Jeff Toister on a guaranteed customer experience

Guaranteeing a great experience for your customers isn’t hard, but are you actually delivering on that promise?


We all know an outstanding customer experience can set you apart from the competition, but is it possible, or wise, to guarantee it? Well, for Jeff Toister, an experienced author, consultant, keynote speaker, and customer experience enthusiast who’s been working in customer service ever since he first landed a job as a retail assistant when he was 16 years old, it is. In fact, he went and wrote a whole book about it.

It’s not the first one he’s written, either. The Guaranteed Customer Experience joins a growing list of works such as The Service Culture Handbook and Customer Service Tip of the Week – a book that brings together the 52 most popular tips from his weekly email blast. It dives right into this idea of a guarantee, covering everything from the first American salesman to use a money-back guarantee in a land riddled with snake oil salesmen to a beloved gas station and convenience store chain with a mission to provide their visitors a squeaky-clean bathroom.

The key to earning (and keeping) our customers’ trust and business, Jeff says, is in the promises we make and expectations we meet, no matter how small. In fact, Jeff puts his money where his mouth is – you’ll find even the book comes with its own guarantee.

In this episode, we sat down with Jeff to talk about the promises we make to our customers, the commitment we need to put in to keep them, and how to make things right when they inevitably go wrong.

If you’re short on time, here are a few quick takeaways:

  • To create an experience guarantee that allows you to win over customers, you need to figure out the problem they’re trying to solve, align your communication around a promise to solve it, and actually make a commitment to keep that promise.
  • However, there will always be a time when you’re not able to keep your promise. The third step, then, is recovery – how can you restore trust so the customer will give you another chance?
  • Restoring trust is not just about apologies or discounts. It’s about listening to the customer, trying to understand the underlying problem your service failed to address, and finding a way to right that wrong.
  • The more specific you are about the problem your service solves, the easier it is to keep your promise. When companies try to be all things to all people, they end up not being very good.
  • The problem isn’t employees’ lack of motivation to provide a great experience – it’s de-motivation. Make sure they have the proper tools and resources to do their job, and the whole company is aligned around that mission.

If you enjoy our discussion, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify, or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.


A lifetime of customer service

Liam Geraghty: Jeff, thank you so much for joining us and you’re very welcome to the show.

Jeff Toister: Liam, thanks for having me here. I appreciate it.

Liam: To start off, could you give us a little bit of a background on yourself and your career to date?

“From day one, I’ve been obsessed with customer service and customer experience”

Jeff: Sure. Well, I’m lucky enough that I think from day one, I’ve been obsessed with customer service and customer experience, and in particular, how people can be their best in that environment. Early in my career, I worked in the corporate world. I ran customer service departments, training departments, often had responsibility for both. Mid-career, I took a bit of a detour and left the corporate world to start my own customer service training company. That evolved over time, and today, I’m really in the content business. So I research, write about, and give presentations about customer service and customer experience.

Liam: Excellent. So you’re the perfect person to talk to about this. We’re going to be talking about your latest book, The Guaranteed Customer Experience: How To Win Customers By Keeping Your Promises. And where did this interest in customer experience come from in the first place? Was it there from the get-go?

“The most frustrating part of it, I think, is that what the person or the company should have done always seems obvious”

Jeff: It was. And I think it came from two places, really. One, like all of us, yourself, your listeners, we’re all customers. And we’ve all been frustrated by a bad experience. And the most frustrating part of it, I think, is that what the person or the company should have done always seems obvious. That’s what makes it even more frustrating. Like, why didn’t they just do this?

I’ve also been on the other side of it. And being on the other side of the counter, or the other side of the phone, or the other side of the website, I know how difficult it is behind the scenes to get different departments to work together, or even members of the same team. And that’s always fascinated me. How do we solve that problem so we can align with the basic expectations of the customer, which is doing what you say you’re going to do? So, it’s always been there for me.

