Esprit de corps

High FivesThe French term “esprit de corps” means a feeling of pride, fellowship, and common loyalty shared by members of a particular group. When I read about the most admired corporations or the best places to work, the common thread among these articles is the presence of an engaged, committed workforce.

The dilemma for many organizations is how to attract and develop this type of workforce. While this may be a topic better suited for a dissertation, in this brief post I’d like to focus on only one aspect of inspiring commitment to a shared purpose: knowing and using coworkers’ names.

We have all known or heard of charismatic leaders who “know every employee by name.” And the best of these leaders also know the names of these employees’ spouses and children, hobbies and interests outside of work, or other personal details that they’ve gathered during numerous informal conversations over the weeks, months, and years working together.

This not only applies to superior-to-subordinate relationships, but also to peer-to-peer relationships. While employees may know the names of their immediate work group (e.g., administration or the AM shift), how about other work groups (e.g., accounting or the PM shift)? Not knowing the name of a coworker from a different department or shift may not qualify as outright disrespect, but it may convey benign neglect – which fosters a culture of indifference and unconcern.

So how does one learn the names of all those people? While the methods may vary, I can say this with certainty: it requires initiative and a willingness to expend discretionary effort in the moment of choice. Be creative. As an illustration, consider the tactic used by my son’s high school soccer coach in this testimonial:

Our coach emphasized from the very first day of practice that we, as teammates, were a brotherhood. As such, it was important that teammates form relationships. And key to any relationship is knowing each other’s names. With that in mind, Coach Baird encouraged each boy to learn the names of each of his 20 teammates.

And to motivate them to do so, Coach Baird would randomly ask a player to state the name of another player. If he got their name wrong, he would have the entire team run a lap around the soccer field. Toward the end of one particularly tough practice, the coach asked one of the boys to state the name of another player.

The boy paused for a moment and then, with 19 exhausted athletes encouraging him with their eyes, tentatively said, “E-e-s-u-f?”

Coach Baird corrected him, enunciating, “It’s Y-u-s-u-f.”

Then, Yusuf, hoping to spare himself and his teammates from having to run another lap, pleaded, “My mother sometimes calls me Eesuf.”

After momentarily considering the boy’s plea, the coach shook his head and said, “Run.”

I realize that Coach Baird’s approach may not work for you and your team, but make learning the names of those with whom you work: superiors, peers, and subordinates, a priority. Then, take it a step further and resolve to learn something unique about coworkers as informal opportunities arise. Doing so will foster an inclusive work culture brimming with pride, fellowship, and commitment to a common purpose.

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.

Celebrate customers more frequently and less formally

Enthusiasm new copyIt’s Customer Service Week (Oct. 5-9) and, since I work in the field, I suppose I should contribute to the conversation this week. Let me start by saying that celebrating the customer is a good thing – especially when you consider that, without customers, there wouldn’t be much else to celebrate.

The issue that I have with Customer Service Week is that, to me, it places a superficial focus on customers for one week in October that quickly returns to business as usual the following week as the helium balloons droop, the banners sag, and the buttons are relegated to desk drawers. Wouldn’t it be better to run your business as if every week was Customer Service Week?

Rather than pass out logoed pens and koozies to call attention to customer service for one week in October, why not place the spotlight on customer service daily?

Here are some ways to do it:

  • As a team, develop your very own definition of customer service. Then, post it and revisit the definition often to verify its continued relevance. (Here’s mine: customer service is a voluntary act that demonstrates a genuine desire to satisfy, if not delight, a customer)
  • Provide timely feedback, positive and corrective, to team members on their ability to practice the service behaviors contained in the definition of customer service developed by your team.
  • Gather customer feedback via pithy satisfaction and/or intercept surveys that request meaningful input pertaining to criteria such as: ease of doing business, willingness to recommend, intent to return, etc.
  • Track your progress and “plot the dots” during each feedback cycle and display the results prominently to increase team awareness of customers’ perceptions of service quality.
  • Talk about customers daily.
  • Discuss your customers’ perceptions of service quality daily.
  • Seek ways to improve product and service quality daily. Consider these sources: customers, employees, competitors, companies outside your industry, books on the topic, relevant articles, etc.
  • Tweak processes and service models regularly based on customer and employee feedback, competitive analysis, personal observations, etc.
  • Celebrate successes often. (If you tend to the above list, there will be successes.)

