It's amazing to see the contrasts of successful companies and the strategies they employed, ranging from the early victors of marketing history through to the mega-corporations and retail giants of today. But how do these captains of industry and P.T. Barnums of marketing keep succeeding, year after year, asks John Tschohl, founder and president of the US-based Service Quality Institute. This article is copyright 2015 The Best Customer Guide.

It's easy to be astonished at the sheer marketing genius of people like Richard W. Sears who started his company in 1886. At that time there were only 38 states and 65% of the population lived in rural areas. He started selling a mis-shipment of watches. He hired Alvah Roebuck as a watchmaker and later he bought into the business, hence 'Sears, Roebuck and Co'. And guess what they offered in 1891? Free delivery and parcel post. They offered a happy alternative to the high-priced rural stores, and Sears prospered.

Some 109 years later along comes Amazon. When Amazon first launched in 1995 as a website that sold just books, founder Jeff Bezos had a vision for the company's explosive growth and e-commerce domination. He knew from the very beginning that he wanted Amazon to be "the everything store". Bezos stands out for his relentless pursuit of new markets, leading Amazon into risky new ventures like the Kindle and cloud computing, and transforming retail and growing them to the behemoth they are today. In 2013, Amazon nudged Apple off the top spot to become America's most trusted company, according to a survey by Harris Interactive. Whatever will Bezos do next?

So what's their secret?
It's simple. They are relentlessly focused on customer service. They ask "why" every day. They are committed to one thing: their customers. If Richard Sears had not looked for opportunities every single day and looked for what his customers wanted and needed at that time, there never would have been a catalogue "wish book". He was looking at the big picture, not just making money, and that was marketing at its best - a staggering 129 years ago.

Jeff Bezos has said that Amazon will approach each job with certain tools: customer obsession rather than competitor focus, heartfelt passion for invention, commitment to operational excellence, and a willingness to think long-term. It's the company's number one priority. It's what helps make decisions on what to provide for customers. Customers love Amazon and know it has the potential to endure for decades.

"In my book, Achieving Excellence Through Customer Service, I expound on the value of your customer. Great leaders know that service is what your customer says it is so they stay in touch with their markets and willingly spend the money to do so," explained Tschohl. There are, then, four critical steps toward finding out the customer's perception of your company:

  1. What business do customers think are you in?
    Usually you will conclude that you are in the business of providing customers with a variety of services, even if you are not a service business, strictly speaking. Make a list. You might surprise yourself. Many service firms still do not realise that they are in the service business.
  2. Do customers think you have their needs at heart?
    From their point of view, do you look like you have the customer's personal needs and wants at heart? Identify all market segments all customer groups. It is important to determine needs and wants of all customers.
  3. Do customers think you're listening?
    Set up the systems you will need for listening to customers. The way to find out what customers want is to ask them. And allow them to tell you. Make it easy for customers to communicate with the company.
  4. Do customers think you communicate properly?
    Be proactive and try to eliminate problems before they happen. Unless you have perfect delivery in all areas of your business, having a strategy based on delight or 'wow' is not likely to pay as well as a strategy that eliminates disappointment first.

"Customers are pretty simple creatures, really. Most customers will be happy if things just work, first time, easily and all of the time. Minimize their disappointments and negative surprises and it's pretty likely that you'll create happy customers," concluded Tschohl. "Generating excitement, innovation, and a focus on continuous improvement like we teach, and has been used for centuries by the top companies in the world, creates a culture that's hard to build otherwise, and a true competitive advantage goes to companies that get it right."