The power of the frontline

employee-blinders-copyMy family and I stopped by the mall last week to pick up some last-minute items for my 13-year-old’s summer camp in New Mexico. We were tight on time as my wife had called ahead to add our name to the list at Yard House, where the hostess predicted that a table would be available at 8 o’clock.

As my son, Cooper, and I entered Vans, I made eye contact with an employee, looked at my watch, and playfully said, “It’s 7:59 and our table at Yard House will be ready at 8 o’clock. Hopefully, you can help us find a pair of shoes and some shorts in less than a minute!”

About that time, my son approached a wall of shoes that were on display. The employee, who was stocking socks and other merchandise from clear plastic bins, didn’t budge as she said, “Let me know when you find something you like.”

It was clear to me in that moment that I had approached the wrong employee. This employee, perhaps unwittingly, had decided to subordinate customer service quality to a job function: stocking merchandise. When Cooper found a shoe that he liked, I asked the employee if it was available in his size. Only then did she pause stocking in order to retrieve the shoes. Though it may not have been her intent, we were made to feel like an interruption in her work rather than the reason for it.

A couple of minutes later, she returned with the shoes, handed the box to Cooper, and went back to stocking merchandise. No smile. No attempt to confirm the style or size. No offer of assistance. Just a transactional, “Here you go.”

As it turned out, they were the wrong style and she had to return to the stockroom to retrieve the correct pair. In her absence, I located another employee, Khyanah, – who was a delight! She smiled, moved with alacrity, and assisted us in finding a pair of shorts and accessing a dressing room.

When I approached the register, Khyanah confirmed with a colleague the name of the employee who had assisted with the shoes (presumably to credit her for the sale). As I handed her my credit card, I thought it was ironic that the indifferent employee would be recognized for the sale but it was Khyanah who had expressed genuine interest in me and acted with a sense of urgency.

This could have easily been a critical post about the poor customer service quality at Vans. Thankfully, I encountered an interested employee who turned my experience around. It proves that a customer’s perception of service quality, for better or worse, often hinges on his one-on-one interactions with frontline employees.

What types of interactions are customers having with your frontline employees?

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Illustration by Aaron McKissen.

Customer service is the new selling

Coffee's For ClosersThe days of the boorish salesman portrayed in the 1992 film Glengarry Glen Ross – where the mantra “Coffee’s for closers” was used to both recognize success and admonish poor performance – are gone. Certainly, there are still unscrupulous salespeople and gullible buyers. But it’s safe to say that today’s consumers are more sophisticated and better informed than their twentieth century counterparts who lacked the ability to access customer reviews, make price comparisons, and validate or dismiss inflated claims with ease from their smartphones.

It’s well documented that providing exceptional service to existing customers (as opposed to subordinating responsiveness to breathlessly chasing the next sale) results in more profitable customers who have higher repurchase rates and, ultimately, cost less to serve. Depending on the study and industry cited, “closing” a new customer is actually five to 25 times more expensive than retaining an existing one.

Of course, you still have to attract customers in the first place, but even customer acquisition is often tied to service quality. A relationship with one of my clients began as a panicked phone call in search of copies of my book to accommodate 200 managers at a regional conference the following week. The client had assumed that she could place the order through Amazon and have the books delivered within two days using her Prime account. Unfortunately, Amazon could only fulfill 30 copies leaving her 170 copies short for her conference.

I was able to involve my publisher, secure the books, and expedite shipping in order to accommodate her deadline. She was delighted and has since placed multiple volume book orders and hired me to speak at a regional conference. By moving the encounter from transactional (“Here’s a website or 800-number for you to order the books”) to relational (“Let me take care of everything and follow up with you”), I was able to make a lasting positive impression – and position future sales.

Aside from going above and beyond, another way that service quality produces sales is through referrals. Earlier this month, I was referred to a health care prospect from a client with whom I first began working in 2008. Aside from the periodic coffee and lunch meetings that personalized our working relationship, several years ago I mailed her a copy of Karen Kingsbury’s Let Me Hold You Longer after a conversation we had over coffee about “being in the moment” as parents because children grow up so fast.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you send clients pleasant surprises out of the blue with the intent to obtain future referrals. That’s not why you do it. There are no ulterior motives or strings attached to authentic customer service. You offer it because you genuinely take pride in your craft and sincerely relish the thought of making a client’s day.

