How to take your customer service from unforgivable to unforgettable, with Micah Solomon

Some businesses seem to have mastered the art of exceptional customer service. What is their secret?

As customer expectations continue to rise and businesses compete ever more for their attention and loyalty, delivering exceptional service is no longer just a nice-to-have – it’s an absolute necessity. The question is, what does it take to create a culture that delivers those experiences?

Micah Solomon is a seasoned customer service consultant, speaker, and author of books such as Exceptional Service, Exceptional Profit: The Secrets of Building a Five-Star Customer Service Organization and High-Tech, High Touch Customer Service. Earlier in his career, he built a manufacturing business “from a spare bedroom” in his house into the second-largest company in the niche. And it wasn’t because his widgets were any better than anyone else’s – it was because he realized that providing a great customer experience was not only a differentiator but a vital ingredient for success.

In his most recent work, Ignore Your Customers (And They’ll Go Away), Micah reveals how to elevate your customer experiences and establish a customer service culture that’ll transform your business. Drawing on anecdotes and insights from iconic brands such as Apple, Amazon, and The Ritz-Carlton, he shows how to go the extra mile and offer truly exceptional customer service.

In today’s episode, we caught up with Micah Solomon to talk about what it takes to elevate a bland customer interaction into an unforgettable experience that drives lifelong loyalty.

Short on time? Here are a few key takeaways:

  • In customer service, there should be a default of yes. Except in matters of security, safety, privacy, health, or ethics, the answer should be yes, unless you offer reasonable alternatives.
  • For Micah, CS culture has two main elements: the way the company treats its customer; and the way it treats its employees. And generally, those that are best for employees are also best for customers.
  • Stress levels impact a positive CS culture. By hiring the right employees, and creating positive peer pressure and situational empathy, companies can perform well even when stress is high.
  • Wowing customers creates stories they will remember and share with others for years to come, even if they eventually switch to a different brand.
  • To meet rising customer expectations, focus on the customer in front of you and consider integrating AI technology to help employees better serve customers.

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

A competitive edge

Liam Geraghty: Micah, welcome to the show. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Micah Solomon: My pleasure, Liam. Thank you for having me.

Liam: Before we get started, could you tell us a little about what you do?

Micah: I’m a customer service consultant, speaker, trainer, and author. Inc. Magazine calls me a customer service transformation expert. I go into a company, see how they’re doing now, and we elevate it. Now, I will tell you that most companies that are already doing pretty well in their customer service contact me. I don’t want to make fun of any of your Irish Airlines, but they tend to be doing well enough that they understand the value of customer service. If they’re just terrible but still making money, they find another way to make money – they don’t usually call me.

Liam: How did you come to do all this in the first place?

“I decided I needed to reinvent myself”

Micah: Okay, there are two stories to that. The more press release friendly one is I built a manufacturing company from the ground up – from a spare bedroom in my certainly-not-zoned-for-it little house, and built it into the second-largest company in our little niche. That, by the way, is much easier than building it into the biggest. Because when you build it into the second-biggest, you can sell it to your biggest competitor because they’re getting a little nervous. I did that. I realized that our competitive advantage was the customer experience. Our widgets weren’t any rounder. They were just as good as everyone else’s. Why could we charge a small premium, an eighth of a cent per widget? Why were people so loyal? It was the experience.

John le Carré says that watching your novel being turned into a movie is like watching your oxen being turned into bouillon cubes. It’s not quite that bad, but it’s a little bit that way when you sell your company. I decided I needed to reinvent myself. I called this friend who invented all the great processes at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company. I said, “Leonardo, do you want to write a book together? You know all of this from hospitality – I know all of it from business to business.” He said, and I’m quoting, “No, I’m going to write my own book.” I called him back six months later and said, “Hey, how’s that book coming?” He said, “Oh, I haven’t done anything, but I think I’m going to go to Bermuda for a weekend and write it.” I was like, “Okay, good luck with that.” Five minutes later, he called me back sheepishly and said, “My wife says I have to write this book with you because I’m clearly not getting it done on my own.” That was my first book, Exceptional Service, Exceptional Profit.

The other story, which maybe isn’t as press release friendly, but is probably funnier, is I’ve always been a really particular person. Growing up, my brother would not sit down with me in a movie theater until I’d tried three different spots because he knew we were going to be moving again. My parents preserved this letter from the first time I went to summer camp, which basically said, “Dear Mr. and Mrs. Solomon, we are returning your son to you for the off-season. We are used to getting complaints from campers like, ‘Oh, it rains too much,’ and so forth. But your sons were much more specific, ‘The Sloppy Joe’s and the hamburgers in the mess hall didn’t pair well with the orange juice,’ ‘The whistle on the waterfront was out of tune.’ We are returning him and the rigorous pleasures of being with him until next summer.”