Years ago, I read a book by Harry Woodward titled, Navigating Through Change. In it, Dr. Woodward advocates “more frequent and less formal” as it applies to communicating organizational change. However, it also applies to communicating more than change (e.g., daily pre-shift meetings vs. monthly department meetings to convey operational information). It also applies to training (e.g., just-in-time training “shorts” of even 15 min. per day vs. annual or semi-annual classroom training for one or more days at a time), feedback [e.g., in-the-moment feedback, positive and corrective (as appropriate), vs. reliance on annual performance appraisals], and recognition (e.g., a $5 Starbucks gift card to recognize outstanding performance as it occurs vs. a flat screen television set to recognize an “Employee of the Year” once a year).

In the same way, Dr. Woodward’s counsel applies to celebrating customers: let’s practice celebrating customers more frequently (daily) and less formally (a single week in October during Customer Service Week).

What are some ways that you place the spotlight on customers daily?

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.

You’re not entitled to a 10

Smoke detectorEarlier this week, I hired a local handyman service to knock out my “honey-do” list so that I was assured a weekend of uninterrupted football watching. The handyman, Eric, was prompt, even calling to let me know he was running ahead of schedule if that worked for me, which it did.

When he arrived, we spent a few minutes walking around the house as I pointed out door handles in need of replacement, exterior bulbs that required changing, bathroom caulking that needed to be reinforced, and a couple of other minor repairs. Afterward, list in hand, Eric returned to his truck for the tools and materials needed to complete the repairs. So far, so good.

About two hours later, Eric tapped on my office door and signaled that he was done. Together we walked into the kitchen where he had something he wanted to point out to me: apparently the portion of the garage entry door jamb that secured the metal latch plate was stripped and no longer held screws. Okay, that’s reasonable. But then Eric said something that surprised me: “You can see that your mortise is elongated and there’s no wood for the screws to grab. Get yourself some wood putty and fill that in. Then, after it dries, sand it down and hollow-out an area to receive the latch. Then, re-attached the strike plate and you should be in business.”

Concerned that my weekend of uninterrupted football games was now in jeopardy, I asked the obvious question: “Isn’t that what I hired you for?”

It was then that I learned that Eric, a handyman, didn’t have any Bondo or wood putty in his truck that would have enabled the repair. Sensing my astonishment, he proposed setting a second appointment to complete the repair, which I accepted.

We then moved to the kitchen island where Eric had placed the invoice. After I gave him a check for the total, he handed me a satisfaction survey that asked me to rate my intent to recommend his service to a friend or colleague on a 0-10 scale, with 10 being “very likely”, saying, “We like to get 10s because then, at our monthly meetings, we get $10 for every survey that comes in rating us a 10.”

While I support customer satisfaction surveys (especially those that pose the Ultimate Question pertaining to the customer’s intent to recommend), I don’t support tampering. Whenever an employee actively promotes a satisfaction survey, he is tampering with the process and undermining the integrity of the survey results. This is especially true of employees who share with the customer an incentive program tied to their scores. It’s a way to cajole the customer into providing a perfect score for an imperfect experience, providing the organization with a skewed view of its actual performance.