Instead of chasing the next sale, why not schedule time to meet with a current client? Ask her about her experience with your product or service. What’s working? What’s not? How could you improve? Ask her about her industry, her competition, her own products and services, the challenges she’s facing, and her latest success.

Maybe the conversation will shift and you’ll find yourselves talking about pets or children. That’s okay. You’re not wasting time; you’re building a relationship – and just may be closing your next sale.

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Illustration by Aaron McKissen.

The ultimate customer service KPI?

UltimateQuestionYesterday I was asked for my opinion about which key performance indicator (KPI) was the most important. I think if you ask five different people who work in the space, you may get five different answers.

As important as overall satisfaction, value for price paid, intent to return, and a dozen other indicators of performance are, if I had to choose one, I’d choose net promoter score (NPS). NPS is a customer loyalty metric created by Fred Reicheld, Bain & Company and Satmetrix in 2003. Essentially, it identifies customers as being Promoters, Passives or Detractors of an organization, company or brand based on their likelihood to recommend it to others.

Here’s why I like NPS so much as a KPI of customer service quality:

  1. Credibility: It’s based on “the ultimate question” identified by Reicheld in his book of the same title: (On a 0-10 scale) “How likely is it that you would recommend (our organization, company or brand) to a friend or colleague?” At its essence, this is a question about recommendations/referrals, which is inextricably linked to reputation, which, in turn, is inextricable linked to customer confidence in the organization’s performance/product and service quality.
  2. Reliability: Whenever I conduct a NPS analysis of, say, a local competitive set for a hotel client using TripAdvisor data (adapting its 5-star rating to NPS’s 0-10 scale), I’ve never once had a client say that my results/rankings did not reflect the actual product/service quality reputations of the hotels included in my analysis.
  3. Quantifies invisibility: It validates the existence of neutral customers (labeled “Passives”) who largely feel invisible to the organization and its employees. Due to the perceived indifference with which they are treated, these customers are unenthusiastic/uncommitted and easily swayed to the competition – because the company and its employees have done nothing remarkable to acknowledge them or make a lasting positive impression (in order to secure their loyalty and motivate them to become “Promoters”).

How about you? Is there a KPI that you feel is most important to evaluating product and service quality in your world of work?

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Does your website promise more than you deliver?

Responsive DoormenOver spring break last month, like many Colorado families, we headed to Breckenridge for the week to ski and board. I had booked a 3-bedroom condominium through VRBO (Vacation Rental by Owner) at a lodge at the base of Peak 8. I booked this unit in particular because of the upgrades: gas cooktop, wine cooler, steam shower, dramatic 2-sided fireplace facing both the master bedroom and living room, and slopeside views.

Because I booked the unit through VRBO, the management company was Pinnacle Lodging, located off-site on Main St. in the town of Breckenridge. Pinnacle represents real estate owners and it’s their responsibility to rectify any maintenance issues on behalf of owners.

Although the customer service at the lodge was great, snow conditions were “epic” (according to my kids), and our vacation was a blast, following our stay, I submitted this review of the condominium unit to VRBO and TripAdvisor:

“We were very much looking forward to our stay in unit 8413 at One Ski Hill Place. Unfortunately, upon arrival, I detected several oversights: the fireplace did not work, the refrigerator ice maker didn’t work, a bathroom toilet seat was looser than any truck stop toilet that I can recall (hardly what you’d expect at these rates…), none of the clocks were set throughout the condo (including kitchen appliances), there was a single skinny cabinet that acted as a pantry (I spent 20 minutes relocating dozens of champagne/wine glasses to a bedroom wardrobe unit in order to make room for pantry items in the kitchen), and, remarkably, there was no coffee maker – only a Keurig unit with three artificially flavored coffee pods… I expect for everything to work in a $109 per night roadside motel – and more often than not, everything does work. And when I’m spending thousands on accommodations, I certainly expect for everything to be in working order. That wasn’t my experience.”

In response to my review, Pinnacle Lodging offered the following reply:

“Thank you for taking the time to review the property. We are sorry for the items that were not up to standards in the unit as we do pride ourselves on having everything in working order. Breckenridge did have a brief power outage which reset all the clocks prior to your arrival, as does sometimes briefly happen in the mountains. A technician did come up to troubleshoot the ice maker and he reported that it was making and dispensing ice when he arrived. Unfortunately, the blower on the fireplace did go out. Though, we did order a new part in order to rectify it going forward. We do appreciate your comments and thoughts and hope to see you again.”

