“New school” customer service evokes a story

March 11, 2013

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal ParkIn last weekend’s edition of the Wall Street Journal, there was an excellent story about travel photography by Kevin Sintumuang, titled Snap Out of It.

The gist of the article is that “old school” photographs (e.g., famous landmarks, generic landscapes, and buildings you can barely remember) are no longer engaging when compared to “new school” photographs that capture the essence of the trip (e.g., the letterpress stationery in the hotel room, the $14 apple fritter that was actually worth it, and the little girl in Mumbai who knew all the words to “Material Girl”).

He’s right. My photograph of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe looks identical to hundreds of photos that emerge from a Google image search of the falls. But my photograph of the in-room signage at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge warning me to lock my balcony door to keep the calculating vervet monkeys at bay is interesting. It tells a story.

It’s the same with service. Most customer service interactions are “old school”—quite routine and forgettable. Like my picture of Victoria Falls, these encounters are common and indistinguishable from one transaction to the next as employees regress from enthusiastically serving customers (generally, after completing new-hire orientation) to, over time, dispassionately processing them—treating each customer like the last customer.

Although entrenched, it’s possible for service industry employees to transcend this factory mentality (that reduces customers to “units” and experiences to “transactions”) by embracing “new school” customer service behaviors. Using the photography metaphor, it boils down to a choice between taking a picture or telling a story. Just as it’s feasible to add layers to the narrative by photographing in-room signage warning of mischievous monkeys, so too is it possible to evoke stories from customers by including unexpected nuance that’s rich in detail, accentuates their experiences, and produces lasting positive impressions.

Compare these examples of both “old school” and “new school” approaches to serving customers:

Old school (common): “Tonight, our featured appetizer is the Pâté de Foie Gras. May I interest you in an order?”

New school (unique): “Our chef trained at the prestigious Restaurant School in Philadelphia and apprenticed at Le Bec Fin. She also traveled to France to refine her knowledge of French delicacies such as truffles, escargot, and foie gras. In fact, our Pâté de Foie Gras is our signature appetizer. May I tempt you with an order?”

Old school (forgettable): “Our restaurant is located in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter.”

New school (memorable): “Our restaurant is located in the Gaslamp Quarter which is named after the gas lamps that lined the streets in the early 1900s when the area was a red light district known as ‘Stingaree.’ The name was probably derived from the fierce stingray fish in the San Diego Bay. It was said that you could be stung as badly in the Stingaree as in the bay!”

Old school (no story): “This building is over 100 years old.”

New school (story): “There’s quite a bit a history in this building. In fact, in 1926 the famed magician Harry Houdini escaped from a sealed underwater coffin beneath this very roof when it was the Shelton Towers Hotel.”

Capturing memorable photographs is a lot like providing memorable customer service. By including an open car door on the right side of her photograph of Arizona’s Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, the photographer has added context by stimulating all those road trip memories.

In the same way, when the barista takes a moment to share with his customer that ‘macchiato’ means ‘marked or stained’ in Italian, saying, “Your espresso macchiato is ‘marked’ with a teaspoon of milk,” he’s done more than simply process an “old school” nondescript transaction. He has chosen to provide “new school” customer service by creating an interesting story for his customer, resulting in a lasting positive impression.

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Pre-order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin (AMACOM Books, June 11, 2013)

Photo credit: Diane Cook & Len Jenshel

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