4 Critical Customer Service Lessons Learned by Guru Sue Nokes


Customer service guru Sue Nokes shares her 4 critical customer service lessons no matter your company size.

Sue Nokes knows customer service. With over 25 years of experience successfully transforming Fortune 100 companies, motivating tens of thousands of customer service representatives, and accumulating over 20 J.D. Power customer service awards, Nokes’ service roots and expertise run deep.

She’s been COO at T-Mobile and Vice President at WalMart.com, but her approach to business and people can be described as more “startup” than “suit.” She’s been known to bring creative ideas to market, constructively challenge conventional thinking, and promote frank discussion of tough issues to drive change that is positive for customers, employees, and owners.

We sat down with Nokes to talk about some of her best practices for customer service: how to keep costs low, when (and when not) to outsource, how to identify the voice of customer, and how to use customer service metrics to drive results. Luckily for those of us without the backing of a multi-billion dollar company, Nokes says the most important resources for any company are standing right in front of them: Customers and the people who serve them.

“When the customer is at the center of all that you do, you are continuously designing quality in and inefficiency out, which delivers a better customer experience that inspires customers to stay longer.”

Customer Service Lessons

Good customer service doesn’t have to be expensive

Nokes has one response to those who say that it costs too much to provide terrific customer service: “I don’t buy it.”

“When the customer is at the center of all that you do, you are continuously designing quality in and inefficiency out, which delivers a better customer experience that inspires customers to stay longer.” Bottom line: The right technologies and processes will fall into place if leaders prioritize thecustomer, not productivity.

Nokes set this practice into motion when she arrived at T-Mobile in 2002. She had extensive telecom experience in the landline business, but wireless was unchartered territory. Instead of making assumptions about the new industry, she listened to the customers instead. By doing so, she learned a critical fact that significantly impacted the company’s customer service and business strategy: Wireless customers’ expectations for speed of answer were far higher than landline customers. After 40 seconds, customer satisfaction scores fell off a cliff.

Equipped with this insight, Nokes implemented an 80/20 policy: 80% of calls would be answered in 20 seconds or less. She was then able to make the right technology and personnel decisions to reduce churn, and increase customer, employee retention, and cut costs. She was instrumental in elevating T-Mobile from “Worst to First” in customer service and earned a J.D. Power award within her first 18 months on the job.

Shifting your attitude from what’s good for business to what’s good for the customer can yield significant and unexpected results. In this case, I need to shorten handle time because it’s cheaper flipped to I need to shorten handle time because the customer wants it resolved as quickly as possible and a happy customer will stay with us longer.

There are other ways for small businesses to keep customer care costs low: recognizing and eliminating major inefficiencies in the customer service delivery model and embracing multiple channels. However, again, this is hard to accomplish without listening to the folks making this all possible in the first place: Customers and the people who serve them.

So, is it ok to outsource customer service?

Nokes says yes, it is ok to outsource customer service, but it’s not as simple as just handing over your customers to someone else. She recommends that business owners think about the following before making a decision to outsource:

  1. Identify the types of inquiries that your company receives. Figure out which can be resolved with a quick, standardized process, and which are more complicated and require special skills.
  2. Find a company that will serve as a strategic partner, not just as an outsourcer. The right partner will keep you close to your customers and anticipate what customers will want or need next.
  3. Outsource care of the customers who have quick, routine inquiries (80%) and keep the high-touch, high-complexity inquiries in-house (20%). This 80/20 model is the key to enjoying the cost benefits of outsourcing without blemishing customer expectations. Additionally, holding on to that 20% means that businesses still have a great opportunity to listen to and learn from their customer.

Identifying the unique voice of your brand and business

I want a timely response, I want someone to own my problem, I want someone to care about me and resolve my issue quickly. According to Nokes, these are the universal tenets of the customer and — at the end of the day — all they really care about.

“Nothing will replace the basic tenets, and over time as the business grows, the company’s brand and voice will become more apparent and evolve over time depending on how customers are talking about them, based on how they’re treated and served.”

While there is nothing unique about these tenets (they can be applied to any business, in any industry), what is unique is the ability to execute on them. Honing this ability — or selecting a strategic partner to assist — is important for small business owners as they continue to grow their customer base.

The importance of measuring customer service

Stars, smileys, thumbs — these are all great ways for businesses to measure customer satisfaction and figure out what’s “good” and what’s “bad.” But there are two more ways in which customer service metrics can help a business:

  1. Measure the purest voice of the customer.
  2. Avoid unintended consequences in customer service behavior.

One particular experience at T-Mobile stood out for Nokes when asked about measurement. Back when text messaging was just getting started in the U.S., customers were charged a fee per text. T-Mobile was flooded with calls from customers who were baffled by their unusually high cell phones bills. Since there was a singular focus on Customer Satisfaction (CSAT) scores, representatives were quick to provide adjustments so as to keep the customer happy. Meanwhile, another metric was skyrocketing: cost of adjustments. Instead of continuing to hemorrhage adjustment costs, Nokes found a way to optimize both metrics: The customer would be treated with concern and empathy, but adjustments were only made if T-Mobile erred. If the customer used the service, they were expected to pay for it. This was a tough shift in strategy, particularly for a representative who had to stay empathetic yet firm to a mother who was charged for texting her son who was in the military.

Another experience called out the importance of looking at the bigger metrics picture. The T-Mobile call center operated on a Tier system (Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 3). Every representative wanted to optimize their own handle time and was therefore more inclined to transfer calls to the next Tier. When viewed in entirety, the handle time for each representative was good, but the total handle time for the customer across all Tiers drove a poor experience and was very costly.

Metrics give business owners an invaluable opportunity to not only listen to their customers, but embrace the negative, find the purest voice of customer, and drive a better business strategy.

Quick recap: Sue Nokes’ best advice for startups and small businesses

  1. Stay maniacally focused on the basic tenets of great customer service. The primary focus should be on the universal qualities of customer service that matter. Having a unique voice is icing on the cake. Your customer loyalty and topline are driven by your product and execution of the universal customer service tenets.
  2. Stay close to your customers and the people who serve them. In doing so, you’ll learn the drivers of customer service volume in your operations and perhaps ways to mitigate volume.
  3. Find the right strategic partner. Outsource your transactional inquiries (majority) to a lower cost, efficient and professional partner. Save your effort for the hard stuff (minority)!
  4. Customers’ needs and expectations are always changing. Make the seemingly harder choices on how you want to serve your customers. For example, it’s ok to give up phone service in favor of chat. In fact, they may prefer it. Serve them when and how they want to be.


A special thank you to Sue Nokes for sharing her customer service lessons with us. If you’re interested in joining in our mission to craft a new kind of customer experience solution, click here to find out more about Simplr.