Adventures in Customer Service:
The A.C.E.S Model in Daily Life

by Robert Schwarz,PsyD

Just living life and paying attention is often a great way to learn about exceptional customer service. In this article I will compare and contrast several recent experiences that highlight the “ACES” model of customer service. ACES is a simple acronym that stands for Attitude + Competence + Empowerment = (Exceptional) Service.

Simply put, in order to have exceptional service employees must have an attitude of taking care of customers, the competence to solve or prevent problems and must be empowered to be able to take action in the service of providing customer service.

We start our journey 14 days ago when I picked up my rental car in Port Angeles, Washington. My family was on vacation. We had come in by ferry from Victoria, BC and were traveling around Washington State for one week . A young and enthusiastic man from Enterprise picked us up at the ferry. Enterprise’s business model emphasizes customer service. My sales person had a great attitude. He was friendly personable, fast, provided everything I needed (at least so I thought). Off we went, happy as clams. As we headed west and the day went on and we were miles away, it became clear that things were not clear – I am referring to my windshield. Because of the design of the car and the fact that the inside of the windshield had not been properly cleaned and the wiper blades were old, when the lowering sun hit the glass you could not see much of anything. It literally was unsafe. This is an example of how attitude alone is not enough. In this particular instance, the people at enterprise missed a small but very important detail.

Mistakes such as these can turn people off. These types of mistakes are also the best opportunities to create experiences of exceptional service. Unfortunately, most of the time customers do not even tell you. If asked was everything fine, the customer says, “Yes”, but never visits your business again. Many people are not assertive, do not want to be complainers or simply do not believe that you really want to know. They often need to be given permission. You can do this by saying something like: It is our goal to provide you with an outstanding experience. How did we do? Was everything with the car great?

Luckily for Enterprise, I am not one of those people that says nothing (as my wife will attest to). So when I dropped the car off in Seattle the Enterprise people completely redeemed themselves. Mike came up and looked me in the eye and shook my hand. It was at this point that I realized that they always do this at this company. This attitude of service is noticeable. He asked me how everything was. So I told him. He apologized as he was doing my paper work. He mentioned that I had the car for a day over the week rental. I replied, “I did? I thought I had it for only a week. I planned this out.” I had forgotten I had changed my plans. This gave him a perfect opportunity to make me happy. Mike said, “ How about I knock off the extra day for the windshield trouble?” I said, “Great!”

Mike had a great attitude. He was empowered to knock off a day of the rental to make me happy and he was competent enough to do it in a flash.

But that was only the beginning of the true excellence of service that I was about to receive. Dr Bob’s second law of exceptional customer service states: “The experience of exceptional service always come from the client feeling that you are putting his or her needs & wants first. As were getting on the bus to airport, we discovered that my son had left his backpack in the hotel containing his Ipod Nano. There was a very limited amount of time, but enough for me to drive back and get it and come back to the airport. Unfortunately I had already returned the rental car. So I asked whether I could get another car to drive back to the hotel. The manager said they could do that and he would be glad to not charge me. The fundamental attitude that underlies all excellent customer service is the principle of “Service to Other” (rather than “Service to Self”). I screwed up. They had every right to charge me. Instead of charging me (I would have paid the full day rate of $29.95) for the 40 minute car ride to the hotel and back, Enterprise said we are here to serve you and put your needs first. They did the paper work super fast and I was out of there. Attitude + Competence + Empowerment = exceptional Service (ACES) Now who do you think I am going to rent from in the future?

So much for the exceptional service – lets compare and contrast with a different story. Two days after I got home, I went to Sears and bought new vacuum cleaner. (Consumer Reports rated their vacuum as one of the best.) When we used it at home we discovered a defective attachment. Two days later I called the 800 number and I was told they would replace the part at the store.

I bring the part back to the store. I walk up the twenty something guy working at the vacuum cleaner section and told him the situation. Well the look on his face was one of “Oh no! I have to deal with a problem”. He moved at the speed of slugs. I was informed that I had to go to “pick up” where I could get a replacement part. So off I go to the replacement part section. I repeat my story. The guy there says, “Well you can leave it here and we will fix it.” I reply, “I buy a brand new $400 vacuum cleaner with a defective part and you want to fix the part? That is not an acceptable solution for me” Is it him or is it corporate training that says, Lets inconvenience the good customer that has just driven out to our store a second time after making a purchase two days earlier? I could tell by how fast this guy was working that it probably was not an attitude issue. It was either competence or empowerment. Of course the other option was exchange the entire vacuum. I did have the entire vacuum with me. So he marks the receipt and sends me back to the sales people. By now over 40 minutes has gone by on my Saturday.

I feel my patience starting to wane. Back I go. The man sees me coming. I swear, he seemed to start moving away from me at even slower pace, his face blank and expressionless – a far cry from the speed, smile and handshake at Enterprise. We start the exchange process. There is one other twenty something sales associate there as well. I say, “While you are doing the paper work, I am going to open the box and make sure this vacuum works.” It is at this point, the other sales woman says, “If you open the box and there is a problem you will have to pay a restocking fee!!!!” This an example of lack of competence and poor attitude. It certainly is not coming from the place of service to others. At that point a third sales associate walks over and says, “Yes he can. He wants to make sure it works.” (A small voice of sanity in the customer service wilderness.) So I check out the new vacuum. The part that was defective is fine. I go to check the latch on the canister. It won’t latch!! I call someone over to look at it. She comes over and is not able to correct the problem. I can’t believe it. Significant annoyance is setting in. I am now officially becoming a “difficult customer”. I say, “Two vacuums and two separate problems, this is a lousy product” just give me back all of my money!” Now the original sales man who sold me the vacuum appears. He is 40 or 50 something. I tell him what is going on. He looks puzzled but concerned. He checks the vacuum and it turned out that the bag was slightly out of alignment preventing the latch from fully closing. He explains that all of these sale people are new. So they were poorly trained (lack of competence), with mediocre attitudes without adequate supervision (lack of empowerment). I walk out with my new vacuum. It does not matter if it is the best vacuum in the world. It will be a long time before I set foot in a Sears again.

Exceptional Customer Service is not rocket science. It does take proper execution and follow through. It does require a deep and internally driven attitude of taking care of the customer (rather than the short term needs of the company or the worker). People must be competent with respect to knowledge about their products and processes. Lastly they must be empowered to solve the customer’s issues with as little time and headache for the customer. These examples are everywhere. Simply pay attention to your own experiences as a customer. Allow those experiences to inform your own approach to working with people.

See my articles the ACES model of exceptional customer service and Dr Bob’s 4 laws of Exceptional Customer Service at

Difficult customers are usually created by increasingly negative interactions.

Dr Robert Schwarz is a consultant coach and speaker. He is passionate about improving the performance of individuals and companies. His mission is to sponsor and promote the creative potential and generative powers of individuals and organizations to maximize sustainable performance and well-being. CEOs, managers, business owners and line workers who are inspired perform better. Organizations and individuals that perform up to their true potential in providing value and service to others are more fulfilled and more profitable.

With 24 years of experience as a businessman, psychologist, consultant and coach working with thousands of people, Bob brings a wealth of experience in improving human performance. His trainings are full of energy, humor and thought provoking content for immediate use and long-term sustainable growth.

He presents trainings internationally on topics including, leadership, creativity and gender communication differences, customer service, advanced approaches to stress management and work life balance to government agencies, businesses, and associations. He has also written two professional books on treating trauma as well as numerous articles.