Communicating personal importance reinforces positive memories

Personal importance is often misunderstood at the frontline service provider level in the hospitality industry. I’ve had participants in customer service classes who challenge the notion that anyone should be treated any differently than anyone else. Some see acknowledging one’s personal importance or “Elite” status as favoritism. Others see it as an affront to their own social status, as though they are of a subservient class.

My response to these participants is that by personal importance, we are not suggesting a social hierarchy whereby customers are treated as more important people. Personal importance implies the acknowledgment of their importance as customers and the value they bring to the business through personal spending, loyalty, referrals, etc.

The best illustration of personal importance that I’ve come across lately comes from the book, The New Gold Standard by Joseph A. Michelli:

A guest of The Ritz-Carlton wrote a letter to the company president, Simon Cooper. In the letter the guest recalled:

“One of your employees and I got on an elevator in your building. I pushed the sixth-floor button and he pushed none. Instead of getting off with me on the sixth floor, your employee simply said, ‘Have a nice day.’ Upon exiting the elevator, I asked, ‘Where are you going? Aren’t you getting off here?’ Your employee replied, ‘No, I’m going back down to the fifth floor.”

The guest goes on to write, “I couldn’t believe it—how do you find people who are so invested in placing the needs of their guest above their own?”

The opposite of placing the needs of customers above your own is to place your needs above theirs. This happens all the time when companies cite “policy” as the rationale for not meeting the needs of their customers. Other times, customers may perceive that they’re being treated indifferently—like they don’t matter—and feel as though their business is being taken for granted.

One survey revealed that 68 percent of customers quit doing business with a company because of perceived indifference towards them as customers. That’s shameful!

So, ask yourself these questions: What might my staff and I be doing that may be, perhaps unwittingly, communicating indifference towards the customers we serve? And, what actions can we take immediately to acknowledge the personal importance of our customers?

Effective recognition is not pi in the sky!

I recall a Gallup statistic from a few years ago that 65% of American workers claim to have received no recognition in the workplace in the previous 12 months. If that’s true—as it apparently is for those workers—then ask yourself, “How might I be contributing to this perception by employees that they are receiving no recognition?”

To illustrate, here’s an example of how my 6 yr. old son, Coleton, felt slighted—even though he had been affirmed by his first grade school teacher:

I had been preparing for a training course involving statistics and offhandedly mentioned to Cole that there was a mathematical “pi” in addition to the dessert “pie.” He seemed puzzled (as would most 6 yr. olds) so I explained to him that the “pi” used in advanced mathematics is of great importance in connection to continued fractions, logarithms of imaginary numbers, and periodic functions. After my explanation, he looked at me with wide eyes, then squinted, and said, “Can you do this (as he moved his eyebrows up and down)?”

Okay, so maybe he was a little young for an explanation of “pi.” I did soften it a bit by calling it “a secret fudge factor” and told him that, if his teacher asked, pi was equivalent to (approx.) 3.14—which he seemed to grasp. He brought it up to me a couple more times to let me know that he remembered the value of pi was 3.14 and I told him that if he shared that with his teacher, then she would probably move him up to the fifth grade!

Of course I was kidding but Cole was determined to impress his teacher. So the very next day at school, he mentioned his new found fact to her.

As he recalled the conversation, he walked up to his teacher as she was preparing for story time and said, “I know that pi is equal to 3.14.” She responded, “That’s correct” and resumed her preparations. Cole said that, as he sat down on the carpet with the other kids, he thought to himself, “I should have got more encouragement than that.”

The moral of this story is that, while you may be thinking that you recognize co-workers all the time by saying things like, “Good job!” and “Thank you,” the reality for your co-workers may be that these canned responses to their workplace performance are meaningless.

What they may be longing for (and consider to be true recognition) is something more specific such as, “Good job acknowledging Mr. Larson as a repeat guest. I bet that made him feel welcomed” or “Thank you for staying late and covering my section while I dealt with that billing issue.”

Cole’s story was a great reminder to me that in order for recognition to be effective, it has to be meaningful to the recipient. It was also yet another example of how my kids teach me things everyday.

What about you? Have you benefited from this post? Will you be a bit more specific in the recognition you share with others today?

Today’s service practices create tomorrow’s service culture

Last month, I presented a customer service message to a group of managers from Townhouse Inns of Montana, a division of Town Pump, Inc.

During my work with them I learned that the company founder, Tom Kenneally, Sr., began the company in Butte, Montana as a single full service gas station in 1953. It was here that he began to lay the customer service foundation for a company that would later expand into lodging, casinos, car washes, convenience stores, propane services, and more.