Liam: Oh, what a fantastic letter to have.

Micah: There you go.

The default of yes

Liam: That was your first book, and you’ve done numerous since. Am I correct in saying the last one is, Ignore Your Customers (And They’ll Go Away): The Simple Playbook for Delivering the Ultimate Customer Service Experience?

Micah: That is correct.

Liam: You use this phrase in it, “the default of yes.” What does that mean? Could you give us an example of a company that’s used it?

“If you walk into a wonderful hotel or department store, everyone is dying to say yes. They just have to figure out what you’re asking for”

Micah: The default of yes is a concept where the answer is yes, or it’s going to be yes. Now, what is your question? Not “Oh, here’s another customer. They’re going to have a demand, and I’m going to have to figure out why I need to say no.” If you walk into a wonderful hotel or department store, everyone is dying to say yes. They just have to figure out what you’re asking for.

I have an example from this Nordstrom department store. I like to wear button-down, short-sleeved shirts to show off my freckles. Nordstrom used to own Façonnable, a wonderful company. I would call Joanne, my salesperson there, and say, “Hey, I’m ready for a few more shirts.” One time, she said, “Micah, I’ve got really bad news.” I thought someone had died or something. The bad news was that Nordstrom sold Façonnable, but she literally couldn’t get the shirts anymore. But she said, “Do you have 24 hours you can give me?” I said, “Sure, take 25. It’s not a short-sleeved, buttoned-down emergency.”

She called me back 22 hours later – I’m a horrible person, I timed it – and said, “Micah, have you ever heard of Brooks Brothers?” Brooks Brothers is one of their most vicious competitors. She said, “Well, let’s go to the Brooks Brothers site, and we’ll navigate it together.” She found me some shirts that were not quite the same, but they worked. Joanne didn’t make a penny off that sale, but she’s gotten all the orders for larger ticket items for me, and I mentioned her in probably three books.

Now, what do you do when you can’t say yes? That was probably your next question, wasn’t it?

“If you want to be a five-star hotel or even a four-star, the rule is to never say no to a guest without offering one to two reasonable alternatives”

Liam: Yes.

Micah: That’s important. The Forbes standard is great here. If you want to be a five-star hotel or even a four-star, the rule is to never say no to a guest without offering one to two reasonable alternatives. A reasonable alternative can’t be, “Well, how about never? Does never work for you?” It has to be something reasonable. A good hospitality example is when someone comes in at 2:00 PM and still wants to have breakfast, but they’re setting up for lunch. You don’t just say no. First of all, you would do what you could. Then, you’d say, I can accommodate you out here on the pavilion or by this cozy fireplace. That might be alternative one. Or we can do a sumptuous breakfast in your guest room. That would be two alternatives. I do make an exception for the default of yes. My exception is it doesn’t apply to anything related to safety, security, privacy, health, or ethics.

Apple tries to be very nice to customers. Many years ago, and I probably have the story slightly wrong, someone called in and begged them for the password on such and such. This was before resetting a password was so easy. They convinced the person, they gave them the password, and it turned out it was some hacker. You can’t be too nice on safety, security, privacy, or health. There are parents who ask hotels, “Can I just prop up the gate to the swimming pool because I want to load in all this stuff for my kid’s birthday?” Well, the answer has to be no.

The Solomon CS Matrix

Liam: Culture, especially a customer service culture, is really important. What does it mean to have a CS culture, and what advice would you give to folks looking to improve theirs?

Micah: Absolutely. The first thing I’d say, because people always give me grief on this, is that having a customer service culture doesn’t mean that you don’t also have an employee service culture. But it does mean you understand that the customer’s paying your bills. There’s a little bit of theater involved. Some niceties.

“You go to a Disney park, and they are serious. They operate best when it’s at 90% capacity. But most companies do poorly when there is more stress”

The way I think about culture is there are four quadrants. I’ve made my Solomon customer service culture matrix, and it only has four boxes. One is how we serve our customers, and the other is how we serve those who serve our customers. Those who serve our customers are our employees, maybe even our bosses or vendors. That’s it. Then, I made a crosshatch: “How do you do this when stress is low versus when stress is high?”

You go to a Disney park, and they are serious. They operate best when it’s at 90% capacity. If they’re at 65% capacity, they’re cooling their heels, and maybe it’s not even as good. But most companies do poorly when there is more stress. And this works as well with what we could call internal customers. They beat up on vendors when times are tight.

