A quick sampling of the customer service policies at a few Pacific Northwest-based companies would seem to lend support to Dodson’s conjecture.
REI (Sumner, WA): “Every item you purchase at REI is 100% guaranteed to meet your high standards. Whether you made your purchase online, by mail or in an REI store, you may return or exchange it by mail or at any of our retail locations.”
While there is little doubt that the Nordstrom customer service model has influenced other businesses in the region, there also seems to be something almost second-nature about the widespread adoption of exceptional customer service practices there.
Eddie Bauer (Seattle, WA): “Every item we sell will give complete satisfaction or you may return it for a full refund.”
Costco (Seattle, WA): “We guarantee your satisfaction on every product we sell with a full refund.”
Harry & David (Medford, OR): “You and those who receive your gifts must be delighted, or we'll make it right with either an appropriate replacement or a full refund—whichever you prefer.”
The Pacific Northwest has always been geographically isolated, and it has largely been a place unto itself. Settled relatively late in US history, the region has served as the Western frontier’s frontier. And it is definitely conceivable that the region’s isolation has helped it preserve its unique identity and character.
That sense of isolation seems closely tied to the defining character of the natural environment. Extending from Northern California to Alaska’s Bristol Bay, the northern and southern boundaries of the Pacific Northwest are closely delimited, for example, by the habitat of the Pacific salmon. These fish, which are now endangered, serve for many as a symbol of the region as well as a touchstone with nature.
Says the University of Idaho’s Susan Traver, “People take the loss of the salmon personally, even if they don’t hunt or fish. Deep down all of the people here have a great love for the area. No matter what their political point of view, they have a great sense of this as home. ‘This is where I’m at and I will protect it.’”
Joseph Cote, a professor of marketing at Washington State University in Vancouver, agrees. “The salmon affect lots of people who you would not normally think of as environmentalists,” he observes.
Cote believes these kinds of environmental issues have forced residents of the Pacific Northwest to think about the longer term. “When [the environment] gets destroyed, it is easy to see and it tends to affect people. They say, ‘Hey wait a second, what’s happening to the area around me.’”
Cote believes that concern about environmental sustainability translates to an enhanced concern about people, and that this concern has led many Pacific Northwest companies to think carefully about the effects of their actions on stakeholders. “They look at that in a longer term perspective. If I’m Dell, and I’m looking at what makes me a better company—why do people come to me, I recognize that service component is a critical part of it. If I sit down and look at how I cut costs, I don’t want to ship my stuff over to Bangalore because my service levels will go down and that will stop differentiating me as a company,” he says.
He cites the following example: “About two years ago, there was huge pressure by Wall Street on [Seattle-based] Costco to reduce the wages and benefits they were providing their employees. Costco refused. They resisted vehemently. They recognized right away that they are not like Wal-Mart, which Wall Street was trying to compare them to. Their employees play a different role. They are much more important in maintaining the advantage of that organization.”
On the other hand, Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft offers hardly any customer service. Robert Spector calls the company the “one glaring exception to the whole Seattle customer service culture.”
Cote contrasts Microsoft’s culture with the one that he sees as more characteristic of the region: “[Microsoft’s] drive of competitiveness is actually counterintuitive to this idea of what are the implications for others, how do I think long term, think about sustainability. It’s a much shorter term focus, a much more win-at-all-costs focus, and less likely to be concerned about the effect on the stakeholders.”
Microsoft’s status as a global company definitely sets it apart from most other Pacific Northwest brands. And globalization has always had a way of being at odds with regional values. So when global companies seek out the least common denominator in their business practices, the kind of limited customer service provided by an off-shore call center—or a complete lack of customer service—may end up becoming an international standard. But it’s good to know that, in one corner of the US, brands seem to be doing just fine by offering exceptional customer service. And that makes for a world of difference.