Not long after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Suzette Noël, an executive assistant in FedEx's call center operation that handles executive services for airways, got a call that still haunts her.

A woman told her, through tears, that she owned a bed and breakfast in New Orleans that was destroyed in the storm. Her husband, she added, had been swept away in the flood waters right before her eyes. "I could hear that she was in pain. I'm a pretty hard person, but she cut through me," Noël says.

Katrina also wiped out all the documents and customer lists from the couple's other business, a retail store. She called FedEx because she was trying to start the business again and asked Noël if she could send her the old FedEx tracking numbers in an attempt to locate her customer information. Unable to obtain them, Noël instructed her to contact her credit card company to get those tracking numbers and call her back immediately with them. She did, and Noël scanned through all of them and eventually pieced together the woman's customer list. Noël, who stays in touch with some customers, called her recently and learned that the woman now operates in the black.

In our service-oriented economy, where customer service horror stories inundate the Web and customer service bashing has become an American pastime, Noël's tale sounds like something from www.customerservicefantasies.com. But at FedEx, such behavior is not only ingrained in the culture—it's a way of life.

Going above and beyond the call of duty for customers isn't accidental; quality service stems from the shipping company's Purple Promise, which, quite simply, vows to make every customer experience outstanding across every facet of the organization. "Sometimes we say, 'Our blood is purple,'" Noël says. "The Purple Promise is ingrained in all of us. We just do what we can for the customer."

It seems impossible to maintain a globally consistent customer focus, right? Not when the strategy incorporates processes to ensure that its success is threaded throughout the enterprise. Cary Pappas, president of FedEx Customer Information Services, explains: "It's a mantra that's ingrained in each employee. We look for people who love to serve. It builds the foundation for what we do. It's a great rallying cry," he says.

So much so that the University of Michigan business school's American Customer Satisfaction Index has rated FedEx first in its industry since 1994 and number one in service above any company in any industry for the past two years.

That success starts with Frederick Smith, FedEx chairman, president, and CEO, who began instilling a customer-first philosophy when he founded the company in 1971. At the company's 2007 FedEx Investors and Lenders Meeting, Smith reinforced his commitment to the Purple Promise by saying, "We've been working hard to make every customer touchpoint a point of differentiation, whether it's on the website, telephone, or the pick-up and delivery experience. We intend to keep our Purple Promise that states simply 'We at FedEx will do our best to make every customer experience outstanding.'"

The company introduced the Promise in 2005 and Pappas says that top-down strategy has worked to instill a sense of pride in all employees and has kept the Purple Promise in motion with continuous training, teamwork, and communications, as well as recognition and rewards. "From the top to the bottom we want to celebrate successes," he says. "It's so important for the entire organization that anyone can make a difference any day. It's a huge deal and it makes me want to stick my chest out and say, 'I'm proud to work here.'"

That sense of pride seems to be true of most employees. Sheila Harrell, vice president of FedEx Customer Information Services, says that whether she's visiting one of the 47 contact centers or a packaging station, employees share with her their personal stories of how they've helped a customer in a unique way. These stories have even migrated to the Web. One illuminating YouTube video, filmed by a FedEx Kinko's employee, shows her colleagues working on a print job at 1:30 a.m. while the person filming shouts into the recording device, "We bleed purple."

Under the purple umbrella
Such personal stories are critical to sustaining the Purple Promise, but the program's success begins with the hiring process. Pappas explains, "From the day you walk in, the most important thing to understand is that we're a service culture."

That means on day one, training begins with a tutorial that explains the FedEx customer-centric culture. From executives and management and to customer service reps and drivers, every employee in the company receives training about the FedEx philosophy through a video series and by listening to Purple Promise stories. "It's as far-reaching as that every employee at FedEx understands what the Purple Promise is," Pappas says. After that, employees undergo four weeks of training that covers the company's products, services, and phraseologies. Managers use a variety of training techniques—computer based, instructor led, and manager led—because, Harrell explains, "we believe that people learn in different ways."

During the following four weeks of training (for the service reps) the contact center managers, along with people from all levels of the organization, monitor calls, and the reps sit with a peer coach to promote continuous improvement, which highlights the importance of working as a team. That approach reinforces that every employee across the globe works on the same team and should rely on each other when necessary to help make each customer experience outstanding. "Everyone, over time, understands that this is what FedEx is about," Harrell says. "Frankly, it's a positive approach to a work environment."