Here are just a few examples:

  • Tom, Sr. would hand the customer his wristwatch to time his oil change which was guaranteed to take less than 3 minutes or the oil change was free! This gesture demonstrated that he valued his customer’s time and was confident in his own ability to perform the service within the timeframe promised.
  • Back in the 1950s, the state of Montana published a vehicle registration directory that listed every license plate number issued as well as the name corresponding to it. In 1953 in Butte, Montana you can rest assured that Tom, Sr. knew most of his customers by name. However, on those occasions when an unfamiliar vehicle pulled into the service station, he would take note of the plate number and then quickly look up the name associated with it. This way, he could greet the customer by name!
  • More recently, Town Pump, Inc. established a charitable foundation with the mission to provide financial support to Montana charitable or governmental organizations with the priority to support and meet basic needs and education for Montana citizens. The Town Pump Charitable Foundation has contributed $1.15 million to Montana food banks alone over the past seven years.

A company’s history is vital to its identity and culture. Current employees take their cues from the patterns forged over time that emerge as company history, legacies, stories, and culture. In the case of Town Pump, Inc., it’s a story of 56 years of service to its customers, employees, and neighbors.

And remember that while 1953 was a long time ago, tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your company’s existence. In other words, the stories and legacies that will come to define your company in the future are being created right now!

So the question becomes, “What am I doing right now that will support the kind of service culture that I want to be associated with and remembered for?” Once you’ve identified that, now you just simply need to behave on your good intentions—as Tom, Sr. has done for so many years.

Expressing genuine interest pays off

There is a restaurant in my neighborhood named Wine Experience Café & World Cellar. This restaurant is unique in that two-thirds of the space is used as a bar area and dining room and the other third is used as a liquor and wine store.

The owner, Eldon Larson, had a career in wine sales prior to opening Wine Experience Café two years ago. His knowledge of wines, grapes, regions, etc. is extensive and he’s always willing to share and educate in order to elevate a guest’s meal or wine purchase from a transaction to—as the restaurant’s name implies—an experience!

Earlier this year, I took a friend of mine out to dinner for his birthday at Eldon’s restaurant and Eldon stopped by our table to check-in with us regarding the quality of the food and service. Sensing by our questions that we were especially interested in wine, Eldon pulled up a chair and asked our server to bring over a flight of three unique wines. If you’re not familiar with wine flights, they are simply a variety of wines served as smaller, perhaps three-ounce, pours.

Eldon expertly paired the wines with the food we’d ordered. When they arrived at the table, Eldon led us in tasting the wines. He asked questions of us pertaining to what we noticed in the colors of the wines, the scents we were picking up when nosing the wines, and what tastes we were detecting when sipping the wines. He explained the acidity, the texture, and the finish of the wines and, again, moved the meal from transactional to experiential.

After Eldon had left our table, another diner commented, “You two must be pretty important for the owner to spend so much time at your table.” Shawn and I laughed. Then she said knowingly, “Wait until you get the bill.”

And you know what? She was right. Eldon doesn’t give wine away. He sells wine. But more than that, he fulfills experiences. If our number one priority had been price, we wouldn’t have been at Wine Experience Café to begin with. Yes, people are looking for value (in any economy) but not at the expense of fulfilling an experience.

Let’s fast-forward four weeks or so to last week when I stopped by the retail side of the establishment to inquire about a bottle of wine, Earthquake Cabernet. Although Eldon did not stock the wine, he took the time to look the bottle up and told me that he would place a call to his distributor to find out whether or not he could get it in the store.

A couple of days later I received a voice mail from Eldon saying that the wine had arrived. My first thought was, “Oh, I didn’t intend for him to order a bottle. I only intended for him to see if it was available and, if so, at what price?”

Later that day I arrived at the store to pick up the bottle of Earthquake Cabernet, hoping that it was closer to $20 than $40. When I arrived, Eldon greeted me with, “I’ve got your case of Earthquake right here.”

I said, “Case?”

He said, “Yes. You did want a case didn’t you?”

Here is where the relationship that Eldon had been building over time by expressing genuine interest in me as a customer, sharing unique knowledge about wines, and conveying authentic enthusiasm for food and wine, really began to pay off for him.

I said, “I’m not even sure of the per bottle price. How much is it?”

Eldon said, “I was able to get you a really good price from the distributor: $24 per bottle. I actually hired him into the business many years ago.”

My response: “Sold!”

The moral of the story is that, in the absence of the relationship that Eldon had forged, I almost certainly would have said, “Hey, I never authorized ordering the case. I was only inquiring as to whether or not the wine was available and, if so, at what price. My budget is $20 for wine, so that wine’s too pricey anyway.”

In that situation, the vendor is stuck carrying another $288 worth of obscure inventory and depending on how the misunderstanding is handled, could jeopardize future business with the customer. Think about it, we’ve all been in similar situations before. How you chose to proceed as a customer likely hinged on the relationship you had with the vendor.

