February 1, 2023
Brand Values, Business Advice

Relationships, Not Retail: Nordstrom, Customer Service, and Core Values

In 2015, I went to a bachelorette party in Portland, Oregon. Wanting to take full advantage of the tax-free shopping, I picked up a blazer (among other things), and happily brought my wares home to Seattle.

I decided to wear my blazer to work upon my return, but about halfway through the morning, I noticed the sensor was still attached to the pocket. If this has happened to you before, I don’t have to explain that it is a huge bummer—especially when you realize it as you’re preparing for a client meeting. After agonizing for a few moments, I decided to do what any modern girl would do: tweet at Nordstrom.

Not two minutes later, I got a response from Nordstrom asking me to send them a direct message. I reached out, we exchanged information, and after a few phone calls with the “Service Experience” department, Nordstrom sent a concierge to my office that very afternoon. The concierge removed the sensor, apologized profusely, and while he went on his way, I headed to my client meeting with not a hint of wardrobe anxiety.

That is exceptional customer service—the kind you don’t soon forget. I am still a regular Nordstrom shopper, not necessarily because they always have the best inventory, but because I know, without doubt, they will serve me well as a customer.

The hallmark of customer service

My experience aside, Nordstrom stands out in the retail industry for their hallmark customer service. For over 115 years, the retailer has been committed to delighting its customers. Their website reads, “We stand behind our goods and services and want you to be satisfied with them. We’ll always do our best to take care of customers—our philosophy is to deal with you fairly and reasonably; we hope you will be fair and reasonable with us as well.”

Humayun Khan does an excellent job detailing the finer points of Nordstrom’s customer service success. Khan suggests that “Nordstrom’s exceptional customer service comes primarily as a result of two main components, firstly their attention to detail when it comes to the customer experience and secondly, the level to which they empower their employees.”

There is a risk in offering such a generous policy to both employees and customers. In fact, some people think it can be perilous. There will always be customers who take advantage of Nordstrom’s leniency; that’s the nature of hospitality. But by moving the customer experience from transaction to a more personal exchange, Nordstrom makes it clear: they’re in the relationship business, not the retail business.

“We stand behind our goods and services and want you to be satisfied with them. We’ll always do our best to take care of customers—our philosophy is to deal with you fairly and reasonably; we hope you will be fair and reasonable with us as well.”

What’s in a brand?

When most people think brand, they think brand name or logo. But that’s just part of a consumer’s experience with a brand. It is not just packaging, a tagline, or an identity; it’s a feeling, one that exists not in a shopping cart, but in the consumer’s heart and mind. When we see a strong, recognizable brand like Coca Cola, our brain lights up, activating a network of cortical areas and areas involved in positive emotional processing associated with self-identification and rewards. In other words, brands tell us something about ourselves: who we are or who we want to be (and how we want others to perceive us).

The most enduring brands transcend their products. Everlane sells wardrobe basics, but a purchase of a T-shirt or denim jacket says something about the consumer’s desire to align with Everlane’s commitment to supply chain transparency. Same goes for Patagonia. While practical, a Patagonia puff jacket says as much about a consumer’s care for public lands as it does about their desire to stay warm. In an economy where we’re overwhelmed by myriad decent options, we buy not just for utility—we buy for identity. We buy for a feeling.

Nordstrom is known first for its experience and second for its product offering. This is because they’ve made a meaningful investment in their brand as a service. And when a company invests in the intangibles of brand, they not only create relationships—they get much higher returns. (Just take a peek at one of Nordstrom’s quarterly earnings reports.)

Core values cost you something

If there is a true rapport between brand and customer, the relationship must be treated like any other. Relationships require trust, and the prerequisite to trust is truth and honesty. When a company is fully committed to keeping a promise to their customers, it always comes at a cost. I’ve written about core values before, using CVS and Zappos as a lens for understanding how core values are expensive in both time and resources.

CVS, Zappos, and Nordstrom funnel all of their decisions through their values. CVS believes that “Health Is Everything,” so they no longer retail cigarettes. Zappos will always “Deliver WOW Through Service.” That means they’ll pay shipping both ways, they have a 365-day return policy, and you can call 24 hours a day and talk to a sales representative. And Nordstrom will do anything within reason to satisfy their customers.

You’ve heard it before: you’re only as good as your word. When a company violates the contract, trust is severed, and they are rendered dishonest or inauthentic—and no brand wants to be dishonest or inauthentic. Nordstrom demonstrates that even when it’s inconvenient, they refuse to violate their commitment to their customers.

What’s in it for you

Are you searching for inspiration and guidance for building your own beloved brand? Know that everything starts with belief. When you know who you are, you know what to do. Whether it’s Nordstrom, Everlane, or Patagonia, an authentic brand doesn’t just stumble onto their value––they know it at their core. And when they elevate that core belief above data, commodities, and profit margins, genuine customer trust follows.

So you know your brand does something of value, but you’re struggling with how to articulate it in a clear, compelling way. That’s where we come in. For nearly twenty years, we’ve developed a tried and tested process to help you crystalize why your brand is worth fighting for.

You can learn more about the process here, see a few case studies here, here, here and here on the process, and if you think we can help you differentiate your brand, we’d love to connect with you.

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