The management response contains disclaimers – just what I’d expect from an indifferent property management company that continued to send boilerplate correspondence via the Visit Breck app (“Hope you are enjoying your stay and that everything is great!”) and never once called me personally to follow up on any of the problems I experienced during my 4-night stay.

If I claim to offer “superior customer service” (as Pinnacle Lodging trumpets on its website) and am aware of a power outage that affected a unit that guests will be checking into, you can bet that I’m sending someone to that unit to reset every clock prior to their arrival. If in reality, however, I’m just going through the motions, then I’d feel justified (as Pinnacle does in its response) in having the guest set his own clocks during his vacation time. A company’s customer service quality is determined by how well it actually treats customers, not by how well it tells them they’ll be treated.

And while we’re on the topic of Pinnacle’s response, recognize that the ice maker did not work when its technician arrived. His “repair” consisted of dumping half a 10-lb. bag of ice in the receptacle and telling me to “just call us if you need more ice.” But Pinnacle’s management is unaware of the truth because no one from Pinnacle has made any effort to contact me to learn firsthand about my experience. When a second technician arrived to repair the fireplace, he was hardly surprised to see it inoperable, telling me: “These same (fireplace) units are in every other (Pinnacle-managed condominium) at the lodge and this is the only one we have this problem with constantly.”

So, it’s obvious that Pinnacle was aware of the problematic fireplace beforehand and elected to prop it up with stopgap measures rather than properly repair the unit prior to our arrival. As a result, we had no evening fires to enjoy throughout the duration of our stay. In March. In Breckenridge. That was quite disappointing.

When problems occur (which is inevitable), they present opportunities to shine only if you view them as opportunities. If you view them as slights to your quality or competency, then you appear defensive and aloof – as Pinnacle Lodging does to me in its response.

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Illustration by Aaron McKissen.

More Proof That Perception Matters

I recently developed a learning activity for a client who wanted his team of 60 commercial property managers to recognize the influence that biases, preconceived notions, and assumptions had on the quality of their tenant interactions. My client was motivated by the recurring conflict that arose whenever property managers had to explain ancillary fees or justify certain limitations on the tenant’s use of space and other restrictions.

When I worked with the same group two years ago, we designed a number of role-plays to reenact quarterly pulse checks between the property managers and their tenants. Adult learners typically hate role-playing for a number of reasons: one reason is the possibility of doing it wrong and being exposed as ineffective before their peers; another is that role-play scenarios often seem contrived, appearing artificial and unrealistic.

So this time around, we decided to craft a case study rather than role-play scenarios as the learning activity. To be effective, case studies, like role-plays, have to be relevant to the adult learner’s “real world of work.” The challenge with traditional case studies in a small group setting is that dominant group participants can take over and influence the group’s outcome or, worse yet, determine it. While this dynamic is always present in group settings, its effect can be neutralized by applying a naïve element to the learning activity. I refer to this naïve element as the “wrinkle.”

The wrinkle in the learning activity we designed was subtly hidden in the first and third paragraphs of the otherwise identical case study. Both versions of the case study appear below.

We were intentional about distributing the first version of the case study (“Mr. Crabapple”) to table groups 1-4 and the second version (“Mr. Crabtree”) to table groups 5-8. Each table group was told that the case study scenario was identical for all table groups. This was true because the scenario containing the facts of the case study in the second paragraph was the same in both versions of the case study. Participants thus assumed that they were working on identical case studies.

Table groups were then given 10 minutes to discuss the case study and determine how they would approach the conversation with the tenant.


case-study1FINAL copy

Afterward, one Case Study Worksheet (below) was distributed to each table group. Based on the group’s discussion and approach to the tenant conversation, they were instructed to assign numerical ratings to the questions below according to a 10-point scale:

  1. From your group’s perspective, how satisfied would you say the customer is with the customer service quality received by the property manager in the scenario?
  2. From your group’s perspective, given the customer’s perception of the ancillary fees presented in the scenario, how do you think he would rate the value of the space for the price paid?
  3. From your group’s perspective, given the tone of the conversation presented in the scenario, how do you think the customer would rate his intent to recommend our company to a friend or colleague?
  4. From your group’s perspective, given the tone of the conversation presented in the scenario, how do you think the customer would rate his intent to renew his lease?


