Being capable is not enough

TeamworkI was recently asked, “What is the biggest customer service challenge facing companies today?” My response was that it’s the same challenge companies faced last year, the year before that, and even 28 years ago: inconsistency of customer service quality and the customer experience.

The former head of SAS Airlines, Jan Carlzon, coined the term ‘moments of truth’ in 1987, referring to every time an employee of the company came into contact with a customer. Today, the same meaning is applied to ‘touchpoints along the customer journey’. While technology has enabled many more self-service options in 2015 than existed 28 years ago, customer interactions with employees persist and continue to have a disproportionate impact on overall customer satisfaction.

Regardless of how seamless one’s self-service check-in experience was for her latest flight, eventually she’s going to encounter an airline employee. And when she does, for better or worse, that interaction will supplant her check-in experience. No matter how user-friendly the technology or how flawless the omnichannel experience, ultimately a customer’s perception of service quality hinges on the nature of her one-on-one interaction with a service provider.

Too many companies focus myopically on the infrastructure and technology to support voice of the customer (VOC), customer experience (CX), and enterprise feedback management (EFM) processes and neglect their greatest customer experience asset and feedback source: competent, customer-focused, and engaged employees who are both capable AND inspired to consistently provide superior customer service.

A majority of companies employ capable workers who possess adequate job knowledge and demonstrate sufficient job skill. These employees know WHAT to do and HOW to do it. Where most companies fail (and where the consistency of customer service quality routinely breaks down) is they stop there, assuming that employees are now equipped to consistently deliver exceptional customer service.

What these companies overlook is the need to define and share the organization’s purpose, which informs employees about their highest priority at work. Employees need to know WHY they are doing WHAT they are doing HOW they are doing it. Instead of just being given something to work ON (duties and tasks), employees must be given something to work TOWARD (purpose).

The result is a workforce that is not only capable of providing superior customer service, but inspired to do so consistently.

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.

A rock-solid approach to being memorable

RockIn the book Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, the authors propose Six Principles of Sticky Ideas that contribute to a message being remembered as opposed to overlooked, disregarded, or forgotten. Those principles are: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotions, and stories.

I spent my last eight years with Marriott working as a corporate trainer. One of the courses I co-facilitated with another instructor was a 3-day public speaking class. On days 2 and 3 of the class, each participant made an 8-10 minute presentation to the class that was evaluated by an instructor as well as his classmates. I bet I taught this class 40 times during my career. Given an average class size of 12, delivering two presentations each (of which I evaluated half), a couple of quick calculations suggest that I observed 480 presentations totaling 72 hours.

Today (perhaps nine years removed from my last class), of those presentations, I can vividly recall exactly one. It was in Scottsdale, Arizona in 2004. On the second day of the class, a participant named Chris stood before the group to share an important lesson that he learned as a child:

While in middle school, he had an altercation with another boy on the way home from school. At first they had only exchanged words from a distance, but then Chris picked up a small, triangular shaped rock and threw it in the direction of the boy, striking him right between the eyes and sending him running home crying.

Hours later, Chris’s father received a phone call from the boy’s parents explaining what had occurred and the fact that their son received several stitches above his nose and was continuing to apply ice to reduce the swelling around one eye. When his father hung up the phone, he confronted his son about the incident. Looking down in shame, Chris admitted to throwing the rock. With that, his father said, “Get your coat. We’re going for a drive.”

When he asked his father where they were going, he said, “We’re going to the place where you threw the rock.” During the drive, Chris’s father shared the details of the injury suffered by the boy. When they arrived at the scene of the altercation, the car pulled onto the shoulder, the two got out, and Chris was instructed to find the rock. Not just any rock – the very rock he had thrown.

Chris protested, saying, “Dad, it was a small rock. There are hundreds of rocks out here. How am I going to find the exact rock that I threw?” His father responded, “Well, I reckon you have about two hours of daylight left and, if you don’t find it by sunset, we can return with a flashlight.”

After an hour of scouring an area of brush, Chris found the small, triangular shaped rock – the actual rock he had thrown at the boy. When he presented it, his father said, “Son, starting right now, I want you to carry that rock with you at all times. Let it be a reminder of what happened here today and of your responsibility, to yourself and others, to always make a good choice. When I ask to see the rock, I want you to have it.”