After Eric left, I had a chance to go around the house inspecting his work. It was then that I discovered spackling on the carpet beneath a repair. Not a big deal, but in the past I recall hiring an electrician who toted a mini-vac to clean up after himself. That left a positive lasting impression on me such that now I expect for all tradesmen to clean up after themselves. I also came across packaging containing the old bathroom door handle on the vanity of an upstairs bathroom. Later, I found packaging for an outdoor LED bulb in the front yard flower bed. But the real shocker was the incomplete work on the hallway smoke detector (pictured) which remains dangling precariously from the ceiling. (Maybe I’ll get to it during halftime of the Broncos game…)

Here’s the deal: Olympians work hard for 10s and if they manage to achieve them, they’ve earned it. No judge is going to award a 10 for an average or incomplete performance. In the same way, employees (whether handymen, mechanics, salespeople, cable technicians, etc.) need to focus on their performance and let customers determine their ratings based on their view of that performance.

If Eric had placed the same emphasis on his quality of work as he did on his spiel about his company’s incentive program, then maybe he would have earned a 10.

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.

Approachable customer service

mr-sunshineI recently completed a consulting project for a network of county libraries. One of our objectives was to identify ways to incorporate exceptional customer service into the day-to-day processes at the libraries. As a part of my preparation, I read a research paper by Jennifer Bonnet and Benjamin McAlexander titled, “How Do You like Me Now?: An Image-rating Study of Librarian Approachability” (Apr 2013). Among the findings was the positive correlation between library staff approachability and whether or not they smiled or wore a nametag:

“Smiling had a positive effect across rater groups, demonstrating that…participants tended to consider smiling librarians as having increased approachability versus (a neutral expression)…(S)miling made the most difference of all the treatments (e.g., expression, nametag, attire), which reveals the uniquely powerful effect that smiling might have on patron perceptions of librarians. As a result, our recommendation for librarians who wish to maximize their perceived approachability in public service settings is to smile when making eye contact with patrons.

Librarians who wore a nametag came in second (behind smiling) in the ranking of tested treatments. This finding suggests that patrons consider an explicit indication of a librarian’s role as a public service provider to be approachable. Thus, our recommendation for librarians at public service desks is to wear a nametag.”

Supported by the research paper, I emphasized the opportunity library staff had to express genuine interest in patrons by smiling and making eye contact, which requires staff to be attentive and attuned to patrons in need of assistance – even as computer screens and side-work compete for their attention. One way to address this is to provide staff with standing or adjustable desk alternatives. Doing so increases library staff visibility while enabling them to more easily spot service opportunities that might otherwise be hidden behind a 23” computer monitor. (In addition to improving visibility, standing desks provide an array of health benefits according to the Wall Street Journal article: “The Toll of Sitting All Day” by Sumathi Reddy (Sept 29th, 2015).

I also advised my client to consider adding a conversation starter – a “spark” to ignite a memorable interaction with library staff – such as engraving the staff member’s favorite book title or genre beneath her name on her nametag. This seemingly minor addition to the standard nametag has the potential to transform routine transactions with library patrons into memorable experiences.

These lessons are not unique to library staff. Regardless of setting, customer-facing employees have the ability to provide stellar customer service; they just have to put themselves in a position to shine. And they can do so by smiling, remaining visible and attentive, and always wearing a nametag – preferably one that creates a “spark”. 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.

Excellence doesn’t require permission

Maitre d'Whenever I go on record saying, “Most employees don’t choose to deliver poor customer service; they just don’t choose to deliver exceptional customer service” (or something similar), there are always pundits who emerge from the dark recesses of the Internet to lay the blame on management for employee indifference toward customers.

Blaming “low pay”, “unsupportive culture”, “insufficient training” or “poor managerial modeling”, these defenders of frontline mediocrity attempt to give indifferent, entitled, or disengaged employees a pass for their poor performance. Instead, they argue, it is these employees’ managers who are responsible for their employees’ performance.

Anyone who has taken Management 101 or read anything by Drucker, Blanchard, or Peters, knows that managers should be held accountable for their employees’ performance. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s look at the responsibility of the employee:

In the perennial book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey leads off with Habit 1: Be Proactive. In other words, take responsibility for your outcomes. Be assertive. Take action. Later in the book, Covey shares this related tidbit: “there is a gap or a space between stimulus and response, and the key to both our growth and happiness [and, I would add, the product and service quality we deliver to others] is how we use that space.”