“If you walk into an Apple Store, there are all these people, and they’re pumped up about getting you what you need”

How do you create it? Ideally, you start with hiring – or what I like to call employee selection. If you select people with good personality traits for this, that’s ideal. If you can’t do that, you can work on building what’s called situational empathy, which is, in this situation, being attuned to what stressors my customer may be experiencing. Then, it’s great from there. Because what happens is positive peer pressure.

Back to the Apple Store. If you walk into an Apple Store, there are all these people, and they’re pumped up about getting you what you need. They know the equipment, but they’re not just geeks. They’re geeks plus they’re excited about helping you get it. Even if, as is often the case, you don’t speak geek. That started with the first employees that Apple hired. In effect, they did send them to the Ritz-Carlton training.

From there, it’s grown. You know that this is how it’s done. You can go to other places and see it’s, unfortunately, the opposite. “The way we do things here is we get through the day and blah, blah, blah.” That’s positive peer pressure. Now, even with the positive peer pressure, if you exploit this and you’re a boss who says, “Well, look how well they do with the x number of calls today. Tomorrow, let’s try x plus five.” With these great, heroic people you have, it’ll work for a while. But especially in today’s environment, it’s not going to work forever.

Liam: I’ve never heard that phrase before, positive peer pressure. That’s great.

Micah: Thank you. There’s a woman named Deborah Tannen who wrote a book about it. It’s an excellent book. But my theory of it is we always think of peer pressure as a bad thing. I think only one teenager in the history of teenagers – I don’t know if he or she was a Native American or if it was Sir Walter Raleigh – invented smoking. They figured out how to cultivate the tobacco, hang it in their barn, and roll it up. All the rest of the teenagers learned from that guy or girl because they wanted to be cool as well. That’s what we think of as negative peer pressure. But it could work positively as well.

The wow effect

Liam: Let’s talk about one of my favorite areas of customer service, wowing the customers. One of my favorite stories from a previous podcast that we did a few episodes ago was about Intercom’s notification sound. In short, a customer who had autism found the notification sound triggered her sensory overload. You could tell it was really affecting her. But at the same time, she needed it. She contacted us, one of our customer support reps got in touch with one of our engineers, and they worked with her to create a whole suite of new sounds and enable a feature that, if you wanted, could turn it off. But now there are, I think, six or seven new sounds, and you could choose the one that would work best for you. What are some of the wow moments that you’ve come across?

“Humans tend to remember things in terms of stories. If you can wow a customer, that can go a long way”

Micah: Well, I won’t be able to top that. But the idea of providing wow customer service is that it creates stories. You’re telling the story right now. Humans tend to remember things in terms of stories. If you can wow a customer, that can go a long way – partly with the customer, and partly with other people the customer knows. We used to have this metric called lifetime customer value. I think people are nervous about using it now because there are so many more brands, and it’s so much easier to switch. What if you spent all of this time wowing one customer, and then they move to a different company. Or their boss says they have to buy from a different vendor? Well, was all that value lost? Some of it might have been, but there’s still what I call lifetime network value. That person is hopefully still spreading the story of when they were wowed by you.

Wow customer service can be creating something great when nothing was going wrong. There are two uses for wow. One is when something’s going wrong, and you create a spectacular recovery from it. The other is when nothing’s going wrong, and you create something from scratch.

In the “nothing going wrong” category, my family was staying at a wonderful Ritz-Carlton hotel in Arizona, and it was one of my kids’ birthdays. They were very into certain mythical characters at the time. This was the only detail I told the Ritz-Carlton. Plus, it was their birthday. When we got there right before dinner, they said, “Could you come down to the lobby? We want to show you something.” We came down. I didn’t know if they were going to show us the right way to dress for dinner or what. They took us on a tour, it was twilight, and we saw all these mythical things. It was just amazing.

“It’s, literally speaking, irreplaceable. The promise about the insurance didn’t really do much for them”

I think my favorite example of when something’s not going fine is from a five-star cruise line called Seabourne. It’s as close to a five-star hotel experience as you could possibly get on the high seas. Imagine you are on a Seabourne ship, it’s one morning, and everyone is lined up on the ramp to go onshore so that they can have a morning excursion in the little town in Italy or wherever it was. I don’t even like to reenact this because it makes me so uncomfortable, but there was a couple there, they were young, and it was practically just after their honeymoon. She was putting lotion on her hand, and as you can already imagine, her wedding ring fell off. It hit the ramp, took the worst possible bounce, and landed in the water. Gone. She was beside herself. Her very nice husband tried to comfort her, and the very empathetic crew said, “Don’t worry about it, when you get back, we’ll have all the insurance paperwork filled out and you can just initial it and have a great time.”