As Chris shared this story, others in the class were visibly moved and drawn to the powerful lesson he learned that day so many years ago. What happened next produced a collective gasp from the entire group: with a deep sense of reverence, Chris removed from his pocket and held up a small, triangular shaped rock – the very rock he’d been carrying for years as a lasting reminder of a father’s lesson in personal responsibility.

Now, that was a memorable story, huh? Let’s apply the Heath brothers’ Six Principles of Sticky Ideas to see why:

Simplicity: The idea of accepting personal responsibility for one’s actions is quite simple.

Unexpectedness: I hadn’t expected Chris’s father to respond the way he did. Nor did I expect to see the actual rock that was the focal point of the story.

Concreteness: The rock itself was pretty concrete.

Credibility: Chris’s credibility peaked when he revealed to the class that, years later, he continued to honor his father’s request by carrying the rock with him at all times.

Emotions: Chris definitely evoked emotions (surprise, sympathy, empathy, interest, reverence, curiosity, sadness, regret, shame, outrage) from his audience.

Stories: The presentation itself was a story.

Think about your own situation. Whether you’re developing a presentation, writing a blog post, shooting a video, recording a podcast, or crafting a corporate mission statement, consider these principles and ways that you can apply them to make your ideas memorable.

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.

What’s in a name?

steveLast month I worked with a multinational retailer whose internal customer satisfaction survey analysis revealed some interesting findings: when they can recall an employee by name, customers’ overall satisfaction is 20 percent higher (from 69 percent to 89 percent) and their likelihood to return is 11 percent higher (from 76 percent to 87 percent).

The data also reveals that nearly half of all customers (47 percent) don’t encounter an employee on the sales floor. During my presentation at this retailer’s regional conference, I advised store leadership to set a positive example for their employees by being intentional about initiating customer encounters on the sales floor and by being purposeful in displaying and offering their names to customers. I wrote about ways to initiate customer encounters in an earlier blog post. Today, I’d like to focus on displaying and offering names.

Nametags are common throughout the service industry. So common are they, that many service providers don’t really think about them. I know this to be true because every other month, I review 80 pages of mystery shopper evaluations for a local shopping center. And every review period I see points deducted because employees are not wearing visible nametags.

The best companies are not casual when it comes to nametags. They recognize the importance of names and make employees’ nametags a part of the uniform standard. In other words, if the employee is not wearing a nametag, he’s out of uniform – just as if he was wearing sweatpants rather than slacks or flip-flops instead of dress shoes. Wearing a nametag also reassures customers that employees are, in fact, employees. (This is especially crucial in situations where employees work in security or enter customers’ offices or homes.)

Once the nametag is consistently worn, employees must be deliberate in offering their name to customers. Doing so has several benefits: it has the potential to elevate a transactional exchange to a relational experience, it reinforces the customer’s confidence that he will have a positive service experience (otherwise, why would the employee have offered to share his name?), and according to the above analysis, it may result in double-digit increases to overall customer satisfaction and likelihood to return.

So, what’s in a name? Lots of really positive stuff. So don’t be nonchalant about wearing nametags or offering your name to customers. Doing so separates extraordinary service providers from their ordinary counterparts.

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: Daniel Ruesch Design

Customer feedback: a gift that keeps on giving

Annoyed customer copyA study by Maritz Research and Evolve24 revealed that of 1,298 Twitter complaints, only 29 percent were replied to by the companies in question. Yesterday, during a phone interview, I was asked, “Why do you think company representatives choose to ignore feedback from customers – whether through Twitter, Facebook, or some other channel?”

My response was that leadership at many companies is primarily concerned with short-term results, while discounting the long-term benefits that result from listening to customers and (gasp!) acknowledging their complaints and/or suggestions for improvement. By choosing to ignore customer feedback, company leadership is violating the simple lesson most of us learned as children from Aesop’s fable, “The Goose with the Golden Eggs.”

In the story, a farmer had the good fortune to own a goose that laid a golden egg every day. But the farmer’s inability to delay gratification by thinking long-term led him to cut the goose open to obtain all the eggs TODAY! Of course, there were no golden eggs to be found – only a dead goose.

In the same way, company leadership tends to focus myopically on TODAY’S forecast, TODAY’S productivity, and TODAY’S P&L statement. This is widely understood to be the norm, although most business leaders would publicly endorse “long-term strategic thinking” and “customer lifetime value.”