Memorable service that is customer-focused fulfills experiences, builds relationships, and creates loyal customers who are less price-sensitive, recommend your business to others, and tend to repurchase products and services.

Transactional service that is process-focused and does not add value or build customer relationships, however, does none of these things.

The service profit chain in action!

Here’s a story I came across on-line. The author, Jack Bastide, gave me permission to include it on my blog as an example of how expressing genuine interest in customers translates into increased customer satisfaction and—ultimately—sales!

“About 3 years ago we bought two Jeeps. A Grand Cherokee for myself and a Liberty for my wife.  We bought them at two different dealerships. The guy that sold me my Jeep handed me his business card and I never heard from him again.  I don’t remember his name and I don’t remember the name of his dealership.

The person who sold my wife the car is Martha from Courtesy Jeep. I haven’t seen Martha in 3 years but I remember her very well. Why do I remember her?

  • She sends me birthday cards
  • She sends my wife birthday cards
  • She sends us holiday cards
  • She even sent us a happy anniversary card for the one-year anniversary of our Jeep!

So if somebody was to say to me, “Hey, I’m looking to buy a Jeep. Where should I go?” Who would I recommend? Some guy I don’t even know or Martha? Martha, of course. It’s a no-brainer!”

My take-away? It’s worth the extra time and attention it takes to express genuine interest in your customers. Aside from building relationships, it’s unexpected—a pleasant surprise—and lets customers know that you value their business, referrals, and loyalty.

Sincere and specific compliments influence customers

A good friend of mine, Shawn, travels nearly every week with his job as a regional sales manager for a large technology company.  Shawn is a member of United Airline’s Mileage Plus frequent flyer program and recently achieved its elite status, 100K (which recognizes 100,000 actual flight miles traveled within the calendar year).

Late last year, on the outbound leg of the flight that would carry him over the 100,000 mile threshold, a United Airline representative approached him in the gate area, thanked him for his loyalty, and recognized his achievement of a status that very few frequent travelers will ever reach.  As a part of the recognition “ceremony,” she took his boarding pass, drew a line through his current Premiere Executive status, and hand wrote “United 1K!”

Shawn was so complimented by the gesture that he saved the boarding pass and uses it as a bookmark.  He recently told me that this simple act by the gate agent reinforced his loyalty to the airline and was the deciding factor to book with United Airlines when comparing flight schedules and fares offered by United and two competing airlines for an upcoming business trip to Calgary, Alberta. And, in case you’re wondering, United was not offering the cheapest fare.

How about you? How have you been complimented lately as a customer?

The wine and food pairing puzzle

John Fischer, a Culinary Institute of America instructor, in his book At Your Service demystifies the wine and food pairing conundrum, enabling staff to confidently offer suggestions to their guests.

Fischer writes, “The amount of knowledge required to be a wine expert is staggering, and impossible to bestow upon every member of the floor staff. Thus, you need to simplify it for the people you’re training. To me, this means going conceptual rather than informational. You can get your staff to think about wine in a way that will aid in getting wine on the table.”

Exactly. He then goes on to propose a simple quadrant system to support less-experienced staff in assisting the wine selections of their guests.  Regardless of whether you’re the waiter taking the order or the guest placing it, you can benefit from Fischer’s system:

The Quadrant System:

  • North (light-bodied, high acid wines because the grapes don’t get as ripe)
  • South (fuller wines, less acidity because the grapes are riper when picked)
  • Old World (European origin; wine is an accompaniment to food; earthier, drier, and missing some fruit)
  • New World (USA, S. America, Australia; are often drunk by themselves and need to be a complete flavor; sometimes clash with foods because they already contain all the flavor they need).

Put these two axes together and you’ll now be able to identify a light-bodied, fruity wine by looking for a cold region in the New World (e.g., Washington state) or a full, dry red wine to go with a big steak by looking for a warmer region in the Old World  (e.g., Southern Italy).

Bon appétit!

Memorable service drives sales—and I can prove that too!

Now contrast the above story with this one:  It too is a true story.  Last weekend, I stopped by an Ulta salon for a haircut.  The stylist was a good conversationalist, took her time, and did a good job.

As I was paying for the haircut, Roxanne expressed genuine interest in a cut that I had bandaged on my right thumb.  She hadn’t noticed it before now and asked, “O-h-h…what did you do to your thumb?”

I explained that I really didn’t injure it.  It was just that during the winter months in Colorado, it’s especially dry and my skin tends to crack on my thumb and one or two other areas of my hand.  I told her that I’d tried a variety of lotions but nothing seemed to help.

She then said, “Have you tried Glysolid?” as she lead me to the product.  She handed me the thin red container saying, “You should try this.  I used to have the same condition but now my hands are silky smooth—see?”  She held out her hands for me to inspect and guess what?  They were smooth and she made a $9 sale!

