How Amazon, Southwest and USAA Make Online Customer Service Easy

Most brands believe they provide great customer service. Customers don’t necessarily agree.

Long response times, inadequate support and unhelpful staff are the perceived norm in customer relations. The disconnect carries an ugly price tag: Poor customer service costs U.S. businesses $83 billion a year.

In face-to-face environments, the importance of quality customer service is obvious. But it’s even more critical online, says Micah Solomon, customer experience consultant and author of High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service. “It can enhance the online experience in a way that can distinguish your brand in what can be a cold space,” Solomon says.

Speed, knowledge and pleasantry are hallmarks of good online customer service. And for the most successful brands, the qualities stem from a customer-centric mentality that runs deep within their organizations.

Here’s a look at three biggies and what you can learn from them.

Southwest Airlines

It’s no coincidence that Southwest continually gets voted one of the best places to work and one of the best customer experiences.

Southwest has created a renowned service culture that starts with employees. Staff accomplishments are recognized in newsletters, internal highlight videos, and weekly “shout-outs” from CEO Gary Kelly. Employees also enjoy generous benefits, including “spirit parties” and free flights for family members.

In return, employees are expected to prioritize customers’ needs and exemplify Southwest’s core values — a warrior spirit, a servant’s heart, and a “fun-LUVing” attitude.

Southwest’s service focus extends from its call centers and airport kiosks to its website and social platforms. The airline has been particularly successful using Twitter to field customer questions and problems, such as rescheduling canceled flights. Southwest dedicates six employees to the channel and commits as much time as it takes to resolve the issue.

The lesson: Embrace social media as a customer service channel. In the heat of a problem, no one wants to hunt for a phone number or wait in a call queue. And the impersonality of contact forms and email will only sour an already frustrated customer. The immediacy and directness of social media make it ideal for responding to urgent customer issues. And because it’s public, it also puts great service in the spotlight.


Before their first interactions with customers, USAA reps get intensive training on military culture. They try on combat gear and dine on field rations. They even get deployment letters before heading to the customer frontline.

The idea is that by literally stepping into soldiers’ shoes, USAA reps will be better prepared to help armed forces families through emotionally charged financial decisions.

This empathy for its military members shows up online, as well.

USAA’s website hosts an advice center site that covers military life, parenting, retirement and other issues. The company also makes it easy for members — many of whom are deployed overseas — to handle banking transactions remotely. USAA was one of the first banks to allow smartphone deposits. It also texts account balances to soldiers in the field.

No wonder auto insurance studies find USAA customers to be the most satisfied and loyal.

The lesson: USAA understands its nomadic customers don’t always know what device they’ll have at hand or what bandwidth will be available. It accommodates them by delivering support across a range of channels. Offering a breadth of support options — video chat, email, text and online knowledge bases — allows customers to engage on their preferred channel, which has been shown to foster brand loyalty.


Much customer service training exhorts the need for a personal touch. But the majority of customers prefer to help themselves. And no one makes it easier than the self-service king.

Amazon, of course, is essentially unbeatable in what it offers to its customers in terms of self-service customer support,” Solomon says. From their keyboards, customers can do everything from return a package to hire a home-service specialist. They can also access a rich knowledge base of help documents for easy answers.

Self-service eliminates many of the hassles of contacting a rep, such as long wait times and prolonged troubleshooting. It also brings significant savings for the company.

The lesson: Help customers help themselves. Make sure your site features cleanly organized links to FAQs, help documents, and other support content, and optimize all of it for search. Self-service should never be the only option, however. Provide an easy way to ask a question, such as live chat, in case customers can’t find the answer they need.

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