But there’s another reason that customer feedback is ignored: lack of trust. In addition to not trusting the feedback source, there is skepticism about the assertions made and suspicion about one’s motives. Skepticism and suspicion tend to mute the “voice of the customer.” I liken this behavior to that of a self-righteous mother who questions the competency of the teacher who assigned her child a “C” grade. Or the headstrong father who disputes the logic of the coach who elects not to start his son in the big game.

Arrogance and obstinance cloud objectivity. When a customer complains, he is often seen as difficult rather than discerning and labeled a crank as opposed to a valued partner in the long-term success of the enterprise. And there’s little doubt the critical customer is ignorant to the unique challenges facing the business and, besides, is likely exaggerating his claims. Why even waste time and other resources responding to such a churl?

Here’s why: it’s the right thing to do. It’s also well documented that current customers are infinitely more valuable than non-customers. According to Gartner, 80 percent of future profits will come from 20 percent of existing customers. Research by Bain & Company revealed that increasing (current) customer retention rates by 5 percent increases profits by 25 to 95 percent.

Given the choice, why would anyone willfully ignore customer feedback? Not only is feedback a gift, it’s a gift that keeps on giving in the form of increased customer retention, spending, profits, referrals, and other signs of customer loyalty.

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.

Here a tip, there a tip, everywhere a tip, tip…

Handscreditcard copyHave you noticed that lines to add tips before totaling amounts on charge slips and electronic point-of-sale (POS) systems have begun to show up in some unlikely places?

There are two independent coffee shops in my neighborhood that require customers to choose from a range of gratuities (pre-calculated in the amounts of 15, 20, and 25 percent) before signing to authorize the transaction. Customers choose to either add a tip or, sheepishly, decline by selecting the “No Tip” option.

I’m not against tipping and I frequently deposit the difference in change between the cost of my latte and a five-dollar bill. The issue I have with these types of POS systems is that they put the customer in the awkward position of selecting the “No Tip” option (which might as well say “Cheapskate”) if the only “service” provided was, in the case of the coffee shops, to sell the customer a one-pound bag of whole bean coffee.

Why does a customer have to choose whether or not to tip a cashier for selling him a bag of whole bean coffee? Imagine your local supermarket’s POS system suggesting that you add a tip or choose the “No Tip” option before completing your transaction. What about your dry cleaner? Maybe he should consider implementing a similar POS system in order to capture gratuities? After all, he has to expend the effort required to operate the garment carousel to retrieve his customers’ orders.

Last weekend, I visited the AMC Southlands 16 Theatres with my son and his friend. At the concessions, I bought a bucket of popcorn and three fountain drinks. Since I paid with a credit card, the cashier gave me a charge slip to sign that included lines to add a tip and total the amount charged to my credit card.


As if paying $25.39 for a bucket of popcorn (that I buttered myself at a self-service butter station) and three paper cups (that I filled myself at a self-service soda station) wasn’t bad enough, AMC Theatres suggested that I include a tip too! That’s ridiculous. Do they really expect customers to tip concession employees – who hand them a pre-filled bucket of popcorn and three paper cups – on top of famously exorbitant concessions prices?

When I presented this issue to AMC Guest Services on Twitter, a representative replied, “Non server/bartender Associates are not allowed to accept tips.” That’s not true. If it was true, then charge slips presented by non-server/bartender associates would not include lines for customers to add tips before totaling. I suspect that over the weekend, at AMC Southlands 16 and every other AMC Theatres location using the same POS system, every non-server/bartender associate who worked concessions processed charge slips that included tips.

If charge slips are presented to customers that include lines for adding tips and totaling the amounts to be charged, customers will feel obligated to tip (whether or not it’s deserved and, despite AMC Theatres’ claim, regardless of the employee’s job role). And some percentage of customers will add gratuities to the tip line. What AMC Theatres has to determine is whether these tips are being added enthusiastically on top of already high-priced (often self-service) concessions or, more realistically, begrudgingly; induced by a sense of obligation.

Businesses should not put unwelcome social pressure on customers to part with money they would rather keep. POS systems, whether at a coffee shop, movie theater, or elsewhere, should distinguish between full-service that warrants a gratuity and transactional service that doesn’t.

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.