The ratings assigned to each of the four questions were then transferred and calculated in the table at the bottom of the worksheet.

Finally, one member of the table group recorded the group’s ratings and average on the flip chart at the front of the room where one flip chart was designated to capture the results from table groups 1-4 and the other to capture results from table groups 5-8.

Below are the actual combined scoring grids from the session:


After the results from each table group had been recorded on the flip charts at the front of the room, I debriefed the results with questions like these:

  • “If your group rated its response to Q1 (dissatisfied with customer service quality) low, what contributed to this low rating?”
  • “If your group rated its response to Q2 (great value for price paid) high, what caused you to make that determination?”
  • “If your group rated its response to Q3 (may not recommend) low, what caused you to doubt his willingness to recommend ACME Commercial Leasing?”
  • “If your group rated its response to Q4 (definitely renew) high, what made you confident that the customer would renew his lease?”
  • “What were some of the sources of conflict in this case study?”
  • “How are customers warned about potential misunderstandings ahead of time?”

As you might expect, as the debrief unfolded, participants from table groups 1-4 referred to the tenant as “Mr. Crabapple” while participants from table groups 5-8 referred to him by his proper name, “Mr. Crabtree.” Initially, participants at table groups 5-8 were amused by the unflattering moniker, assuming it was ascribed to the tenant’s behavior as depicted in the case study. At the time, they did not realize it was the actual name assigned to the tenant in the introductory paragraph of the case study version assigned to table groups 1-4.

It also became apparent that participants at table group’s 5-8 held the tenant in high esteem, describing him as “discerning: shrewd, exhibiting keen insight and good judgment”, while participants at table groups 1-4 labeled him as “difficult and hard to please” – another reference to the “wrinkle” distinguishing the two versions of the case study.

Finally, table groups 1-4 were asked to discuss how they would “deliver the bad news” to the tenant that “these maintenance expenses are, if fact, his responsibility in accordance with the terms and conditions as specified in the lease he agreed to and signed.” The tone set for the discussion at table groups 5-8, however, was less confrontational and more constructive. These participants were instructed to discuss how they would “utilize empathic communication skills (seeking to understand the tenant, before being understood themselves) and offer value-oriented responses to influence customer perception and, together, work to clarify misunderstandings and reset expectations.”

Realize that while the customer’s proper name, description of his demeanor, and the tone set for the conversation were altered, the scenarios (containing the facts upon which the case study was based) were identical in both case study versions. Even so, the combined/averaged scores from table groups 1-4 were lower than those from table groups 5-8 in every category measured!

This demonstrates the very real link that exists between our perception; how we “see” things, and reality; the results and outcomes we achieve. It’s the familiar self-fulfilling prophecy that reinforces the relationship between our expectations (whether positive or negative) about circumstances, events, or people that may affect our behavior toward them, resulting in the fulfillment of those expectations. Just because you and I are aware of the self-fulfilling prophecy doesn’t mean that we’re immune to its effects. If you’re skeptical, just revisit the scoring grids above. The proof is in the numbers.

The objective of this activity was to impress on property managers that success (as defined by higher customer satisfaction, perception of value for price paid, intent to recommend, and intent to renew) requires seeing customers as partners and avoiding the “us vs. them” mentality that often typifies landlord/tenant relationships – and erodes trust and openness. By utilizing empathic communication skills and offering value-oriented responses to tenant questions and concerns, property managers can influence customer perception and, working together, clarify misunderstands and reset expectations.

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Esprit de corps in action

Coopercopy1The French term “esprit de corps” means a feeling of pride, fellowship, and common loyalty shared by members of a particular group. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, partly because my 12-year-old son, Cooper, recently joined a new basketball team.

The team is led by four outstanding coaches, one of whom is a former Division 1 student-athlete and a retired NFL linebacker. Coach Terrence speaks with authority from experience competing at the highest level in sports. I especially appreciate the attention he pays to camaraderie and what it means for the boys to be selfless and a part of something bigger than themselves.

