Joel Spolsky just posted a nice essay on how his company provides insanely good customer service. I have been on the receiving end of that service (back when Joel was often doing it himself) and it is indeed great. Read the whole essay, good stuff: Seven steps to remarkable customer service.
However, the most radical idea in the whole piece is nestled in at the end of the article. Joel creates career paths for his customer support staff. How can a small company do this? The career path shoots beyond the company within a few years:
Many qualified people get bored with front line customer service, and I’m OK with that. To compensate for this, I don’t hire people into those positions without an explicit career path. Here at Fog Creek, customer support is just the first year of a three-year management training program that includes a master’s degree in technology management at Columbia University. This allows us to get ambitious, smart geeks on a terrific career path talking to customers and solving their problems. We end up paying quite a bit more than average for these positions (especially when you consider $25,000 a year in tuition), but we get far more value out of them, too.
They pay good money and put their customer support folks through college (!) while they work the phones and e-mail, wowing Fog Creek’s customers. And then they leave for greener pastures, but it is by design. Highly talented people have to compete for these typically undersirable jobs, just for the chance to learn from Joel and get a great education. Joel has created the purple cow of customer support jobs. Amazing. But there is no reason you can’t do the same.