Chance encounters by design

genuine-interest-copyI recently worked for a multinational retailer whose internal customer satisfaction survey analysis revealed some interesting findings: when they encounter an employee on the sales floor, customers have an overall better experience as evidenced by their reported 18 percent increases in both Overall Satisfaction and Likelihood to Recommend.

In addition to double-digit increases in Overall Satisfaction and Likelihood to Recommend (a key indicator of customer loyalty), customers who encounter an employee on the sales floor spend an average of 28 percent more. And if they are highly satisfied with the employee’s friendliness, then average spending increases another three percentage points to 31 percent more.

While a 31 percent increase in customer spending is substantial, the data also reveals that nearly half of all customers (47 percent) don’t encounter an employee on the sales floor. And this begs the question: “If we know that customers who report encountering an employee on the sales floor are more satisfied overall, more likely to recommend our store/brand to others, and spend an average of 28-31 percent more, why doesn’t every customer encounter an employee on the sales floor?”

If I were a store manager for this company, I would assemble my staff right away, share these findings, and then brainstorm ways that our team can be intentional about initiating customer encounters without being intrusive or appearing to hover. Below are some top-of-mind ideas that may emerge:

  • Initiate contact rather than waiting for customers to seek assistance
  • Practice the 15 x 5 Rule: Within 15 feet, make eye contact, smile, and nod (while looking for cues from the customer that she may require assistance). And within 5 feet, make eye contact, smile, and offer an appropriate greeting and offer of assistance (e.g., “Good morning! Is there something I can help you find?”)
  • Ask customers who have selected a clothing item if they would like assistance accessing a dressing room to try it on
  • Offer to retrieve a shopping cart for a customer holding several items
  • Anticipate needs: Scan for and approach customers who appear to be lost or looking for something (e.g., a public restroom, trash can, etc.)

The data is pretty clear: When customers (happen to) encounter employees, their overall satisfaction, likelihood to recommend, and spending increase. If this is true, then the corollary is true: when employees initiate encounters with customers, their overall satisfaction, likelihood to recommend, and spending (on average) will increase. Imagine the impact that employees can have on Overall Satisfaction, Likelihood to Recommend, and gross sales by increasing the total number of customer encounters (and thereby decreasing the percentage of customers who do not have an encounter with an employee) on the sales floor.

By encouraging employees to initiate customer encounters, these opportunities are not left to chance. Instead, these “chance encounters” occur by design. And when they do, the company fosters highly satisfied, if not delighted, customers who are 18 percent more likely to recommend the store/brand to others while spending 28-31 percent more, on average, than customers who do not encounter an employee on the sales floor.

What are you waiting for? Here comes a customer now…

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 problem with perfection

Ford CustSat SurveyCustomer satisfaction surveys are carefully constructed by instructional designers who labor over details such as the exact wording, number, and sequence of questions, and the rating scale used. This is done with the intent to produce a survey that yields reliable feedback that leadership can then use to improve product and service quality.

Tampering with customers’ satisfaction survey responses undermines the tool’s design, erodes its validity, and masks legitimate opportunities to improve. It’s like tampering with your bathroom scale to display a more desirable weight: while the number looks good, you know that it doesn’t match reality.

Two weeks ago, my wife and I bought a new Ford Expedition. We had a terrific buying experience at the dealership. Our salesman was knowledgeable, low-pressure, and communicative throughout the sales process. In fact, the only time he applied pressure was when he handed me a sample Ford customer satisfaction survey (see image) – on which he had taken the time to highlight every “Completely Satisfied,” “Excellent,” “Definitely Would,” and “Yes” box to guide my survey responses.

One of the questions asked me to rate the length of time to complete the final paperwork. Although our salesman had said, “It takes less than an hour,” we were there for more than two hours. Even so, I was instructed to check the “Excellent” box in response to this question. While it took longer than expected, our salesman brought us chilled bottled water and the finance rep took sufficient time to offer complete explanations and respond to questions. When I complete the survey, I will check the “Very Good” box.

Another question asked if everything on the vehicle was in working order. Although the touchscreen display on the navigation system didn’t work, I was advised to check the “Excellent” box in response to this question. Our salesman owned the problem and scheduled an appointment for the following Tuesday to replace the navigation system’s touchscreen monitor. But because it didn’t work when we took delivery of the vehicle, when I complete the survey, I will check the “Very Good” box.

