Should service be “job 1” at your company or should it be service impression? I purposely use the phrase service-level impression to make the point that what the customer experiences with your team is nothing more than an impression, and does not necessarily represent a markedly diff erent level of actual service or investment on your part.

Every company makes mistakes, but it is how you respond to them that often sets you on top with higher service-level impressions. The simplest of changes and low-cost investments can put your company in the very best light and leave the impression that no competitor’s service levels come close to yours.

What makes the best impressions on your customers? In most industries there are a few commonalities among customers as to what makes them feel well served. High in the priority list are things such as:

Prompt response to the first phone call about problems and requests, with little to no hold times, and always being able to reach a live support person, even if it is only the person at the front desk, directing the call.

Thoroughness in communication. Tell a customer specifically what he or she can expect, and, of course, under-promising and over-delivering when you can be confident of the response.

Frequency of communication. In some industries, we have seen the way a daily update call, for example, a report on the stage of repair of an item, or an explanation of the next effort to fix the problem is all that is needed to out-impress the competition, which may actually have speedier service or better quality.

Service promises and commitments. Making service-level promises or guarantees on response times, parts availability or what your company will do if a service promise can’t be kept can help to overcome a genuine gap between your service and competitors’.

Accessibility to the top. Customers are impressed by having the ability to reach the president of the company, or the plant manager, or some other high-ranking official, if a service problem reaches a disconcerting level. With some of our clients, we have actually printed the president’s or owner’s cell phone numbers onto service commitment marketing collateral. It is powerfully persuasive for a sales rep to say, “What other competitor is going to have enough confidence in their service to give the president’s cell phone number to every customer?”

You might have heard of the practice at high quality hotels of empowering all of their employees to spend up to $1,000 to help a customer or make a great impression. Establishing such dollar limits is something that most companies need to do, but the escalation strategy can go a step further.

A best practice in service excellence is to implore employees to deny (almost) no customer requests, to never tell a customer “no.” Whereas it might be feasible to never reject a customer return when you are selling shoes or clothing, the return of a $250,000 software implementation or piece of machinery is another matter. This strategy involves leveraging your company’s chain of command.

When a front-line service person can’t satisfy a customer’s request, the practice is to allow the customer to make his or her appeal to a higher authority. Determine the best chain of command to escalate such calls, as well as the appropriate maximum level of calls a customer might go through. The higher an issue is taken, usually the more adroit the manager who can address the concern and ameliorate the customer’s frustration.

The higher a customer concern goes, the more attention the root issue gets, preventing the issue from occurring again.