If the stimulus is an unsupportive culture where managers don’t appear to model the organization’s values, the employee has a choice: he can respond with indifference using the rationale: “If management doesn’t care, then why should I?” Or he can choose to be proactive by exercising integrity – being integrated around principles, such as the principle of “service” – in the moment of choice. Doing so enables the employee to apply the human endowment (or gift) of independent will: the ability to act based on self-awareness, free of all other influences (including an unsupportive culture or poor managerial modeling).

Excellence doesn’t require permission. You don’t give people initiative; they take it. The decision to expend discretionary effort in the moment of choice to improve product or service quality rests solely on the individual.

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.

Don’t break your brand promise

Courtyard promiseMany companies have brand promises that look good in ads, and emblazoned on websites, banners and buttons, but often these promises have little credibility among customers or employees. They are simply a set of words brainstormed at an ad agency that usually promise more than employees are prepared to deliver, and result in less than customers expect to receive.

Take, for instance, my recent stay at a Courtyard Hotel in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Full disclosure: I worked for Marriott International for 20 years.) I passed a half-dozen signs on the way into the hotel that read: Make room for a little fun.™ And a quick peek at the @CourtyardHotels Twitter page revealed the phrase: “Put more play in your stay” along with the hashtag: #BringTheFun. With all this talk about fun, I was sure that my family and I were going to enjoy this hotel!

On the second night of our stay, after a long day of sightseeing and visiting relatives in Pender, Nebraska (100 miles north of Lincoln), we returned to the hotel and ordered in Valentino’s Pizza (a local favorite). As I waited in the lobby for the pizzas to arrive, my wife and four young children changed into their swimsuits. The kids were giddy at the thought of Valentino’s Pizza and playing in the hotel’s swimming pool. We were planning to #BringTheFun!

When I arrived with the pizzas, the kids were already in the pool “putting more play in their stay.” As I set out paper plates and napkins on the two available tables, the kids began to emerge from the pool, towel off, and sit down for a hot slice of pizza. Sure, we could have eaten the pizzas in our hotel room but we were “making room for a little fun!”

Courtyard poolAbout this time, a security officer entered the pool area and said, “I hate to be a wet blanket, but there’s no food allowed in the pool area.”

I said, “Seriously?” (I was genuinely surprised by the contradiction between the hotel’s brand promise and the reality that I was experiencing. While I was attempting to “put more play in my stay” and #BringTheFun with my family, the security officer, citing hotel policy, asked me to pack up our pizzas and eat them elsewhere.)

Incidentally, if I advised this hotel, I would caution each associate (Marriott’s term for its employees) that if you find yourself prefacing guest communication with, “I hate to be a wet blanket…” then you had better scrutinize the policy or process in question to ensure that it’s consistent with your brand promise. And I’m pretty sure that, from the guest’s perspective, being a wet blanket aligns with #SpoilTheFun, not #BringTheFun.

That said, I don’t blame the security guard for enforcing hotel policy. That’s his job. (And there are plenty of valid policies to enforce in any hotel: particularly those dealing with legal, ethical, financial, and safety considerations.) I do, however, challenge the thinking behind a policy that doesn’t allow family members to enjoy a slice of pizza at one of the tables in the pool area. When I brought this to the attention of the front desk agent who inquired about my stay during check-out the following morning, she said, “I can see the contradiction between (our brand promise) and your experience at the pool.”

Unfortunately, many companies trumpet brand promises that have little to do with customers’ actual experiences with the brand. These companies have a choice: either revise their brands’ promise or amend the policies and processes that contradict the promise. Otherwise, they will be promising more than employees are prepared to deliver and providing less than customers expect to receive.

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.