Afterward, when we were in the parking lot taking delivery of the vehicle, my wife had a question about the Bluetooth hands-free feature. Our salesman said, “It’s pretty easy to figure out. It’s all in the manual.” But then he added, “They’ll ask on the survey if I showed that to you, so tell them I did.” Now, in our salesman’s defense, it was after 7:30pm, the sun had set, and everyone had had a long day. To expect him to explain every feature on the vehicle at that hour would have been unreasonable. Even so, his response is further evidence that the customer satisfaction survey process at Ford is broken. The actual customer experience has been subordinated to an artificial survey rating that does not reflect the customer’s reality. In their zeal for “perfect” scores, salespeople have lost sight of the ultimate goal: a perfect buying experience.

This approach, which I’ve experienced at multiple Ford dealerships, attempts to cajole customers into assigning perfect scores for imperfect experiences. Let’s face it: most exceptional consumer experiences (whether buying a new car or vacationing on Marco Island) are likely peppered with opportunities for improvement. Why should customers be asked to assign perfect scores when doing so may not reflect their reality? And how exactly does receiving a perfect score on every customer satisfaction survey help you to improve?

Customers should be given the freedom to provide authentic ratings and feedback that reflect their actual experience, not coached to provide what Ford wants to hear. I can’t fathom how a company as sophisticated as Ford Motor Company doesn’t see the fatal flaw with the execution of its customer satisfaction survey process. You can’t tell customers what score to give you. You can’t hand customers a guide demonstrating how they “should” complete their surveys. You can’t tell a customer what his experience was like and how he should feel about it in order to placate your manager, “earn” a bonus, or validate a flawed customer satisfaction survey process.

Ford, if you’re listening, continue to solicit customer feedback. But please discontinue the practice of coaching customers to assign only perfect scores. And recognize that receiving a disproportionate number of customer satisfaction surveys with perfect scores, indicates the presence (not absence) of problems.

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.

Do your best customers feel welcomed?

Responsive - Doorman copyMy family and I will travel to Breckenridge next month over spring break. As we do every year, we’ll be staying at our favorite lodge at the base of the mountain. When making the reservation back in January, I requested a slope-side view with the understanding that any request would be noted as a preference, not a guarantee.

During my conversation with the reservations agent, he acknowledged our previous stays and hinted that this would be taken into consideration when assigning units closer to our arrival date. I appreciated that a returning guest’s loyalty would weigh in the decision and felt confident, as this was our fifth stay at the lodge, that we had a good chance of scoring a slope-side view.

So, imagine my surprise when I received a “welcome” letter from the lodge last weekend that, besides misspelling my name, opened with: “Thank you for choosing (our lodge) for your upcoming visit. Whether you are returning or visiting for the first time, we look forward to welcoming you…”

Huh? Although the lodge had no trouble spelling my name correctly when they accepted my credit card information to pay for accommodations and lift tickets in advance, they misspelled it when “welcoming” me. While paying attention to detail separates extraordinary companies from their ordinary counterparts, I can excuse the misspelling. What was far worse was the lack of acknowledgement that I was a returning guest who had pledged his loyalty (and his wallet) to the lodge for years.

Although there are a dozen other places we could stay, my family and I choose to return to this particular lodge. Smart lodging companies mine the data they receive from guest satisfaction surveys to uncover clues to better attract, serve, and foster ongoing (and profitable) relationships with guests like me. Specifically, they ask questions pertaining to one’s intent to return and intent to recommend, knowing that guests who respond favorably to these questions are gold! Not only do these customers cost less to serve, they are more profitable and, through their gushing word-of-mouth endorsements, serve as an unpaid legion of marketers for the company.

But instead of recognizing me as a repeat, loyal guest (a partner in the lodge’s success would not be an overstatement), the lodge sent me the same welcome letter they send to first-time customers who got a deal on And that makes me feel more like an expendable “unit occupant” than a valued, loyal guest.

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.

If Walt Disney Drove Your Bus

SprinklesThe following is a guest post by Chip R. Bell, a renowned keynote speaker and the author of several best-selling books. His newest book is the just-released Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experiences Through Innovative Service.