A rocky start

Liam: I’m not sure if this was in your book or I read it elsewhere, but wasn’t your first job in a retail store? Was that where you got first-hand experience of being thrown in at the deep end?

Jeff: Well, you’ve done your research. That story was not in the book. It is in another book of mine, Getting Service Right. But yeah, my very first job, my first day, I was 15 minutes into it, and the person who was supposed to be training me announced that she was going on break and was going to leave me alone in the men’s department. I didn’t know our product. I really didn’t know what I was doing. I hadn’t even met my coworkers. And so, I really just hoped that I’d somehow survive until she came back. And of course, as soon as she leaves, a customer comes up to me, and you can already tell he was a little bit irritated by who knows what. He asked me if we carried a particular brand of pants called Dockers, and I had no idea.

“He got even more irritated, turned around, and literally just stormed out of the store, muttering about kids these days and bad customer service”

And so, I kind of looked around, and I was so nervous and just so out of my element, I couldn’t stop my mouth from saying what my brain was thinking, which was, “I don’t know.” And he got even more irritated, turned around, and literally just stormed out of the store, muttering about kids these days and bad customer service. I felt terrible after that. And I guess, in a way, I was lucky that was my first experience because I knew I didn’t do the right thing, and I vowed to learn from that situation. But I also realized I wasn’t put in a place to succeed. The person who should have been training me had no business going on a break after only 15 minutes and hoping some 16-year-old kid was going to know what to do.

Liam: Yeah, 100%. I remember a very similar experience when I was 16 working in a retail department. In your introduction to The Guaranteed Customer Experience, you have this wonderful example of some very early customer service in the 1800s, which I’d love to hear you tell. I suppose customer service and experience, at one point in time, just barely existed, with the likes of snake oil salesman traveling around, making any claims they liked about their products.

“At the time, snake oil salesmen were really going from town to town, selling all kinds of miracle cures that were unproven”

Jeff: When you mention snake oil salesmen, one of the things I’ve sometimes thought about is what was it like before the advent of not only the internet but the phone, for example? When I was researching the book, I came across a story of an entrepreneur named J.R. Watkins. He was in Minnesota in the 1800s. It was a very, very rural area. He had invented a pain-relieving liniment, and at the time, snake oil salesmen were really going from town to town, selling all kinds of miracle cures that were unproven. In fact, a lot of them were laden with narcotics and opioids. They were incredibly dangerous. And they could make all kinds of unproven claims – they would sell their wares, leave town, and never be seen again.

J.R. Watkins wanted to create a stable business where he would go from town to town and maybe come back every couple of months and sell some more. So he came up with this idea which is thought to be the first money-back guarantee in the United States. Other places around the world may have pre-dated this type of guarantee, but in the US, it’s thought to be the first instance.

“If he came back around and he had to give everybody a refund, he’d soon be out of business. So he better have a good product if he’s going to make such a claim”

And what he came up with for his pain-relieving liniment based upon a natural product called camphor was a mark on the bottle. It was called the trial mark. If he sold you a bottle and you used the bottle, but the liquid in the bottle did not go below the trial mark, when he came back around again, probably a couple months later, if you were dissatisfied, as long as the bottle was full above that trial mark, he would give you your money back.

And so, it really did two things. One is it gave an extra boost of confidence to a customer, “I can try this, and if it doesn’t work, I’m not going to be out of my hard-earned money.” But it also gave him an incentive to not only create a good product but create a good relationship. If he came back around and he had to give everybody a refund, he’d soon be out of business. So he better have a good product if he’s going to make such a claim.

It was interesting to read that story because it happened in the 1800s. If you had a bad experience back then, you couldn’t go online and rave about it on social media or post a bad review. None of that existed. And so, relationships just worked a bit differently back then.

Customer experience vs customer service

Liam: Your book is all about how leading organizations use experience guarantees to fuel customer-driven growth. Before we get into that, I thought it might be useful to hear the difference between customer experience and customer service, because I think they get mixed up a lot.