Customer experience Q&A

Delight-Your-CustomersThe following post contains a recent interview by Erica Marois of ICMI:

1. In your book you mention that 80% of companies claim to provide superior service, while only 8% of customers agree. Where are companies missing the mark?

Too many companies focus exclusively on teaching their employees WHAT to do (imparting job knowledge) and HOW to do it (developing job skills), but neglect any reference to WHY they are doing it (conveying job purpose; employees’ highest priority at work). As a result, most companies produce competent employees who, while capable of consistently executing the mandatory job functions for which they are paid, are aloof: unaware of organizational purpose, uninformed about business priorities and objectives, and uninspired at work.

2. Recent ICMI research revealed that a majority of contact center leaders are knowingly preventing their agents from providing the best customer experience possible (they’re not empowering them with the tools they need). Why do you think this is the case?

There is a halo effect that suggests company leaders are somehow enlightened beyond the degree to which their frontline employees are enlightened. By “enlightened” I’m referring to having a shared understanding of their work’s meaning and purpose. Just because someone is a manager doesn’t mean that he/she is aware of organizational purpose. If managers are themselves ignorant about purpose, then how can they be expected to inspire their staff to achieve their organization’s highest priority? Disclaimer: Having said that, I disagree that employees are justified in delivering a subpar customer experience on the basis that their manager is unsupportive. Excellence doesn’t require permission. You are not given initiative by your manager; you take it yourself.

3. As a customer, what’s the worst service experience you’ve had recently?

I recently phoned my local supermarket upon discovering that $13.30 worth of sliced roast beef from the deli that appeared on my receipt did not make it into my shopping bags. After conveying this to the employee who answered my call, he said, “Could you call back at a more convenient time?” Seriously?

4. What’s the best experience?

Just today, I had a two-man installation crew from Ferguson Enterprises install three appliances: a gas cooktop, a retractable downdraft, and a double oven. They showed up on time, completed an expert installation within 2.5 hours, left no mess behind, and were courteous and professional. Now, you might be thinking: “Huh? Is that it? It sounds like they just did their jobs really well. Where’s the outrageous customer service gesture?” There was none. There didn’t have to be. My definition of customer service is this: a voluntary act that demonstrates a genuine desire to satisfy, if not delight, a customer. (Notice how it doesn’t read: “…genuine desire to delight a customer”?) There is a popular misconception that breathless, over-the-top customer service is required in order to achieve the reputation of a heralded customer service provider like Zappos or Nordstrom. The reality is that this type of service model leads to employee (and quite possibly, customer) fatigue and is, over time, unsustainable. Customers do not expect employees to go out of their way during every interaction. Most customers simply want to receive the product or service ordered at the time and price expected.

5. Many people now argue that delighting customers isn’t as important as making their experience easy. What do you think?

The people who make this argument assume that it has to be zero-sum: either delight customers or reduce customer effort. As most reasonable customer experience professionals understand, it doesn’t have to be one or the other; it can be both. In fact, as a customer myself, I’m “delighted” whenever a service provider reduces the effort I have to expend during a transaction. And I’m sure I’m not alone.

6. How much do you think customer expectations have changed in the last 10 years?

Expectations are based, in part, on our experiences. Before the proliferation of social media and review websites over the past decade, customers’ expectations were based on their personal experiences with a product or service or, perhaps, a review they happened across in the media or heard from a family member, friend, or colleague. Today, customers don’t have to happen across a review or bump into another person with first-hand experience; they can actively search for online reviews and form expectations based on others’ experiences. The result is that today’s customers are better informed and adjust their expectations accordingly.

7. Customer Service Week will be here before we know it. What’s one cool, low-cost way teams can celebrate this year?

Here’s my opinion about Customer Service Week: some companies will spend more time and effort staging events in preparation for Customer Service Week than they will spend celebrating customers and delivering exceptional customer service during the remaining 51 weeks of the year. Customer service is not a campaign; it’s a commitment. What’s one cool, low-cost way teams can celebrate this year? How about committing to celebrate the customer 52 weeks out of the year by consistently expressing genuine interest in serving them? It costs nothing to smile, make eye contact, add energy to your voice, display a sense of urgency, pay attention to detail, anticipate needs, follow-up, etc.

