Southwest Airlines crowned the best customer service provider

SouthwestAirlinesEarlier today I received this note from a friend, Evan Crist, and just had to share:

We were traveling from Denver to Phoenix for some fun in the sun when Southwest Airlines lived up to their reputation for spontaneous entertainment and pleasing service. (I love the line, “If you are not pleased with our service, we have six emergency exit rows throughout the plane. Please locate the one nearest to you!”)

Approximately halfway through the flight, Nancy, the flight attendant, came on the intercom and announced, “We have a very special guest today. Spencer is five years old today. Spencer could you please join us at the front of the cabin?”

As Spencer made his way to the front, a bashful little girl who appeared to be eight years old or so emerged from behind Nancy toting a flute.

Nancy explained, “Spencer’s sister, Elisa, would like to play ‘Happy Birthday’ for her brother on the flute.”

Elisa sporadically blew her best ‘Happy Birthday’ song and the cabin clapped. Then the whole cabin, led by Nancy, sang the birthday song to Spencer—again to his delight.

Next, without any fanfare, Nancy placed a crown on Spencer’s head. The crown was made of clear Scotch tape, Southwest Airlines peanut packets, and red plastic olive skewers.

As King Spencer pranced down the aisle proudly, I noticed the crown—an unnecessary, spontaneous, free, yet brilliant example of customer enthusiasm that cannot be mandated but cannot be overvalued.

No doubt, Spencer ate his crown before his parents retrieved their bags but he won’t soon forget that flight. Neither will I.

I bolded Evan’s observation above because it illustrates the theme of the previous post, That little extra

It’s true. When you break it down to its fundamental components, exceptional customer service really is optional and free! (Or, at least no more than the cost of some peanuts, olive skewers, and Scotch tape.)

If employees choose to perform like Nancy, the flight attendant, (and it’s supported by the corporate culture), their company may also be crowned the industry’s best customer service provider—just like Southwest Airlines.

Good customer service is always optional

LabradorMost of us acknowledge that when we’re performing our jobs, we are working.

But what many employees don’t often consider is that their jobs are made up of both mandatory actions that fulfill job functions (i.e., the bullet points on a job description) as well as optional behaviors that fulfill job essence—their highest priority (which, for most service-based businesses, is creating delighted customers).

Most work environments reinforce mandatory job functions through job descriptions, standard operating procedures (SOPs), checklists, etc., and pay little attention to the optional behaviors that, in the end, are the difference between an ordinary transaction and a memorable experience.

Here’s a quick example from the retail industry:

A couple of weeks ago, while in the checkout line at the supermarket, I had a chance to observe the cashier’s interaction with the customer ahead of me.

Typically these interactions are transactional: a screen displays the total, the customer swipes a bank card and signs for her purchases, the cashier presents a receipt, and the customer (9 times out of 10) thanks the cashier—presumably for accepting her money.

The cashier has completed a set of mandatory actions that fulfill her job function. But nothing stood out. No impression was made. An opportunity to make a connection was lost—forever…

But on this particular day, as she scanned a bag of dog food, the cashier asked, “What kind of a dog do you have?”

With that, the cashier and the customer had an enthusiastic exchange about their mutual love of Labrador Retrievers. It wasn’t long—maybe all of 20 seconds—while the customer swiped his bank card and signed for his purchases.

The cashier, by simply posing a question, expressed genuine interest in the customer and transformed a bland and uneventful transaction into a unique and memorable experience. An impression was made. A connection was established.

The cashier’s question was optional and fulfilled the essence of her job: to create a delighted customer. And because questions like these are optional, as customers we don’t always receive them. But when we do, they tend to leave a lasting positive impression.

Perhaps when the customer returns to the store, he will quickly scan the checkout lanes to see whether or not his “friend” is working and, if so, may go out of his way to queue in her line. The cashier may even recognize him and, recalling their previous conversation, ask about his dog.

This is how relationships form. This is how customer loyalty is earned. Customers don’t establish relationships with stores, they establish relationships with the people inside the stores.

Good customer service is rarely the result of perfectly executed mandatory job functions. Rather, it is most often the result of optional behaviors such as expressing genuine interest (e.g., “What kind of a dog do you have?”) and offering sincere and specific compliments (e.g., “You couldn’t have picked a breed with a better disposition.”) that fulfill job essence.