Jeff: They do get mixed up a lot. Customers will sometimes use them interchangeably. Companies often use them interchangeably. In fact, there’s a big trend where customer service teams will rename themselves the customer experience team because it sounds better, but they don’t do anything different. And it happens to be a very important distinction.

Customer service is part of the broader customer experience. What is customer experience? It really is all of the interactions a customer has with a brand and how they feel about those interactions. If you think about any brand that you might do business with, it’s not just the people you interact with – it’s their advertising, the packaging. If it’s a physical location, the location itself, the ambiance, the decor. It’s how well their product or service works. It’s the payment and billing process. It’s delivery. It’s everything. It’s really quite a broad spectrum, and in many organizations, it spans multiple departments that touch that customer.

“If you’re in customer service, you probably spend most of your day solving customer experience problems caused by another department”

Customer service is the assistance a company provides to help a customer with its products or services. That’s a very specific part of customer experience, often the most important or most memorable part. But they’re absolutely different.

A simple way to tell the two apart is: if you’re in customer service, you probably spend most of your day solving customer experience problems caused by another department – a defective product, a late shipment, a billing error. That’s customer experience. But now they come to you and ask you to help them solve that problem. And that’s the part of customer experience we call service.

Are you really listening?

Liam: So, in the first instance, how do you identify that problem that your customer is trying to solve?

Jeff: Well, and that’s a big part of it. The whole concept of an experience guarantee is based on the idea that your customer is trying to solve a problem, and that’s the insight you need to have to create a wonderful experience and experience guarantee. The way you do this is by listening to your customers. And while that seems simplistic, I don’t think we’re as good at listening as we’d like to believe. I’ll give you an example. In the news here today, there’s an airline I won’t name that canceled over 2,500 flights over the past couple of days. And they’ve stranded thousands of passengers.

“I don’t think we’re as good at listening as we’d like to believe”

If you were to think about it, maybe from the airline’s point of view, you might say, “Well, the problem is that the flight was canceled.” But that’s not really the problem the customer was trying to solve. The customer’s trying to get from A to B because they were going to their son’s college homecoming weekend, or they were going to a friend’s wedding, or visit their aunt who’s in the hospital and needs some extra help right now. That’s the problem those customers were trying to solve. They’re trying to get somewhere else. And now, especially for many people mid-trip, in addition to not being able to visit their son or their friend or their aunt, they have an additional financial expense of hiring a car, booking a flight on a different airline, or spending an extra night in a hotel. That’s truly the problem that these angry customers are now trying to solve.

If you listen on the surface, you might say, “Oh, their problem is that their flight was canceled.” But if you listen carefully, the real problem is, “My aunt’s in the hospital. I’m not able to get to her. And I’m on a budget and I don’t have money for car hire or an extra night in a hotel. And I’m really in dire straits.”

Liam: Once you’ve identified the problem, what are the next steps?

Jeff: There are three steps. And these three steps are the basis of creating an experience guarantee that allows you to win customers and retain them. We have to first start with what is a guarantee? A guarantee is a form of assurance. And again, why are customers worried? They’re worried because they have some sort of problem that they’re trying to solve, whether it’s visiting their aunt in a hospital, or getting pain relief, or just getting a nice meal. And if we’re going to create that form of assurance, the three steps that you can take are one, promise to solve the problem. That’s often our marketing communication, but it could also be a customer service provider saying. “I’m going to take care of this for you.”

“Solving the problem won’t be a discount on a future flight or anything like that. For most of those passengers, it’s finally getting them to their destination”

It’s not enough to just make a promise, though. And so, the second step is we have to keep our promise. In the book, I talk about a gas station convenience store that promises clean restrooms. That seems to be a kind of a low-level thing, but if you’ve ever been on a road trip and you need a restroom, that’s very important. Well, there’s another competitor that also promises to create clean restrooms. And the difference between the two is only one of them actually has clean restrooms. And so, making a promise in your marketing or advertising is not enough. You have to now act to make sure that promise is kept.