If you have an opinion about any of these questions, or my responses, please share it in the comments section. Thanks!

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.

Serving is selling

Customer Satisfaction SurveyI recently struck up a conversation with my insurance agent, Kevin, about the link between customer service and sales. We both agreed that the line separating these two distinct disciplines is fuzzy. Where does customer service stop and selling start?

Kevin said that while his company tends to reward agents for writing new business, the most important numbers to him are his customers’ renewal rates. His agency is always number one, two, or three in the market with renewal rates consistently above 90 percent – and that includes policyholders who have moved out-of-state, are no longer driving, or are deceased. Renewal rates are stratified based on policyholder tenure (i.e., one year, 2-4 years, and five or more years), but the one that matters most to Kevin is the renewal rate for customers who’ve been with him five or more years. Currently, this rate is 92 percent.

When I asked why he thought his renewal rates were so high, he mentioned that his company uses proprietary software that improves his organization, productivity, and responsiveness. It lists to-dos, runs reports, stores prewritten emails for common issues (such as buying a new home, adding an umbrella policy, scheduling a financial review, etc.), manages email campaigns, archives historical data (such as a past claim or a customer’s request for replacement auto insurance ID cards), and flags xDates (future dates that require Kevin’s attention). My homeowner’s policy, for instance, was flagged because my mortgage recently transferred to a new mortgage company. Because of this feature, when I contacted Kevin about a different matter, he was prompted to confirm the name of the new mortgage company to ensure the accuracy of his records. To me, this gesture demonstrates that Kevin is interested, engaged, and prepared. This instills confidence, which is the number one reason why customers choose to buy where they buy.

Another feature of the software alerts Kevin’s staff when a caller has not spoken personally with Kevin in the previous six months. If so, assuming Kevin is in the office and available, as the call is winding down they are instructed to say to the caller, “Do you have a few seconds? Kevin has a quick question for you.” Nearly everyone says “sure” and the call is then transferred to Kevin. This gives him a chance to personally check-in with clients to verify recent changes to their policies (such as the change in mortgage companies in my personal example above), follow up on a past claim, address concerns, etc. And since he’s also the past-president of a large local HOA with unique insight into local politics and area development, Kevin can often connect with customers on a personal level too.

Even with all the really cool software features at his disposal, Kevin still practices “old school” customer service by hand-signing correspondence that comes from his office and, in many cases, personalizing it further by adding a short note referencing an earlier conversation or the customer’s children – as Kevin also serves in leadership roles for a local youth sports league and high school football and baseball programs.

It’s well documented that current customers are infinitely more valuable than prospective 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 his agency’s 90-plus percent renewal rates, Kevin appears to be profiting from his approach. By expressing interest in the lives of his customers, reconnecting with callers he hasn’t spoken to in a while, and hand-signing correspondence that comes directly from his office, often adding a brief personal note, Kevin has established himself as the guy customers think of when they think about insurance. Clearly, when Kevin’s serving, he’s selling.

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.

This post was originally published on Pipeliner CRM Blog

A line in the sand

line in the sandIn 168 BC the Greek ruler, Antiochus led an attack on Egypt. Before reaching Alexandria, his path was blocked by a Roman envoy who delivered a message from the Roman Senate directing Antiochus to withdraw his armies from Egypt and Cyprus or consider themselves in a state of war with the Roman Republic.

Antiochus said he would discuss it with his council, whereupon the Roman ambassador instructed a soldier to draw a line in the sand around Antiochus. “Before you cross this circle,” said the ambassador, “I want you to give me a reply for the Roman Senate” (implying that Rome would declare war if the Greek ruler stepped out of the circle without committing to leave Egypt immediately). Weighing his options, Antiochus wisely chose to withdraw.

