The lost art of cosseting

Maitre d'Last month I presented three breakout sessions at a client’s annual leadership meeting near Chicago. The meeting was held at the Loews Chicago O’Hare Hotel and the audio-visual production company was PSAV.

First, let me say that I’ve worked with top-tier A/V production companies on large stages from New York to San Diego since 1994 and, frankly, they have all been excellent. I literally cannot think of a single production crew that wasn’t exceptional in terms of its preparedness, responsiveness, and professionalism. Maybe I’ve been lucky…

What was unique about my most recent experience with PSAV was the consistency of exceptional service quality from one team member to the next in all facets of the production. James, who resized my slides the night before; Courtney, who assisted me with logistics during each of the sessions; and two backstage team members who assisted me with getting packed-up at the end of the day.

Due to compatibility issues experienced when integrating my presentation slides into the master conference slideshow, James had to manually resize every slide in my deck, including diagrams and graphics, one by one late into the evening. When I arrived at the meeting room in the morning, everything was perfect. His attention to detail was flawless (including a Venn diagram that looked like gobbledygook on James’ screen when I left him the night before). Thanks, James.

My opening activity required about 80 attendees to respond to three separate questions on three differently colored index cards. This required Courtney to sort and distribute approximately 240 index cards before each of the sessions, as well as collect them afterward. This was performed with both attention to detail and a sense of urgency. Thanks, Courtney.

To this point you might be thinking: “Where is the extraordinary customer service? Where is the outrageous service gesture? James and Courtney were simply executing the required job functions that they were assigned. They were hired to perform these duties and tasks. It’s what they were trained to do. It’s what they are paid to do!” And you would be mostly right. Both James and Courtney did, however, perform these job functions with alacrity and attention to detail that made a lasting positive impression on me, their customer.

But the act of service above all others (and the impetus for this blog) was the unique attention I received from two backstage team members as I was packing my bags following my final presentation. I refer to this special attention as cosseting, which means to pamper; to care for and protect in an overindulgent way. Think of the exquisite service you may have received from the maître d’ during your most recent fine dining experience. Did he pull out your chair during seating? Use a crumber to remove table crumbs between courses? Replace a cloth napkin that may have inadvertently fallen to the floor?

Cosseting is especially appealing to customers because most are not accustomed to receiving it. Frequently, we receive indifferent or even careless service. An example I often cite is that of a bustling coat check. Have you ever checked your winter coat at an event and watched in dismay as it was jammed between two coats on a 25-coat rack that appeared to hold 50 coats or more? And when you retrieved your coat later that evening, your right lapel was maligned after being pressed against the grain for the past three hours.

The opposite of the indifference displayed by the aloof coat check attendant is the level of attentiveness I received from two backstage team members who first noticed that I was packing up in a dimly lit area and then responded by providing light from a small flashlight. The first employee, a large man with a beard, held the flashlight for the first minute or so before being called to another responsibility. At that point, he motioned for a colleague to come and hold the flashlight in order for me to finish packing my bags.

Soon afterward, I left the backstage area out a side door that led to the pre-function corridor. During the the long walk to the lobby, it occurred to me that despite the superior technical job that PSAV had done throughout my experience, the gesture that had the single greatest impact on me was the two anonymous employees who chose to cosset their customer by simply taking turns holding a flashlight to illuminate an otherwise darkened corner backstage.

Thank you, mysterious backstage men who proved, once again, that the difference between ordinary and extraordinary really is that little “extra.”

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