That brings us to the third step. No matter what you do, there will always be a time when you’re unable to keep your promises, or at least in your customer’s mind, you did not keep your promise. That third step, then, is recovery. You have to find a way to restore trust so that your customer is willing to give you another chance. That often involves not just an apology or maybe a discount, but truly understanding what problem was that customer trying to solve and how can we put them back in a good place. I talked about this airline a moment ago. Solving the problem won’t be a discount on a future flight or anything like that. For most of those passengers, it’s finally getting them to their destination and hopefully making sure they aren’t out hundreds or even thousands of dollars during their inconvenience.

Liam: I love the restroom example because it’s such a simple one. It’s such a simple thing, just keeping your restrooms clean, but it just goes to show. The example that you used, I think it was Buc-ee’s, in Texas. I could see why that would make anyone want to stop there.

“Buc-ee’s understands this, and so they said, ‘We’re going to promise you clean restrooms'”

Jeff: Buc-ee’s is a really fascinating place because, on the surface, their claim to fame is the world’s cleanest restrooms. I’ve been on road trips in a lot of places. And I don’t know if this is true for you, but at least in the United States, 40% of Americans say they worry about finding a clean restroom on a road trip. And it’s horribly, horribly inconsistent. Either they’re broken, or they’re too small, so there’s a long line, or they haven’t been cleaned in 50 years, and you can tell. It’s such a small thing, but that’s what people are looking for when they make a stop on a road trip.

Buc-ee’s understands this, and so they said, “We’re going to promise you clean restrooms.” And I’m not exaggerating, but the restrooms at our typical Buc-ee’s are larger than a lot of convenience stores. Like, the entire store would fit inside the Buc-ee’s restroom. It’s amazing. By overdoing it, they’re ensuring that promise is kept. And when you look at online reviews about Buc-ee’s – I don’t want to sell them short because they have an amazing selection, their employees are incredibly friendly, it’s a wonderful place –, you showed up for the restrooms. 46% of online Yelp reviews of Buc-ee’s mention the restrooms. They do a lot of other things really remarkably well, but it’s the restrooms that get you in and make sure that’s a must-stop when you’re traveling.

Laser-like focus

Liam: With all the points that customer experience touches on, I can imagine that some people might feel overwhelmed. Is that something that they should be worried about, being overwhelmed?

“When you promise to solve a particular problem, you’re also saying, in effect, ‘If your problem falls outside of this, we might not be the best choice for you'”

Jeff: Well, I think being overwhelmed is what causes the worry. And there’s some good news. If you can get past that initial feeling of being overwhelmed, when you focus on solving a particular problem, it allows you to concentrate your efforts on that because you cannot be all things to all customers.

We’ll go back to Buc-ee’s as an example. Buc-ee’s is the place for people to stop on a road trip, but they are not the place for trucks to stop on a road trip. Trucks need a whole different set of services. And so, one of the choices that Buc-ee’s has made is that “We’re not even going to allow these large trucks to come to Buc-ee’s. We don’t have any services for them.” And there’s plenty of other places that do.

“When companies try to be all things to all people, they end up not being very good”

When you promise to solve a particular problem, you’re also saying, in effect, “If your problem falls outside of this, we might not be the best choice for you.” Now, why is that smart? Because once you do that, while you can’t be all things to all people, you can be a really good solution to some people. That narrows your options, and it also allows you to focus a bit more.

Once you identify that problem and you make a particular promise, then you can focus on your customer experience. Whether it’s your marketing, operations, delivery, customer support, you name it, your focus can be on keeping that promise. That’s an important aspect because it gives you that focus. When companies try to be all things to all people, they end up not being very good. And even when you give them a try, they’ve spread themselves so thin that they struggle to really execute. I think having an experience guarantee allows you to be a lot more focused and make smarter decisions.