The above story recounts the origin of the “line in the sand” metaphor depicting confrontation, adversarialism, and ultimatum. And, while this conflict took place more than 2,000 years ago, similar showdowns between service providers and customers occur daily in a variety of forms such as: refusal to make exceptions, admonishment of customers for not knowing “the rules” (company policies, procedures, terms and conditions, etc.), and employee defensiveness or indifference toward critical customer feedback.

Here are three examples from my own experience (though, sadly, I could provide 33 examples if we had more time):

1.) As I approached the counter at an airport deli, I heard the customer ahead of me ask if the bread for his sandwich could be sliced thinner than those visible slices that had been pre-sliced. (The pre-sliced bread was quite thick and, as I learned, the customer had recently been diagnosed with TMJ syndrome – chronic pain that restricts how wide he can comfortably open his mouth.) The employee responded that the bread had been pre-sliced and could not be sliced thinner. The customer moved down toward the register, content to simply order a drink and a bag of chips. About that time, I noticed the open kitchen to the left where there were dozens of loaves of bread being stored on racks. I asked the employee if one of those loaves could be used to accommodate the customer who required thinner bread slices. At first she said no because, as she explained, the automated bread slicer used produced slices of standard thickness. Then I asked her if she had a bread knife behind the counter. At this point, she appeared to connect the dots and suggested that she may be able to honor the customer’s request after all. How many customers do you think will request thinner slices of bread at that airport deli today? Two? Three? Four? I’m not sure, but I can say this with certainty: these requests will be infrequent; they will be exceptions; and exceptions create opportunities to provide exceptional customer service.

2.) Last March, the branch manager at my neighborhood bank offered to print my last two months of statements for me (as we were refinancing our home through another lender). The following day, while reviewing transactions, I noticed a “statement printing fee” on my account in the amount of $6 (although there was no mention of a fee while I was at the bank). After taking to Twitter, the fee was promptly removed. A week or so later, the branch manager called me to apologize but actually made things worse by (subtly) admonishing me, saying three times during our call, “I’m just sorry that you felt as though you couldn’t come directly to me based on our relationship.” (Never mind that our “relationship” was based on a single encounter at the bank.) What she was really saying was, “Why did you broadcast my sneaky fee on social media?” Aside from the fact that customers should never be surprised by fees or terms and conditions they were not expressly made aware of in advance, they should feel free to use their preferred channel, Twitter or otherwise, when communicating with an organization.

3.) Over spring break this year, my family stayed at a resort at the base of Peak 7 in Breckenridge. On the day of our departure, we checked-out at 1pm, leaving the condo as the cleaning attendant arrived to prepare the unit for the next guests. We spent the next two hours in town shopping before leaving for home at 3pm. By 5:30pm we had arrived back at our house and were unpacking the car. It was then that my wife noticed that we were missing a bag. I called the resort and the employee at the desk said, “Yes, Mr. Curtin. Your bag’s sitting right here. Housekeeping found it in the unit and turned it over to the front desk.” When I asked her what time the bag was turned over, she said, “I’m not sure, but it’s been here since I arrived at 2 o’clock.” When I asked her why no one thought to call me (they have a record of my contact information, including cell phone and email address) during the previous four and a half hours, she claimed ignorance saying, “I don’t know. But if you have a FedEx account number, we can ship it to you – but not today, because they already picked up at 3:30pm.” So, four days and $65 later, we were reunited with the bag. This ordeal could have been avoided if someone at the resort had simply taken the initiative to notify me that I’d forgotten a bag before 3pm when I left Breckenridge for home.

Instead of jousting with customers over exceptions, not knowing “the rules”, or sharing critical feedback, employees should be trained to listen to them and (gasp!) empathize with customers by making the effort to connect with their unique circumstances, expectations, and perspectives. The next time you detect a line in the sand between you and your customers, consider inviting them across. That way, you can both be on the same side.

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.

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.