During each practice, the boys line up beneath the basket behind the baseline and each member of the team is called one at a time to the free-throw line to take two shots. Rather than talk amongst themselves while awaiting their turn to shoot or, worse yet, critique their teammates between shots, the boys have been instructed to approach the shooter, make eye contact, slap hands, and offer verbal encouragement using the teammate’s name after each shot – whether or not a basket was made.

Coopercopy2The first time I witnessed this, I absolutely loved it. To me, it was the perfect representation of esprit de corps.

I wonder what would happen if more managers followed Coach Terrence’s example in the workplace by discouraging exclusive, divisive, or territorial cliques and posturing (what legendary NBA coach, Pat Riley, refers to as “the disease of me”), encouraging eye contact and the use of names, subordinating criticism to encouragement, and even offering high-fives or “knuckles” every now and then?

Although it’s early in the season, after four games, Cooper’s team remains undefeated. What does being undefeated look like in your business? Do you like to win? Would you like to win more often? If so, give serious thought to how your sophisticated adult workgroup can apply the example of my 12-year-old’s basketball team: conveying mutual respect, supporting one another (no matter what), and embodying pride, fellowship, and common loyalty to a shared goal or purpose.

Update: As of April 16th, the team remains undefeated at 7-0.

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

The cure for ignorance is awareness

My customer service philosophy is predicated on the truth that exceptional customer service is always voluntary. Employees don’t have to deliver it, and most don’t. But what do employees have to do? They have to execute mandatory, assigned job functions (duties and tasks associate with their job roles). Employees must possess adequate job knowledge and demonstrate sufficient job skills in order to reliably execute a series of assigned transactions. As a result, these employees are competent or capable. So what? Being capable is not enough!

In order to consistently delight customers, employees must be made aware of the totality of their job roles – which consists of BOTH job functions (duties and tasks associated with their job roles) AND job essence (their highest priority at work, which may be to delight customers and/or create Promoters of the company’s products/services).

behind register_00086[1]The vast majority of employees across industries have no idea about the job essence dimension of their job roles. Instead, they focus on what they are acutely aware of: job function. The result is dispassionate, transactional customer service quality whereby each customer is treated like the one before until the employee’s next break or the end of another monotonous shift…

Whenever I ask five employees with the same job role, individually, “Would you describe for me, from your perspective, what you do – what your job entails?” 80 percent of their responses match those of their peers. And their descriptions are almost always exclusively comprised of job functions. Next, when I follow up with a second question, “What is your highest priority at work?”, 80 percent of their responses differ (usually after a long pause spent looking at the floor and/or scratching their head). This is telling.

In other words, there’s often little confusion about WHAT to do and HOW to do it (and, by extension, the great majority of employees across industries are competent and capable of executing their assigned duties and tasks). But there’s significant ignorance about WHY employees do WHAT they do HOW they do it.

Earlier this year, I worked with a client at a $1B company who wanted to know how aware his company’s leadership team was of job essence (employees’ highest priority at work) and the organization’s purpose. When asked to record it on an index card, less than two percent of the 222 managers in attendance could recall the one-sentence corporate mission statement. And, on a second index card, they largely described the totality of their job roles (86 percent) in terms of job function, with little attention paid to job essence. There are widely cited Bain and Company statistics revealing that while 80 percent of big companies surveyed rated their customer service quality as “superior”, only 8 percent of these companies’ customers agreed with them.

The cure for ignorance is awareness. Before things will change in any enduring way, employees must first be made aware of the totality of their job roles – which includes both job function AND job essence. Only then will they be equipped with the awareness needed to reflect their organization’s purpose, in words and actions.

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Illustration credit: Maha Mohtaseb

Trust your training

CooperMy 12-year-old son, Cooper, has played competitive basketball since he was in first grade. In those six years, he’s played point guard on eight different teams playing year-round. He’s attended at least a dozen different basketball camps, has worked with a private shooting coach on-and-off for the past three years, and has participated in countless hours of practice, scrimmages, and games. He’s been a part of three different teams that played in the league championship – winning his first earlier this year. In 2014, we moved to a new home that has a basketball court in the backyard. I had four exterior light fixtures installed and bought Cooper a ball rack and a dozen balls so that he could work on his free throw shooting – day or night.