Earning customers’ trust back

Liam: We talked about customer service earlier. I’m wondering where that fits into all of this and the customer experience guarantee side of things.

Jeff: Well, it really depends on the company and the situation. However, in many instances, especially if we’re talking about contact centers, which I imagine is a big part of your audience, we’re often at that stage three. A promise has been broken, trust is eroded, and now we need to recover. We need to restore faith.

And I’ll give you a wonderful example of that. Years ago, I was about to start a webinar for a client. The stakes were high. They were paying me. They had assembled their entire team, so a lot of schedules have been rearranged. And about 30 minutes before the webinar was about to start, the webinar software wasn’t working. Now I’m really worried, right? The problem I’m trying to solve is to not disappoint my client. And the impediment to that is that the software is not working.

“I wasn’t very happy with this software, but I remained a customer for two more years just because of that one tech support rep’s actions”

I frantically contact tech support. Fortunately, I got somebody on the phone. That’s not always possible, but I needed a live person right then and there. And the amazing thing was this person truly heard what problem I was trying to solve because she got the software working very quickly. But she also did something I’ll never forget. She understood my anxiety really came from making sure that things went smoothly with my client. And she said, “I think we’ve solved the problem, but if you don’t mind, I’m going to stay on the line with you until you start the webinar, just to make sure everything’s running smoothly. And I’ll be right here if anything goes wrong.”

That was what restored my trust. Not that, “Okay, the glitch is fixed. Now go on with your day.” It was, “I’m here for you. I’m your safety blanket, and if anything seems like it’s going wrong with your big event, I’m right there to help you out.” I was thinking about switching webinar software providers. This was well before Zoom and a few of the other products people use now. I wasn’t very happy with this software, but I remained a customer for two more years just because of that one tech support rep’s actions, because she understood it wasn’t the glitch. It was about restoring my trust in the software.

Customer-centricity across the board

Liam: Wow. If you’re a business looking into customer experiences, how do you motivate your employees to get on board?

“They don’t show up for their first day thinking, ‘I’m going to slack off. I’m going to do a terrible job. I’m going to be miserable.’ They’re excited. They’re happy to be there”

Jeff: I’ve had the privilege in my career of literally speaking with thousands of customer service employees. And what’s very interesting about motivation is that that’s not a problem. That’s not the problem we’re trying to solve in the workplace. We think it is. We talk a lot about motivation, but I think we’ve got it all wrong. Let me explain what I mean.

If you’ve hired correctly, if you’ve done a good job choosing someone to work for your organization, they arrive at day one with tons of motivation. If you’ve hired them for the right job, they don’t show up for their first day thinking, “I’m going to slack off. I’m going to do a terrible job. I’m going to be miserable.” They’re excited. They’re happy to be there. They’re imagining all these great things that are about to happen.

“The issue is not really motivation – it’s de-motivation”

Our problem is de-motivation. After a certain amount of time, usually once they finish training, reality sets in. And they see the disparity between the service they had hoped to provide or the job they had hoped to do and what they’re actually able to accomplish. There are restrictive policies. There’s infighting between departments. Tools and resources are completely lacking. Goals don’t seem to be aligned with actually serving customers. Bosses don’t seem to understand.

There are all of these obstacles in the way, and over time, it de-motivates employees, sometimes to the point where something called learned helplessness kicks in. And that’s this feeling of, no matter what I do, it’s not going to make a difference. Why even try? The issue is not really motivation – it’s de-motivation. And when you look at the most customer-focused, customer-centric companies, and you wonder how they get their employees like this, it’s because their employees are consistently winning and they’re consistently doing a great job. And so, their version of reality is probably a much closer fit to what they imagined when they joined the company than all those other organizations.