Think about it:  How often do you really encounter employees like Roxanne who express genuinely interest in you?  Now, consider how often you encounter employees who are apathetic—employees you might characterize as indifferent toward serving you, the customer (e.g., employees who might say, “If you didn’t see it on the shelf then we don’t carry it.  Have a nice day.”).

Would these employees demonstrate the care and concern necessary to ask about an injury you may have received to your thumb?  Would these employees really bother to take a personal interest in you?  Probably not.  Would they have made an additional $9 sale like Roxanne?  Probably not.

Memorable service drives sales.  Forgettable service does not.

It’s 9:10pm. Do you know where your service is?

It’s 9:10pm and my wife and I have just arrived at a local restaurant known for its exposed kitchen, eclectic menu, and deep wine list.  We had just seen a movie and recognized that, since it was a weeknight, the restaurant may no longer be seating guests.

As we entered the front door near the hostess stand, we immediately noticed one couple seated at a table in the dining area and three employees gathered at the bar: the bartender behind the bar, a manager seated in a barstool with his back to us, and a server who was leaning against the bar facing the manager and the front of the restaurant.

The server and bartender looked at me as I approached to determine whether or not they were still seating.  Only when I was within about five feet of the trio did the server pull himself off the bar and take a step toward me.   His body language clearly said, “Please don’t ask me if we’re still seating.  I was just about to present the check to my last table and get out of here.”

I asked if they were still serving and he said, “Only small plates (their term for appetizers).”  I said, “Well…then great.  Table for two please.”

From there, the service was perfunctory at best…but the wine and company were wonderful!

Contrast this experience with one that I had at another local restaurant two weeks later:

It’s 9:10pm and I’m on my way home from tennis and thinking that fresh sushi is sounding better than leftover pasta.  So, I swung into a neighborhood sushi restaurant named Wasabi Japanese Restaurant.

As I entered, I noticed that—with the exception of the smiling hostess and sushi chef—there was no one else in the restaurant.  It was a weeknight and, similar to the experience above, I wasn’t entirely sure they were still serving so I asked the hostess and she confirmed that I had plenty of time because they were open until 9:30pm.

With that, I sat down with a sushi menu, penciled-in my order, and handed it to the sushi chef.  As he began to prepare the to-go order, the hostess came around to where I was seated and engaged me in conversation about where I lived, how long I’d lived in the area, whether or not I’d been in before (as they were relatively new)—that sort of thing.

During our conversation I mentioned that I had four young children.  She took the opportunity to share the children’s menu with me and encouraged me to bring the entire family to dine-in sometime soon.  She even took several minutes to blow up and fashion an intricate poodle from a balloon.  As she handed it to me together with my sushi order she said, “Here’s something for your preschooler.  We hope you will return with your entire family sometime soon!”

Wow!  What a different experience I had at Wasabi as compared to the first restaurant.  At 9:10pm on a weekday, both restaurants were within minutes of closing but only one made me feel welcome and valued.  Needless to say, I’ll be returning to Wasabi soon and—if my preschooler’s reaction to the poodle was any indication—I won’t be alone!

How siping adds value…and sales!

I recently brought my car in to Discount Tire here in Denver to purchase a new set of tires.  The rep suggested a suitable tire and then began to put together a deal.  This included a credit for my old tires, a road hazard warranty, free installation, and free quarterly rotation and balancing for the life of the tires.  So far, so good.

Then, before presenting me with the total, the rep asked me a question: “Mr. Curtin, does your wife ever drive this car?”  I said, “Sure.”  He then said, “Would adding a feature called ‘siping’ to the tires in order to provide extra safety by increasing road traction while decreasing braking distance by 200% be important to her?”  Naturally it would.

Although I’d never before heard of siping, I added the $10 per tire treatment and increased the amount of the sale by $40.  It turns out that siping involves scoring the tire with tiny grooves that increase the tire’s elasticity and grip on the road.  Now, some of you skeptics may think I was taken but that’s not the way I see it.  From a psychological standpoint, I feel assured that these tires will do the best possible job of gripping the road in the elements and braking to a stop quickly when necessary.

For me, safety is a priority when buying tires.  Guess who else knows that safety is a high priority for me—and most of its customers?  That’s right: the people at Discount Tire.  Now I don’t know what their profit margin is when this feature is added but I imagine it’s pretty high.

Now consider your own customers.  What’s important to them?  Safety?  Comfort?  Speed?  Accuracy?  Convenience?  Something else?  Think about the products and services that you offer.  What sort of value-added enhancements might you make available that your customers will feel good about purchasing?

Not every customer will bite but if it’s positioned correctly and matches one or more of the priorities of your target customers, enough will to make it well worth your while.