Good customer service is always optional. That’s why we rarely experience it.

Work vs. Play

WorkersEarlier this week, a friend of mine passed along a copy of Daniel Pink’s latest book, Drive. It was a pleasant surprise because, having read his bestseller, A Whole New Mind, it was on my buy list. One of the reasons I enjoy reading authors like Daniel Pink, Malcolm Gladwell, Thomas Friedman, and others, is that they consistently challenge deeply held assumptions that I’ve guarded for years.

And while Drive opened in this way—causing me to rethink what I’d previously accepted as truth—I soon read a sentence that reaffirmed what I’ve known to be true for years: “Work consists of whatever a body is OBLIGED to do, and Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”

The implication of this truth, as it applies to my work in the field of customer service, is that to the extent employees see their jobs as a series of algorithmic tasks (the bullet points that make up so many job descriptions) as opposed to heuristic tasks (opportunities to “perform” outside of one’s job description), they will most likely focus on job function (the algorithmic tasks associated with their job role) at the expense of job essence (the heuristic tasks that contribute to their highest priority).

What’s their highest priority? For most customer service employees it’s to create delighted customers—those who will repurchase, be less price-sensitive, and recommend the company or brand to others.

The disconnect I most often experience as a customer of an airline, hotel, restaurant, or department store, is that employees tend to execute their jobs as a series of algorithmic tasks (e.g., issuing a boarding pass, obtaining a valid method of payment, taking an order, or ringing up a purchase) that they would define as work. In some cases, they might even define these tasks as routine or monotonous. And whenever customers detect monotony from employees, it contributes to perceptions of bland, uneventful, and indifferent customer service.

The opportunity then lies in reframing employees’ views of their job roles. That is, expanding job descriptions from a myopic set of required algorithmic tasks that focus on job function to include optional heuristic tasks that support job essence.

Here is what it might look like in a hotel:

Among other job tasks, a front desk agent’s job description presumably includes obtaining a valid method of payment from each guest prior to issuing a room key. That’s an example of an algorithmic job task (i.e., following a set of established instructions) that fulfills the employee’s job function of checking-in guests. In many hotels, employees and guests alike would characterize this procedure as transactional, process-focused, and predictable—each one like the last one.

Now imagine the above algorithmic job task being completed in a way that fulfills the employee’s job function while, at the same time, supports the essence of her job role: to create a delighted customer.

Perhaps the desk agent smiles, makes eye contact with the guest, and says, “That’s a lovely tie. It matches your suit nicely. Who is the designer?” The guest, flattered by the remark, may then proudly answer, “Louis Vuitton” or “Robert Talbott.” Either way, he will be complimented that she noticed and will likely characterize the experience as exceptional, guest-focused, and unexpected. And while he probably won’t recall the transaction at all, he’ll remember the compliment for a long, long time.

All the desk agent did was expand her job description from a defined set of required algorithmic tasks (i.e., obtaining a valid method of payment from the guest) focused on job function (i.e., checking-in a guest) to include an optional heuristic task (i.e., providing a sincere and specific compliment) that supports job essence (i.e., to create a delighted customer). In doing so, she expressed her own uniqueness and creativity by doing something that was entirely optional and beyond the confines of her job description.

The late J.W. Marriott, Sr. said it well when he reflected on his own view of work: “There weren’t these two opposites, work and play, one bad and the other good. It was having a vision of the way things ought to be and then making them that way.”

That quote really encapsulates the message of this post. To the extent that employees view their jobs as a series of others-directed obligations, their jobs will seem more like work—with all the limitations and monotony associated with it. And to the extent that employees exercise their freedom to self-direct their performance using a variety of optional techniques, their jobs will seem more like play—with all the freedom and satisfaction associated with it.

Comments? (Please don’t feel obligated…they’re optional.)

What’s more memorable, T-Rex pancakes or a bowl of Cornflakes?

TRexpancakeSeveral years ago, after the birth of our first child, I began pouring pancake batter in unique shapes that our son would recognize from his world. When he was very young, I poured shapes ranging from puppies to pacifiers. As he grew older, I adapted the shapes to his interests—whether dinosaurs or chess pieces.

