products but because of the people and the experience is far more meaningful (and profitable) to overall business than aiming to simply maximize profits and minimize expenses.

So help your customers for free. Provide them with free information through blogs or informational sessions that not only reflect on your expertise as a leader in your industry, but also help them in one way or another. If a friend, client or customer has an issue with something that you would normally charge for, help them for free and don’t expect them to immediately give you anything in return.

And then just sit back and watch the seeds grow. The more that you show others that you are a competent, confident and helpful individual, the more that they will be interested in seeking you out for your products or services.

And know that the ‘sale’ is just one tiny part of the whole experience.