Now, the couple were good sports. They didn’t want to make anyone else feel bad. But it turns out that the wedding ring was an heirloom. It’s, literally speaking, irreplaceable. The promise about the insurance didn’t really do much for them. When they came back, they went to their chambers on the boat, and there was a cordless phone with the light blinking. They pressed the messages button and it said, “Hi, I’m your steward. The captain wants to meet you for a few minutes once you’re dressed for dinner.” They were like, “Oh, great, he’s going to tell us he’s sorry and give us the insurance paperwork.” But they got there, and the captain said, “I hear you had some excitement this morning.” Which they didn’t love. It’s not the best choice of words. But they were like, “Yeah, we had some excitement.” He hands them a box. Liam, what do you think was in the box?

Liam: Was it the ring?

Micah: It was another box! No, inside, as you guessed, was the ring. What happened? What happened was that the guests were gone. Then this cry went out, as I imagined it: “Wedding ring overboard, wedding ring overboard.” The captain and the crew decided the only cure for this was to do what they could to get it back. The captain called a diving crew he knew was in the area, and they said, “Nah, we’re busy.” Second one. “Nah, we’re busy.” The third one, as it always is with these stories, said, “Sure, we’ll give it a shot.” The seas were calm and clear, and incredibly, like a needle in a haystack, they found it.

Liam: Wow, that is incredible. Something so small. It’s like a one-in-a-million chance. But they put the effort in. They gave it a chance. Is there ever a time when wowing the customer is not the right strategy?

Micah: Great question. The answer is absolutely. You need to be cognizant if customers are impatient, if they just want something fixed right away, if they don’t have time for all this wowing. I completely think that’s true.

Expectations on the rise

Liam: Anyone working in CS knows that customer expectations continue to rise. Our customer service trends report this year found that a whopping 83% of support teams are reporting that they’ve seen customer expectations increase over the past year. Micah, how can companies successfully align the customer experience in this new reality where the accelerated pace of consumer life has changed the expectations of customers?

“You can’t ignore that expectations are rising. Number one, be aware of it. Number two, tell your boss because the boss is going to need to get some more employees”

Micah: The first thing to do is you can’t ignore it. We are in Seattle. This is Amazon’s world, and we only live in it. Amazon actually applied for a patent to ship things before you even know you want to order them. It’s true. What does it mean? It means that they know so much about what Liam or Micah wants to order that they ship it to the nearest warehouse. Then, when I think I’m ordering it with my own free will, they’re like, “Yeah, we’ll get it to you in a couple of hours.” Now, if I could make an aside, Amazon, to some extent, is a company that is all about the customer and only intermittently about the employee. I do find that to be the exception. By and large, the companies that win best for customers are also best for employees. By and large, I do find those two lists correspond.

You can’t ignore that expectations are rising. It’s not going to work. Number one, be aware of it. Number two, tell your boss because the boss is going to need to get some more employees. Number three, try to only think of the customer in front of you. The customer doesn’t want to hear about your organizational chart or about the other customers, and they don’t want you to be acting like, “Oh, I’ve had the same question 80 times.”

“Even if you don’t have customer-facing AI right now, it’s extremely useful in helping employees serve customers better”

You’re probably going to want to bring technology into the mix. It doesn’t have to be customer-facing AI – if you’re, for example, a luxury brand, you probably don’t want to do a whole lot of customer-facing AI for most of your customers. I was just talking about the five-star hotel where, for the kids’ tower, they have two robots that serve popcorn and stuff. But this is great because that’s entertainment. Anyway, even if you don’t have customer-facing AI right now, it’s extremely useful in helping employees serve customers better. It can make a generalist employee a specialist because your screen could be prompted with the information that the customer’s probably going to ask about.

Liam: Micah, it’s been a pleasure talking to you. Before we finish up, where can people go to keep up with you and your work?

Micah: It requires being very good at spelling or being an expert on the Bible. Well, you can just Google my name, and I’ll come up. Go to In fact, I bought a few of the alternate spellings as well, so you’ll be all right. You can text me as well if you want. My phone number is 484, in the US, +1-484-343-5881. We have live chat on my website as well.

Liam: Perfect. I’ll put all of those in the show description so people can find them. Micah, thank you so much for joining us today.

Micah: Thank you so much, Liam.

Customer Service Trends Report 2024 - Horizontal