And holidays always provide fodder for themed shapes. I pour shamrocks in March, firecrackers in July, Jack-O-Lanterns in October, and candy canes in December. The kids love them and enjoy making requests for made-to-order shapes. Breakfast transforms from a predictable meal, a base to be touched each morning, to a festive event where the family lingers and memories are made.

I got to thinking about how this equates to customer service. According to research by Beyond Philosophy, a customer experience consulting firm, 44 percent of consumers described the majority of customer service experiences they have as “bland and uneventful.” These are the process-focused transactions that are marked by apathy, routine, and indifference. To me, that sounds like eating a bowl of Cornflakes. Even though you’ve eaten, and may even be satisfied, you’re not going to remember it.

Contrast that with pancakes in the shapes of dinosaurs—or whatever shapes are meaningful to you: your college mascot, a symbol of your favorite hobby—such as a tennis racquet or a chess piece, or even a pet. Would you describe this breakfast experience as “bland and uneventful?” Is a pancake in the shape of a rook forgettable if you’re a chess enthusiast? I think not!

Now, ask yourself, how does this concept apply to my business? How can I be intentional about transforming a product or service offering from one that may be perceived as process-focused, routine, and uneventful (i.e., a bowl of Cornflakes), into one that is seen as customer-focused, refreshing, and memorable (i.e., a pancake in the shape of a T-Rex)?

Here’s just one example: I know of a bank’s voice mail system which concludes a long menu of options by saying, “If you’d like to hear a duck quack, press 7.” Now, I’ve listened to my share of predictable voice mail directories but have never come across something as refreshing as this. I’d call back just to let my preschooler listen to the duck quack!

If this sounds like it’s going to require extra time and effort, you’re right. It’s definitely faster to prepare a bowl of Cornflakes and easier to pour round pancakes. But remember, they’re forgettable. Even so, you don’t have to sit down with a blank sheet of paper and invent this stuff. Look around for inspiration. It’s everywhere.

Talk with others about unique experiences they’ve had with companies that have made lasting impressions on them. Look for opportunities to surprise and delight your own customers through your company’s products and services.

Just like shaped pancakes, the possibilities are endless and the memories, priceless.

Chipotle’s got humor in the bag

Chipotle bagCompanies that make me laugh create positive memories for me—of the service experience and brand. Using appropriate humor is an authentic way for companies to express their uniqueness while making it memorable for customers.

Here’s an example from Chipotle Mexican Grill:

Employees at Chipotle place to-go orders in brown bags with handles. Handles are unique—you don’t see that at most quick service restaurants—but what’s truly memorable to me is the message printed on the bottom of its bags:

Don’t throw this bag away!

Try these other uses:

  • Cat carrier
  • Put handles over ears…hands-free burrito eating
  • 401(k) statements filing receptacle
  • NOT recommended as a parachute

Besides reinforcing the importance of recycling, Chipotle uses appropriate humor to extend the service experience from the restaurant to the customer’s home or office.

Compare Chipotle’s to-go bag with one from a typical quick service restaurant. What’s different about it? Chipotle’s bag is so unique to me that I devoted a blog entry to it. In an environment where so many products and services are seen as bland, ordinary, and routine, Chipotle’s to-go bag makes an impression!

Look around your own business. What are some ways that you can transform products and services that are ordinary into something unique and refreshing—using appropriate humor, design, or some other attribute?

Extra! Extra! Read all about it!

Seafood TimesI recently bought some fresh fish at Whole Foods Market. As is customary, I waited my turn as customers who arrived before me had their orders fulfilled. When it was my turn, an employee behind the counter smiled, made eye contact, and with enthusiasm in his voice asked, “Did you see something you liked?”

As much as I appreciate quality products and friendly service, so far it had been a pretty predictable shopping experience. Whole Foods isn’t cheap and has a reputation for better than average product and service quality intended to justify the higher prices. When I shop there, I expect for the store to be extra clean, for the products to be extra fresh, and for the staff to be extra knowledgeable and helpful.

On this day, I watched as the employee gathered up the salmon fillets I had selected. He handled the fish with care, applying olive oil and seasoning as requested to each side of the fillets. As good as the service was, so far there was nothing out of the ordinary.

Having oiled and seasoned the fillets, the employee then wrapped them in butcher paper. He then handed them to me over the counter with a broad smile and said, “Here you are. Is there anything else I can get for you?”

