The three of you who read my last post (thanks, Mom, for your support) might remember that I talked about the difference between companies who lock up their customers and those who make customers want to stick around even though they could bail.  One’s like prison and the other like an island paradise.

But what’s it like to run a company that’s trying to be a customer paradise? It’s crazy hard.  (Ask anyone who runs a high-class hotel or a flight attendant who works the first class cabin.)

It’s even harder to set a new standard in an industry accustomed to being prison wardens.  There’s an example of that happening right now in the wireless industry.  Since the earliest days of the industry, customers have had to sign up for 2-year contracts when they join a typical wireless company.  You know the drill – if you want to change providers before those 2 years are up, you pay a hefty ransom to be released from jail.

U.S. Cellular, a Chicago-based wireless company, is out to change that.  (Full disclosure, U.S. Cellular is a Noonday client.)  This past fall, they announced a new way of doing business that allows customers to sign up for one 2-year contract and then never do so again.  After the 2 years, customers may leave with no additional fees – but they’re banking on the fact that customers will choose to stay because of the rewards they receive by sticking around.  They’re trying to entice customers to leave prison and come to paradise. It’s an audacious plan, and one that every wireless consumer should want to work, if only to change the game in the industry.

Companies that do this quickly learn the rules for running paradise because if you promise paradise and fall short, it would be best not to be standing near the exit while the stampede of customers heads for the door.

What are those rules? Our research into customer-obsessed companies suggests a few:

  • Build a culture that unabashedly believes that creating customer paradise trumps everything. “We believe that we simply have to get it right for customers. They depend on us for their lives,” said the president of Otto Bock, a medical device company.
  • Hire people who are a little nuts about customers. “We hire people who have a natural inclination to help others,” said an executive at Norvell.
  • Put plans behind your lofty words. “We have a plan and a strategy that builds customer loyalty into the everyday thinking of every employee,” said an operational leader at FedEx.
  • Hold people accountable for creating a customer paradise. “We promote ownership of customer loyalty at all levels of the company – and those who don’t demonstrate it leave pretty quickly,” said a leader at Brickman, a commercial landscape business that retains 90+% of their customers and gets 60% of new business from referrals.

Paradise isn’t about pretty words on posters.  It’s about gritty, everyday leadership decisions that transforms wardens into maitre d’s.  It’s hard enough you have to be a little nuts to try it…