Whenever Cooper goes to the free throw line to shoot a critical free throw, I encourage him with these words: “Trust your training.” You see, in the absence of all the time and effort he’s put into his basketball training, he would have no assurance of making one or both free throws. It would be more like chance – it might go in, but it might not. But since he’s applied himself and put in the time and effort over many years, he should have confidence that he will likely make his free throws. His preparation (knowing he’s put in the work on the outdoor court during all four seasons of the year) removes a lot of the uncertainty that might plague him if he chose to cut corners, skimped on giving extra effort, and shirked his responsibility to himself, his coaches, and teammates.

It’s the same with company leadership’s stated priorities. Most managers laud the importance of objectives such as customer service quality, customer satisfaction, and employee training. Some will even spring for buttons and banners to trumpet their customer focus during the latest corporate-sponsored customer service campaign. But their commitment to these priorities generally wanes as long-term improvement is often subordinated to near-term profitability.

I recently consulted for a real estate company that owns and manages commercial properties across the United States. One of the outcomes of our engagement was the recognition that while prevailing market forces will buoy leasing rates (a rising tide lifts all boats), the next market correction always looms…

Undeniably, leasing rates benefit from the economic principle of supply and demand. If you happen to be leasing commercial property in a market that has low supply and high demand, then you’re in a position to negotiate lease premiums – regardless of your commitment to customer satisfaction or employee training. But my client also recognizes that markets are cyclical and there will always be a time of accounting – and accountability.

It is in these times, when you don’t necessarily have a market advantage (or, in basketball, a double-digit lead as you approach the free throw line…), that your preparation will be tested. Can you trust your training? Have you invested sufficiently in customer service quality, customer satisfaction, and employee training? Or have you cut corners under the assumption that preparation somehow doesn’t correlate with long-term success?

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

The lost art of cosseting

Maitre d'Last month I presented three breakout sessions at a client’s annual leadership meeting near Chicago. The meeting was held at the Loews Chicago O’Hare Hotel and the audio-visual production company was PSAV.

First, let me say that I’ve worked with top-tier A/V production companies on large stages from New York to San Diego since 1994 and, frankly, they have all been excellent. I literally cannot think of a single production crew that wasn’t exceptional in terms of its preparedness, responsiveness, and professionalism. Maybe I’ve been lucky…

What was unique about my most recent experience with PSAV was the consistency of exceptional service quality from one team member to the next in all facets of the production. James, who resized my slides the night before; Courtney, who assisted me with logistics during each of the sessions; and two backstage team members who assisted me with getting packed-up at the end of the day.

Due to compatibility issues experienced when integrating my presentation slides into the master conference slideshow, James had to manually resize every slide in my deck, including diagrams and graphics, one by one late into the evening. When I arrived at the meeting room in the morning, everything was perfect. His attention to detail was flawless (including a Venn diagram that looked like gobbledygook on James’ screen when I left him the night before). Thanks, James.

My opening activity required about 80 attendees to respond to three separate questions on three differently colored index cards. This required Courtney to sort and distribute approximately 240 index cards before each of the sessions, as well as collect them afterward. This was performed with both attention to detail and a sense of urgency. Thanks, Courtney.

To this point you might be thinking: “Where is the extraordinary customer service? Where is the outrageous service gesture? James and Courtney were simply executing the required job functions that they were assigned. They were hired to perform these duties and tasks. It’s what they were trained to do. It’s what they are paid to do!” And you would be mostly right. Both James and Courtney did, however, perform these job functions with alacrity and attention to detail that made a lasting positive impression on me, their customer.

But the act of service above all others (and the impetus for this blog) was the unique attention I received from two backstage team members as I was packing my bags following my final presentation. I refer to this special attention as cosseting, which means to pamper; to care for and protect in an overindulgent way. Think of the exquisite service you may have received from the maître d’ during your most recent fine dining experience. Did he pull out your chair during seating? Use a crumber to remove table crumbs between courses? Replace a cloth napkin that may have inadvertently fallen to the floor?

Cosseting is especially appealing to customers because most are not accustomed to receiving it. Frequently, we receive indifferent or even careless service. An example I often cite is that of a bustling coat check. Have you ever checked your winter coat at an event and watched in dismay as it was jammed between two coats on a 25-coat rack that appeared to hold 50 coats or more? And when you retrieved your coat later that evening, your right lapel was maligned after being pressed against the grain for the past three hours.