I said that I was all set and thanked him for his help. Still, as great as the product and service quality had been, there had been nothing that made an impression—that had stuck out as being particularly memorable. What happened next changed all that.

As I looked at the wrapped fish, I noticed it had been wrapped in a customized butcher paper—made to look like newsprint—bearing the name: Seafood Times. Beneath the masthead were a variety of informative and entertaining stories such as Whole Foods Market Pleads Guilty to Seafood Discrimination and Make Your Kitchen a Safe Harbor.

Instead of bland and uneventful brown butcher paper, I had received something extra: a unique and refreshing version that had been customized by Whole Foods to extend my experience from the store to my home. All of a sudden, what had been a predicable transaction at the seafood counter transformed into a memorable service experience. I now had a powerful memory of my visit and a story to share with others.

When so many retail transactions are characterized by indifference, experiences like this one are a breath of fresh air. Companies that go the extra mile to surprise and delight customers will not only make headlines, they will make lasting impressions their customers will remember when it’s time to buy.

What’s in a name?

Express genuine interestEarlier this month, I stopped by Hooters for lunch. During my hour-long visit, my table was “touched” by three separate Hooters Girls (my server, Felicia, and two others: Lillie and Kassity) and the manager, Ben.

I don’t always do so well remembering names but they made it easy for me. Two of the servers signed a napkin at my table and all four employees were wearing name tags that were clearly visible. That’s not always the case in many establishments.

All that attention not only made me feel valued as a customer, it also made an impression on me. Instead of feeling like just another restaurant “cover,” I felt as though this dining experience had been personalized—like the napkin—just for me. The staff expressed genuine interest in me, the guest. It was unexpected and I was pleasantly surprised.

Providing and using names is necessary to establish rapport. And establishing rapport is necessary to build trust. And building trust is necessary to gain customer loyalty. And customer loyalty—and the future spending and referrals that come with it—is necessary for business success.

So, what’s in a name? Business success.

Providing pleasant surprises

Pleasant Surprises copyHave you ever received an unexpected upgrade, a complimentary appetizer, or some other pleasant surprise when you were not expecting it? How did it make you feel? I bet you can recall many details from the experience—probably because you’ve reinforced them by sharing the story with others.

Providing pleasant surprises that add unexpected perks to otherwise ordinary transactions, is an effective way to make lasting positive impressions on customers with little or no additional cost.

Here are three quick examples:

  • I brought my Ford Expedition into the dealership for an oil change. When the maintenance was completed, an employee pulled it around front and, to my surprise, it had been washed and was gleaming! Wow—that was a memorable final impression of that experience!
  • While using a self-service kiosk to pay for my groceries at Albertsons, I was approached by a store employee. She asked if I’d like a complimentary bottle of salad dressing that was being given away as a promotion. I gladly accepted and was pleasantly surprised by a complimentary 16 oz. bottle of Kraft Light Ranch salad dressing!
  • And just last week, I stopped by Target to do some shopping. At the checkout register, the cashier rang up my purchases and then handed me a receipt together with a coupon for a complimentary Starbucks latte. Another pleasant surprise!

Providing pleasant surprises can transform bland and ordinary transactions (e.g., oil changes, retail checkouts, etc.) that will soon be forgotten, into unique and refreshing service experiences that will long be remembered!

Sell the sizzle, AND the steak!

I read a Wall Street Journal article this week by Timothy W. Martin titled, Choice Advice From Meat Cutters. The article highlighted the benefits of training butchers at leading supermarket chains to engage customers as a chef rather than as simply a meat cutter. The difference separates a memorable, customer-focused experience from an ordinary, process-focused transaction at the meat counter.

As the scale of operations have grown at most supermarkets, many meat cutters disappeared from the meat cases to backrooms where interactions with shoppers were limited to announcements over the intercom. Their roles shifted from a familiar butcher who formed close bonds with shoppers, remembering names and preferences (people-focused), to an anonymous meat cutter whose priority was churning out enough hamburger patties and chuck steaks to fill meat cases (process-focused).

In the article, Frank Thurlow, director of meat and seafood merchandising at Winn-Dixie Stores, observed, “Meat cutters have a reputation for not being the most personable, outgoing types of individuals. I mean, we sit in the back room all day and cut up animals.”

