My family’s recent move to a new residence doubled as an opportunity to upgrade our cable service to Verizon’s fiber optic service (FIOS), which has received rave reviews. FIOS is not yet ubiquitous, so I looked online to confirm its availability in our neighborhood. Their website said it wasn’t available, which perplexed me because our neighbor, who shares not just the same zip code, city and street, but also the same address, lot and common wall, has FIOS in his home.

After navigating Verizon’s automated customer service purgatory, I told the young man who finally came on the line what I wanted. He got my cursory information, put me on hold for about 6 months, and then confessed he had incorrectly entered my address, so would need to repeat the process. He placed me on hold again and returned just short of our one year anniversary in our new house. Good news: he had the correct address. Bad news: FIOS wasn’t available. “That can’t be because I can hear FIOS TV through the wall of my neighbor’s house.” (Okay, this wasn’t true, but adds a little “Je ne sais quoi” to this tale.) My personalized Verizon customer service representative confidently assured me that my logic about service to adjacent residences was flawed and it was indeed possible to have service in one home, but not in the one next to it. “Why is that?”, I asked. He hesitated, and then said, “I don’t know.” We mutually agreed to get someone on the line who would. I assumed – incorrectly – we were through. “One more thing”, he said and following the prompts on his screen, informed me that I had qualified for some unrelated Verizon service. I asked with incredulity why he would try to upsell me when he hadn’t yet resolved the problem related to the services I did want. His response? “I’m only doing my job, sir.”

Ironically, all of this took place while I drove to Enterprise Rent-A-Car at LAX in an effort to recuperate the garage door remote that I left in the car I had returned a few days prior. No, I’m not making this up to embellish the story. I was having one of those days. While Verizon focused on their agenda, the Enterprise rep actually broke a company policy – albeit a minor one – to accommodate me.

Although I remain frustrated about not having FIOS, as I reflect on the Verizon encounter, something else bothers me more. The young man was guilty of blindly following instructions and rationalizing his behavior with “I was just doing my job.” Yes, unemployment is high and he’s probably happy to have one. Maybe he’ll think more independently by his 21st birthday. But what of the Verizon team that designed the call center processes and the executives who authorized it? They’re experienced enough to value the importance of excellent customer service, but don’t seem to.

I don’t mean to single out Verizon. This type of encounter happens with many businesses and most claim to value customer service. There are myriad firms, including mine, categorized as “Service Providers”. Within many such companies, the term “customer service” flows more freely than beer on Labor Day weekend. Too often, in our effort to increase market share, appease shareholders, or check one more thing off the To Do list, true customer service becomes a casualty.

Tiffany’s-like customer service, which I summarize as treating your clients as if they were a cross between your only client and your parents, includes delivering what you promise, acknowledging your limitations, and not just admitting when you screw up – but fixing it pronto. This approach sounds basic – even clichéd – but the list of companies that execute this strategy is probably shorter than my hold time with Verizon. Ironically, this elevated service is sometimes counter-productive to short-term sales. However, such customer-focused diligence will have a greater long-term impact on the four “Rs” of business development: Revenue, Reputation, Repeat Business, and Referrals.

Our firm, MB Interim Leaders, provides companies with executives to work on interim engagements, but what we truly sell is stellar customer service. We are not Apple or Microsoft with monopolistic influence. Although the human resources we provide are of excellent quality, we are not the only show in town. We believe so strongly that service is a key competitive differentiator; it is a central tenet of our corporate strategy. We tell potential clients upfront that our goal is to win and maintain their business with customer service. Based on results, this strategy seems to resonate with them.

As for getting my FIOS, after being transferred and put back into some call center abyss, I explained the situation again to the next customer service rep. She replied that I had been transferred to the wrong department and would need to be transferred again.*

*A true story.