A true commitment to problem-solving

Liam: Just to go back to the very start, when we’re talking about JR Watkins and his tonic, I suppose it’s the same then as it is now in that, if you’re going to make a guarantee, it requires real commitment.

Jeff: Absolutely. And that is what sets a true guarantee apart from just saying the words. I mean, we hear people using those words all the time. “Well, I guarantee it.” How many times has a friend said, “You should come with me. I guarantee you’re going to have a lot of fun.” And then you don’t have fun, and then you ask your friend, “What are you going to give me now? I think you owe me a refund.” That doesn’t happen. It’s just empty words. A true guarantee does require a commitment. And it has to be something that you’re willing to do to ensure that it happens. But also, again, a plan, if you will, to restore trust.

“What makes that right at that moment? What will get me to come back to that dealership? An apology, a discount? No, I’d still have a scratch there”

I’ll give you a quick example. I had my car in for service last week. And when I got my car back, I noticed a scratch on the door that hadn’t been there before. I think we’d all agree that’s a service failure. What makes that right at that moment? What will get me to come back to that dealership? An apology, a discount? No, I’d still have a scratch there. Fixing the scratch? That’s not going to make it right either because I have to now leave the car for another day, which means go home and come back another day. That’s probably an hour out of my way. That’s not going to fix it necessarily either.

And so, it takes a different level of commitment. What the dealer ended up doing, happy coincidence, there was another scratch on the same door. And the employee offered to take that one out too. So that was about restoring trust, right? Because now I went from kind of feeling like I was losing to feeling like I was gaining. And that’s a different level of commitment. It’s not enough to say, “I guarantee it.” You have to take action to fulfil your promises. And if your promises are ever broken, you have to do something to restore trust so that your customer’s willing to give you another try. That takes a lot of effort.

Practice what you preach

Liam: 100%. Before we wrap up, I just want to ask you what’s next. Do you have any big plans or projects for the rest of the year or next year?

Jeff: It’s funny, Liam. You write a book, and then people are saying, “All right, what’s next?” One of the things that I’m really focused on right now is talking to a lot of business leaders about how to execute. When you write a book, it’s one thing to say, “I’ve done the research. I’ve talked to organizations. I’ve talked to leaders. Here is the plan.” And now, when people start reading the book, they find maybe it’s different than they imagined. If I’m going to write a book about guarantees, I need to be making that same commitment myself. So I’ll tell you, and I’ll tell your listeners. On page five of the book, I put my phone number and my email address. And I have a guarantee.

That’s what I’m spending time on now. My guarantee is that if you read the book, you will earn and retain more customers. And if you don’t, there’s even a website. You can contact me and set up a one-on-one appointment, and we’re going to figure out how to solve it and make it right so that I can keep my promise. And that’s what I’m working on right now. And it’s been fun. I haven’t had to collect on the guarantee yet because the process does work, but I still provide support to business leaders as they’re trying to implement these concepts. And it’s a lot of fun for me to talk to people who are doing the work on a daily basis.

“If I’m going to write a book about guarantees, I need to be making that same commitment myself”

Liam: Lastly, where can our listeners go to keep up with you and your work?

Jeff: One of the easiest ways for people to find me is at guaranteedexperience.com. They can download the first chapter of the book at no charge. And that actually gives them my phone number and email address. It’s right there on page five, as I mentioned. Another place, and I imagine, again, a lot of customer service leaders are listening, I have a free customer service tip of the week. It’s one tip, via email, once per week. Anybody can sign up for it. It’s at toistersolutions.com/tips. I know that customer service leaders all over the world use the weekly tip as either a discussion topic or even a micro training topic for their teams. It’s designed to help you keep your skills sharp.

Liam: Brilliant. That’s a great idea. Well, Jeff, thank you so much for talking to us today. It’s been a pleasure.

Jeff: The pleasure’s mine, Liam. I really appreciate it.

Retention Starter Kit – 2019 updated images