So, how do you address this perception and change it in order to increase sales at the meat counter while boosting employee morale and job satisfaction?

There are many factors including vital processes such as the selection and onboarding of employees. The quality of customer service provided by an employee will never exceed the quality of customer service he or she is ready, willing, and able to deliver. The scope of this blog post cannot take into account every variable, so I’ll just focus on the obvious one: sharing unique knowledge.

Unique knowledge is not the same as job knowledge. Job knowledge is necessary for an employee to be proficient in his or her job role. It is expected by the customer and, generally speaking, is transactional—not memorable. Unique knowledge, when provided by the employee, is unexpected, refreshing, valued, and memorable. It’s the sizzle!

To illustrate the difference, read this testimonial from Aram Dakarian, meat manager at Jewel supermarket in Chicago: “Before, I’d tell customers just to squeeze out the blood and add some salt and pepper (job knowledge).” Now he eagerly offers cooking tips (unique knowledge). For example, for baked chicken, he recommends olive oil with a dash of lemon pepper. For steaks, a garlic or peppercorn seasoning rub, or two hours soaking in a wine sauce marinade.

Instead of simply sharing job knowledge: A flat-iron steak is cut from the shoulder of a steer, he can add more value by sharing unique knowledge: How to properly grill a flat-iron steak and the difference between dry (grilled or broiled) and wet (simmering or braising) cooking.

Grocers are banking on shoppers’ willingness to pay higher shelf prices in return for general dinner advice. And there is also a benefit to employees as described by Mr. Dakarian: “Now, I’m getting more in-depth with the meat, looking at it more like a chef. It makes me feel good.”

While customers appreciate nice employees, they value knowledgeable employees. And the more unique knowledge employees possess, the more value they bring to the customer experience.

Missed opportunities

Last week, my family and I traveled to Lincoln, Nebraska to attend a family reunion. While in Lincoln, we stayed at a full service hotel downtown. When we arrived at the hotel, we unloaded several bags from our vehicle onto the sidewalk in front of the hotel. Minutes later, a bellman passed by without saying a word and entered the main lobby from the sidewalk.

My wife and I fully expected that he was getting a luggage cart to assist us with our bags. When he did not return, I went inside the hotel and encountered him standing just inside the lobby. He looked at me and asked, “Can I help you with your bags?” Already, I was annoyed because he clearly saw my bags on the sidewalk yet I still had to track him down for assistance.

Now that we were being helped, we no longer felt ignored but did feel as if this bellman was treating us indifferently—as if we were just another “check-in” or transaction. It’s not that he did anything wrong during the remainder of the check-in process, it’s just that he missed several opportunities to anticipate our needs and make a lasting positive impression.

For instance, one of my boys complained about the weight of his backpack. The bellman just stood there as I relieved my son of his backpack and hung it on the luggage cart. A minute later, while I went back to the car to retrieve a cooler, my wife corralled our four children in front of the elevators to take a group picture of them. She commented to me afterwards that she wished she had asked him to take a picture that would have included her—another missed opportunity for him to make a positive impression.

Later, when we were in the guest room, the bellman simply offloaded the luggage near the door, accepted his tip, and bid us adieux with the transactional industry farewell, “Enjoy your stay.”

He failed to observe other cues that would have made the difference between an ordinary check-in and a memorable service experience. Although a cooler, Pack ‘n Play® travel crib, and wine tote were all visible cues, he appeared aloof from any customer service opportunities these items may have presented. In the first ten minutes after his departure I had already retrieved ice for the cooler (which required accessing the 4th floor as there was no ice machine on the 3rd floor where our rooms were located), phoned housekeeping for a sheet to line our toddler’s travel crib, and gone in search of wine glasses.

With so many missed opportunities, the potential for a unique and memorable customer-focused experience faded and we were left with an ordinary and forgettable process-focused transaction. As happens far too often, many service providers are lulled into the monotony of processing “each customer like the last customer” and, in so doing, treating the customer like just another transaction (in my case, just another “check-in”).

Service providers must recognize that each customer presents a unique opportunity to make a favorable impression. By committing to energize their customer service delivery by looking for visual cues, anticipating customers’ needs, and offering the unexpected, service providers will capitalize on opportunities to provide unique and memorable service experiences.