The opposite of the indifference displayed by the aloof coat check attendant is the level of attentiveness I received from two backstage team members who first noticed that I was packing up in a dimly lit area and then responded by providing light from a small flashlight. The first employee, a large man with a beard, held the flashlight for the first minute or so before being called to another responsibility. At that point, he motioned for a colleague to come and hold the flashlight in order for me to finish packing my bags.

Soon afterward, I left the backstage area out a side door that led to the pre-function corridor. During the the long walk to the lobby, it occurred to me that despite the superior technical job that PSAV had done throughout my experience, the gesture that had the single greatest impact on me was the two anonymous employees who chose to cosset their customer by simply taking turns holding a flashlight to illuminate an otherwise darkened corner backstage.

Thank you, mysterious backstage men who proved, once again, that the difference between ordinary and extraordinary really is that little “extra.”

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

How to win customers in 2016

Allen EdmondsWith the New Year upon us, I was asked by a blogger to comment on trends that will influence customer experience in 2016. My reaction was to reply with insights into the rapid growth of consumers’ mobile connectivity across socioeconomic categories and the impact this trend is having on the number of customers who are active on social media, the quantity and speed of their feedback, the increasing percentage of revenue captured via mobile channels, etc.

It’s true that mobile connectivity is a big deal (and the main reason that you and I have either downloaded the Uber app to our smartphones or know someone who has). But rather than add my voice to the cacophony echoing this trend, I will instead provide an alliterative set of attributes (based on my 2015 observations of what’s resonating with customers) that will help you win customers in 2016 and beyond.

  1. Simplicity – Make it easy: Uber, a venture-capital-backed ride-hailing startup, surpassed a $50 billion valuation two years faster than Facebook – largely on the simplicity of its app. According to Uber, “Riding’s as easy as 1-2-3: 1. Request a ride; select your pick-up location on the map 2. Map your driver; watch your driver pick you up in minutes, and 3. Just hop out; no payment hassle after you arrive.” Now it doesn’t hurt that Uber is also known for its drivers’ clean cars, professionalism, and service bent. But that app is gold. Earlier today, I requested an Uber Black Car at 1:08pm that pulled in front of my house two minutes later. In addition to timely, my driver, Irfan, was courteous and professional. When I reached my destination, I had a digital receipt on my smartphone before I stepped out of the vehicle. Simple.
  1. Alacrity – Make it quick: My family and I often enjoy impromptu meals at Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches or Chipotle Mexican Grill. In one strip center near our home, these restaurants are located next door to each other. At this location, our choice of where to dine is often determined by the line at Chipotle – which frequently extends to the entry doors. Interestingly, although Jimmy John’s is also popular and teeming with customers, there never seems to be much of a wait. Many times, I’m challenged to pay for my sandwich and return my credit card to my wallet before my sandwich is made and delivered to me. As Jimmy John’s says, it’s “Freaky fast!”
  1. Quality – Make it well: My brother-in-law, Mike, a pastor in Vancouver, B.C., likes to say, “I’m too poor to afford cheap shoes.” He would rather spend more money on a pair of well-made shoes that will last him for many years than buy a cheap pair that he’ll soon need to replace. Five years ago, I bought a pair of Allen Edmonds dress shoes. The sole of the right shoe finally wore down last November. I stopped by an Allen Edmonds store where an employee took all my information, printed a shipping label, and gave me a box to package my shoes and ship via FedEx to the factory for refurbishment. About a week later, I received an email update containing before-and-after pictures of my shoes. Two days later, they were delivered to my home looking like new! And now I’m good for another five years… I can’t wait to share this experience with Mike!

While I have no crystal ball, I can say this with certainty: In 2016 customers will be turned off by complex instructions, chronic delays, and shoddy quality. Mediocrity will be a tough sell. The availability of more choices, from transportation companies to dress shoe manufacturers, has exposed the futility of subpar product and service quality.

On the other hand, if you’re fortunate enough to have earned a reputation among customers for simplicity, alacrity, or quality, you will likely have a good year. If you’re known for two of the three attributes, you’ll probably have a great year. And if your brand is synonymous with all three, buckle up for the ride because you’re going to be very busy in 2016!

Happy New Year!

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