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Last Friday, the kid behind the counter at a local coffee shop asked my name, introduced himself and shook my hand. The café is new and I’d visited it enough to be recognized, but not to qualify as a regular.

The handshake makes it far more likely that I’ll be returning. Companies may try to institutionalize this kind of customer service, but that often ends with a Starbucks barista misspelling your name on the side of a cup. The clerk’s five-second, apparently spontaneous gesture, however, made me feel like something that is often described but rarely found: A valued customer.

The best practices of customer service often amount to the basic manners that we learn as kids: Shake hands, remember names and say “sorry” when you make a mistake. A handshake not only makes a server more likeable, it makes the client more forgiving if something goes wrong later, according to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. Both common sense and neuroscience vouch for the value of caring for clients. So why do so many companies screw it up?

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A significant reason is that good customer care often relies on people who never interact with customers. It’s emphasized by executives and understood by front-line workers, but often forgotten by the layers in between. And it’s these middle managers, accountants and IT engineers who can stifle the best customer service rep. Call centre workers are expected to be helpful and empathetic—but also to hit the productivity targets set by their higher-ups. Retail salespeople make no commission from processing the product you’re returning. As James Surowiecki wrote in The New Yorker: “Modern businesses do best at improving their performance when they use scalable technologies that increase efficiency and drive down cost. But customer service isn’t scalable in the same way; it tends to require lots of time and one-on-one attention.”

It also can’t overcome a poorly designed system. In his book Service Failure, consultant Jeff Toister writes about a catalogue company whose returns department left packages in a tractor trailer for weeks on end, effectively hidden from its customer service reps. “I don’t know of any secret phrase that can make a customer feel better when your business is unable to find a package mailed three weeks earlier,” he writes.

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Deployed properly, technology can be a help, rather than a hinderance. A 2006 McKinsey report cites a major clothing retailer that upgraded its stock systems, then used the increased efficiency to give employees 20% more time to interact with customers. A Forrester survey found 77% of consumers feel the most important thing a company can do is value their time.

There are plenty of Canadian companies that demonstrate strong customer service is possible. Online retailer Frank & Oak allows customers to contact them by their preferred medium—chat, email or phone—and empowers reps to solve problems on the spot. Both WestJet and MEC built reputations on always erring on the side of the customer.

For companies looking to improve their relationship with customers, start with what McKinsey calls “moments of truth”: those encounters that are emotionally significant rather than merely transactional (think applying for a loan, not paying a bill). They will differ by company. It might be making a return, or finding a better flight. Or, perhaps, the moment when a casual customer at the coffee shop becomes a devoted regular.

James Cowan is the editor-in-chief of Canadian Business. This article is from the April 2016 issue of Canadian BusinessSubscribe now!

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