Take, for instance, a Houston–based call center representative who recently took a call on a Friday night from a woman who had mistakenly requested the wrong delivery date of Monday from the shipper, for medicine that she needed by Saturday. The rep drove to Dallas the next morning—on her day off—enlisted her team members at that station to track the package, and then drove back to Houston the same day to personally deliver the package to the customer. "We say it in the very beginning—from the moment you're hired and educated—that FedEx is a service company. It's about serving customers first, and to do it properly you have to do it as a team approach," Harrell says.

FedEx refers to such stories as "moments of truth" or "wow" stories. Pappas says they're critical to the success of the Purple Promise program. When people share successful ideas, they give others the tools to be successful in their jobs, he says. "It's almost hard to describe how we do it because it's what we do," Harrell adds. "We show up and say, 'How can I thrill a customer today?'"

Although customer wow stories provide employee encouragement, they aren't sufficient for determining the organization's overall quality ratings. To formalize feedback, FedEx enlists a third-party marketing research firm that randomly pulls calls and surveys a percentage of customers every day. The company categorizes each call. If a customer gives a low rating, then the marketing firm immediately notifies the FedEx customer advocate team to recover the call, which is referred to as a hot alert. Someone from that team calls the customer immediately.

The firm scores the calls on a scale from 1 to 10 throughout the year, and at the end of the year the company receives an overall ranking that represents quality and satisfaction, which all employees are expected to work together to improve the following year. If the organization reaches its goal, then everyone from management to the freight drivers are compensated with bonuses. "It comes back to the teammate approach," Harrell says.

The organization not only works with an external partner to track customer satisfaction, but also has an internal call monitoring program. FedEx contact center management as well as executives from other departments listen to 15,000 calls per year across the enterprise, then meet several times per year to analyze the root causes of why customer satisfaction may be low in certain areas. The executives then build programs and processes to increase satisfaction. "We literally tear [each call] apart and decide what we could have done better," Harrell says.

The other part of the monitoring, which Pappas devised, includes an internal quality scoring that involves management monitoring a certain number of calls and then allowing a manager from another contact center to cross monitor the calls. The idea is that instead of the on-premise manager monitoring by himself, his thinking then becomes challenged by someone from outside the situation. "It becomes a true quality process of reengineering," Pappas says. "The idea is to share and improve consistency."

While analyzing calls helps to improve processes and customer satisfaction, management also finds time to reward good calls and relies on a system that sends recognition in real time to employees. It's called a BZ, or Bravo Zulu, which in the military stands for a job well done and harkens back to Smith's Marine days. Managers have the option of emailing a BZ certificate as soon as they listen to a call. In addition, they can send a monetary reward in real time through a system that allows a small sum of money to be wired to employees' paychecks. Harrell explains that she could be listening to a call in another city and send the monetary reward in seconds. "From my standpoint it's critical that employees get real-time recognition. It makes them proud of what they do," Pappas adds.

BZs may help to inspire the FedEx troops, but the ultimate reward and recognition for employees, and the foremost motivator for them to deliver outstanding service, are the quarterly Purple Promise awards and the annual Chairman's Awards. These two ceremonies honor employees who live the Purple Promise and who have gone above and beyond for customers. They're awarded monetarily and with a physical award at a formal awards presentation typically held at a hotel in Memphis with Smith and other executives there to congratulate them. FedEx broadcasts the ceremonies on its internal TV channel so all employ-ees can hear the Purple Promise stories. "It serves as great team building," Pappas says. "It's my favorite event of the year. Every time I go to one, I get motivated and excited."

Speaking purple-ese
From the intranet and letters to the employees from Smith, to the benefits packages and paychecks that are stamped with "The Purple Promise makes this happen," employees receive constant reminders about the power of purple and their duty to provide outstanding service. "It's a message that can be clearly understood by all," Pappas says. "FedEx Ground, FedEx Express, FedEx Freight, and FedEx Kinko's—we're all purple."

And the messages seem to be resonating. From the University of Michigan ranking to organization-wide continuous improvement in service quality, the Purple Promise is the reason that FedEx is the largest air express company in the world. But as Suzette Noël reminds us, "We're not moving only packages…they are people's lives and I take it seriously."