I recently had keynoted a conference for a large bus manufacturing company. It got me thinking about what service would be like if choreographed through the lens of organizations renowned for those compelling story-telling customer experiences. While this focus is bus-specific, the lessons have application for any organization with a focus on taking their customers’ breath away. So, what if Walt Disney (or your favorite exemplar) was in charge of the experience you create for your customers?

It would be inclusive…like the way Southwest Airlines involves passengers. On a flight to Phoenix, a flight attendant sought the assistance from two adoring passengers to help pass out peanuts to fellow passengers. The most important part of the occurrence was not the obvious fun the two guys in Bermuda shorts and ball caps had. It was the noticeable positive effect the incident had on everyone on board. Even super serious passengers could not help but grin as they received the all-too-familiar snack from the flight attendant-wannabes!

It would be fun…like Archie Bostick, a bus driver for Hertz. After turning in your car you go outside to catch the rental car bus to the terminal. The first thing you notice is Archie standing next to the doors with a welcoming grin on his face! Instead of a tip jar (baited with a handful of bucks to encourage reluctant tippers), Archie paper-clips dollar bills across the front of his shirt. It’s an attention-getter that announces this is going to be a unique experience. Once onboard, Archie delivers a comedy routine instead of the issuing the standard warning about the consequences of forgetting to turn in the car. As Archie pulls up to the terminal, he announces, “Now, I may never see you again. I want us all to say together, ‘I love Hertz.’” He convinces a crowd of strangers to holler, “I love Hertz” before they get off his bus!

It would feature surprise…like Marriott. My business partner and I were staying at the Marriott in Rocky Hill, Connecticut, while working with a client nearby. We both had a very early meeting but I was returning to the hotel afterwards to work in his room. Before getting in the rental car my partner panned to keep, I stopped by the front desk and asked the night auditor and early morning front desk clerk, Linda Zieller, if the hotel had a van that could pick him up at the meeting site, ten minutes away, and bring him back to the hotel at 8 am. Without hesitation Linda said, “We don’t have a hotel van but I will be getting off at 7:30 am and will be glad to pick you up and bring you back to the hotel before I go home.” We made other arrangements, but the generous offer increased our devotion to the hotel.

And, it would be magical…just like Disney. A family took a vacation on a Disney Cruise Line trip that began with a few days at Walt Disney World theme park. The morning they were to shift from their hotel to the cruise ship, they were instructed to leave their entire luggage in their hotel room for pick-up and delivery. Imagine their delight when they arrived on board ship to discover that their luggage was already in their room with the same room number as the hotel—and the same hotel key opened the door! They do not refer to it as the Magic Kingdom just because it is a cool label.

When you visit the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, one of the photos on display was taken in the early days following the grand opening of Disneyland in Anaheim. Walt is touring the theme park with Mickey Mouse in an antique open-air vehicle. And, who do you think is the driver behind the wheel? Why, Walt himself, having the adventure of his life! Who’s driving the experience bus at your organization? And, is it just about the destination or is it also about a great ride?

Going above and beyond is a choice

Volunteers-At-Work-Sign-lgFor many years, I’ve gone on record saying that the reason you and I, as customers, consistently receive predictably poor customer service is because exceptional customer service is voluntary; employees don’t have to deliver it, and most don’t.

It’s true. While there are things that employees do have to do, providing exceptional customer service isn’t one of them. Instead, their focus is typically on protocol, processes, policies and procedures – the same types of things that managers tend to inspect. At shift’s end, whether or not a cashier’s drawer balances is the subject of tremendous scrutiny by her manager. But whether or not she delighted customers throughout the day by choosing to smile, make eye contact, use names, and add enthusiasm to her voice, may or may not come up.

For a cashier, balancing at shift’s end is a non-negotiable requirement. Choosing to express genuine interest in customers by smiling and making eye contact, however, is voluntary.

Six motivations to go above and beyond

University of Pennsylvania professor, Adam Grant, has conducted extensive research on corporate volunteerism. In this article, he describes six motivators that initiate corporate volunteering that also influence an employee’s choice to expend the discretionary effort needed to raise customer service quality from ordinary to extraordinary:

1. Pro-social; for the benefit of others: In the context of customer service, this means choosing to be helpful and delighting in the opportunity to serve others. This is always a voluntary decision made by the service provider.

2. Belonging; for the relationships: Employees look to build and strengthen relationships with others. This includes both coworkers and customers.

