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11 of the Best Customer Service Stories Ever

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Getty Images

When someone wants to tell you a story about a recent customer experience, it usually tends to be more Tales from the Crypt than Happily Ever After. But that’s not to say good service isn’t out there. Here are 11 companies that will restore your faith – at least temporarily.

1. Morton’s Steakhouse

Author and business consultant Peter Shankman was getting ready to board a flight that was the last leg of a long day of traveling. It just happened to occur over dinnertime, and he knew he would be starving when he deplaned and headed home. “Hey, @Mortons – can you meet me at newark airport with a porterhouse when I land in two hours? K, thanks. :)” Imagine his surprise when he got off the plane to find a tuxedoed gentleman holding a bag that contained a 24 oz. Morton’s porterhouse, shrimp, potatoes, bread, napkins and silverware. Shankman noted that the Tweet had to be noticed, someone had to get approval for the idea, a cook had to make his food, the food had to be driven 23.5 miles away from the nearest Morton’s, and someone had to track down his flight information and figure out where he was landing to meet him at the right location. All while his stomach was grumbling on a 2.5-hour flight. Pretty impressive.

2. Sainsbury’s

Sainsbury’s, a grocery store in the U.K., must have been pretty amused when they received a letter from a three-year-old girl named Lily. “Why is tiger bread called tiger bread?” she asked, referring to one of their bakery items. “It should be called giraffe bread.” Lily was just being observant – the pattern on the bread does resemble a giraffe more than a tiger. To everyone’s surprise, Chris King, a customer service manager at the chain, responded. “I think renaming tiger bread giraffe bread is a brilliant idea – it looks much more like the blotches on a giraffe than the stripes on a tiger, doesn’t it? It is called tiger bread because the first baker who made it a looong time ago thought it looked stripey like a tiger. Maybe they were a bit silly.” He enclosed a gift card, and the bread was renamed.

3. Zappos

I could do an entire story on Zappos customer service superstars alone, but I’ve limited it to one of my favorites instead. A customer’s mother had recently had some medical treatment that left her feet numb and sensitive to pressure – and also rendering most of her shoes totally useless. She ordered her mother six pairs of shoes from Zappos, hoping that at least one of them would work. After receiving the shoes, her mother called Zappos to get instructions on how to return the shoes that didn’t work, explaining why she was returning so many shoes. Two days later, she received a large bouquet of flowers from Zappos, wishing her well and hoping that she recovered from her treatments soon. Two days later, the customer, her mother and her sister were all upgraded to “Zappos VIP Members,” which gives them all free expedited shipping on all orders.

Not impressed? Just Google “Zappos” and “customer service” and you’re bound to find something that astounds you.

4. Trader Joe’s

A Redditor’s 89-year-old grandfather got snowed in a couple years ago and didn’t have much in the house for meals. His daughter called several markets in the area to see if any of them had grocery delivery services, but the only one that said they did was Trader Joe’s. They don’t, actually, but were willing to help out this WWII vet. As the man’s daughter placed an order, the Trader Joe’s representative on the phone recommended other items that would be good for her dad’s low-sodium diet. An up-sell, you may be asking? Nope. They didn’t charge her a dime for the delivery or the groceries.

5. Southwest Airlines

While these other stories have been nice, this one might actually make you teary (it made me teary, and I’m a hard sell). A man was en route from a business trip in L.A. to his daughter’s home in Denver to see his three-year-old grandson for the last time. The boy, beaten into a coma by his mother’s live-in boyfriend, was being taken off of life support at 9 p.m. that evening so his organs could be used to save other lives. The man’s wife called Southwest to arrange the last-minute flight and explained the emergency situation. Unfortunately, the man was held up by L.A. traffic and long lines at LAX and didn’t make it to the gate on time. When he finally made it there 12 minutes after the plane was scheduled to leave, he was shocked to find the pilot waiting for him. He thanked the pilot profusely, and the pilot said, “They can’t go anywhere without me, and I wasn’t going anywhere without you. Now relax. We’ll get you there. And again, I’m so sorry.”

6. Amazon

If you order a PlayStation online and it gets snatched from your doorstep instead of being delivered safely to your living room, that’s your problem, right? Or maybe it’s the delivery service’s problem. Or it’s the problem of the neighbor who signed for your expensive gaming system but didn’t bother to bring it inside to protect it from sticky fingers. Wherever the blame lands, it’s definitely not the problem of the company who fulfilled their end of the bargain by shipping the system using a secure method. However, when this scenario happened to an Amazon customer a few years ago, he called them to beg – plead – to see if there was anything that could be done because his son was expecting a PlayStation from Santa. Much to the customer’s shock, they not only sent another, but they didn’t even charge him for shipping. It even made it there on time for Christmas.

7. The Ritz-Carlton

Because of their son’s food allergies, a family vacationing at the Ritz-Carlton, Bali, was always careful to bring their own supply of specialized eggs and milk. In this particular instance, however, the food was ruined en route. The Ritz-Carlton manager couldn’t find any of the special items in town, but his executive chef recalled that a store in Singapore sold them. The chef contacted his mother-in-law, who lived there, and had her purchase the items, then fly to Bali (about 2.5 hours) to deliver them. Only at the Ritz-Carlton.

8. Nordstrom

The tales of Nordie’s customer service are so mind-boggling that some of them are considered urban legend, but I’ll give you one that’s definitely factual. In 2011 a member of the security staff noticed a woman crawling around on her hands and knees on the sales floor. When he discovered that she was looking for a diamond that had fallen out of her wedding ring while she was trying on clothes, he got down and searched with her. He also recruited a small team of people to help comb the floors. Eventually, the crew painstakingly picked through the dirt and debris in the store vacuum cleaners before coming up with the woman’s diamond.

9. Apple

This one may turn out to be apocryphal, but the story was all over the place after the launch of the iPad 2. Apparently a man bought an iPad online, then returned it to the company almost immediately, affixing a Post-It to the front of the device that simply read, “Wife said no.” Returns processors must have gotten a kick out of it, because the story eventually made its way to a couple of Apple VPs, who refunded the customer and returned the iPad with an attached Post-It that said, “Apple said yes.”

10. Lexus

Most of us have experienced it at one time or another – the dreaded vehicle recall. It’s usually some minor part, but replacing it ends up being a huge inconvenience for the car owner, even when replacement parts are free. Lexus certainly knows how to take the sting out of that. Although previous recalls had been addressed by sending technicians to the affected customers’ homes to fix the problem on the spot, when the Lexus ES 350 sedan was recalled in 2006, the company decided to ask owners to come on into the dealership. Instead of sitting in a waiting room waiting for their cars to be worked on, customers were given a brand new Lexus instead, no questions asked.

11. Gaylord Opryland

A writer was in Nashville for a blogging conference in 2012 and adored the clock radio at her hotel, the Gaylord Opryland. It wasn’t just any clock radio, but a clock radio/noise machine with very specific spa-style music that relaxed this writer as if she were actually getting a deep-tissue massage every time it played. Wanting to experience the same serenity at home, the blogger took to Twitter to ask the folks at the hotel where she could purchase one. Their response, essentially, was, “Sorry, it's made just for us, but here’s a similar one at the Sharper Image.” Unfortunately, the one they recommended lacked the spa music feature that the blogger loved so much. She told them as much and thanked them for the effort anyway. When she returned to her room later, she found a second clock radio sitting next to the permanent one, along with a note saying, “We hope you enjoy these spa sounds at home.”

Let’s spread a little goodwill today – tell us your best-ever customer service story in the comments.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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