3. Self-enhancement; for the self-esteem boost: Employees, after developing and displaying their ability to deliver exceptional customer service, bask in the glow of compliments from peers, superiors, and customers – all of which reinforce desired behavior.

4. Self-protective; for the distraction: When employees lean in to their roles as service providers, choosing to consistently delight coworkers and customers by refusing to deliver transactional customer service, treating each customer like the one before, they view work as a positive outlet. This may serve to distract attention away from other aspects of their life that aren’t as positive or fulfilling.

5. Developmental; for the knowledge and skills: Employees look to acquire job knowledge and develop job skills that will increase their competency and, by extension, their marketability.

6. Career; for the job prospects: Employees who choose to expend the discretionary effort required to make lasting positive impressions on coworkers and customers anticipate that their initiative will be rewarded with opportunities for career advancement.

The extent to which these motivators are acknowledged and facilitated by management will influence an employee’s decision to take initiative at work, go above and beyond in the service of others, and commit to achieving other organizational priorities.

Designing jobs to promote above and beyond behavior

Job design may have a substantial impact on satisfying the above motivators. In his article, Professor Grant shares three job characteristics that have a substantial impact on employee motivations and contribute to a job’s desirability:

1. Task characteristics: The duties, tasks, and methods used to deliver products and/or services to customers that have a substantial, lasting impact on them. (Don’t assume that employees are aware of this impact. Frequently, employees do not see the connection between what they do day-to-day and the organization’s purpose.) Without purpose, job roles lack meaning. Employees have something to work on, but nothing to work toward.

2. Social characteristics: The structural features of a job that influence employees’ interpersonal interactions and relationships, allowing them to develop friendships and exchange support. When these social characteristics are enriched, jobs fulfill the desire for connection with others, which is a core motive in life and at work.

3. Knowledge characteristics: The aspects of a job that affect the development and utilization of information and skills, providing employees the opportunity to learn, solve problems, and acquire skills. A central desire of employees is to obtain and project competence at work.

Grant’s research suggests that employees with enriched task, social, and knowledge characteristics may feel grateful to the organization for providing desirable jobs and may reciprocate with stronger commitment to the organization’s purpose, goals, and objectives. And employees tend to repeat positive behavior, such as delivering exceptional customer service, when they engage in the experience with strong motives. When employees’ jobs are enriched, their core motivations of meaning, connection, and learning are likely to be satisfied.

Sustaining above and beyond behavior

According to the role identity perspective, the strongest predictor of long-term engagement in delivering exceptional customer service is the internalization of the employee’s role (relative to job purpose) into her self-concept. The repeated act of delivering exceptional customer service leads employees to internalize the particular role as a critical part of their identities.

Research shows that individuals are most likely to internalize a particular identity when company leadership values this behavior. Recognition, for instance, only motivates people when their efforts are important to the group providing the recognition. According to Grant, recognition in conjunction with managerial support is likely to sustain employees’ experiences of volitional, autonomous behavior, promoting internalization.

Beyond emphasizing the importance of desired behavior and recognizing it daily, leadership must model, not mandate, the behavior they expect from employees. In the absence of pressure, employees are more likely to feel personally responsible for their decision to provide exceptional customer service, which will increase the likelihood of internalizing their identity as an exceptional customer service provider. Besides, you can’t force an employee to care any more than you can force a customer to be loyal.

Ready, set, go above and beyond!

While I don’t expect for employees to volunteer their time in lieu of a salary at a for-profit enterprise, it’s not romantic to believe that you can create jobs and a work environment that encourages volunteer-like commitment and initiative.

Professor Grant’s research on corporate volunteerism informs customer service professionals about employee motivation that influences one’s decision to expend the discretionary effort required to elevate customer service quality from ordinary to extraordinary. Further, it examines the characteristics that, when incorporated into job design, promote a stronger commitment to the organization’s purpose. And, lastly, it suggests ways to sustain this effort including frequent recognition and positive role modeling by leadership.

Some readers will finish this article and say, “That was interesting” and return to business as usual. Others will seize the opportunity to explore employee motivation, shape enriched job roles, and create a work environment that encourages employees to take initiative and expend discretionary effort in the moment of choice.

And in doing so, they themselves will be going above and beyond.

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: Daniel Ruesch Design