By Kip Lambert

Bad customer service experiences are all too common. There’s the clueless teenage employee at McDonald’s, the ever-tired airline agent at the check-in counter and everyone’s favorite, the listless government DMV worker. Let’s face it — excellent customer service seems to be the exception and not the rule.

On the other hand, those moments of stellar customer service can leave clients saying, “WOW, that was amazing!” That is, of course, the response every business owner wants from his or her clients, but sometimes it can be hard to know how to motivate team members to deliver “WOW” customer service.

In his best-selling book The Fred Factor: How Passion in Your Work and Life Can Turn the Ordinary Into the Extraordinary, author Mark Sanborn explores this topic. He tells the story of a U.S. postal worker named Fred who gave him an uncommon, over-the-top customer service experience. Shortly after Sanborn moved into the neighborhood, Fred introduced himself, explained the way he works and told Sanborn what to expect. He also asked questions in an effort to get to know Sanborn and after learning that the author spent much of his time on the road, Fred offered to hold on to his mail for him until he got back in town. On one occasion, when delivering the mail while Sanborn was out of town, Fred noticed a package delivered by FedEx on the front porch. Fred then went out of his way to remove the package from the porch and put it in a more secure location in the rear of the home, leaving a note to Sanborn explaining where to find the FedEx package.

After several amazing experiences like this, Sanborn was led to write this book about Fred. It can sometimes feel like a “Fred” is as rare as a quiet baby on a long flight, but they do exist!

On a recent stay at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua on the island of Maui, a resort employee provided a quiet, over-the-top customer service experience. A couple arrived back at the resort with extremely muddy shoes after an afternoon zip line tour, and they were hesitant to enter the lobby. They removed their muddy shoes and placed them in a bag. As they walked through the lobby with stocking feet, this employee stopped and engaged them in conversation. Upon discovering the muddy shoes, the employee insisted on taking and cleaning the shoes and promised to deliver them later that day. Within 20 minutes the task was complete. This couple was astounded at this kind gesture, the speed at which it was performed and that it was done at no charge.

In another instance, while staying in Costa Rica, a guest inquired if Mountain Dew soda was available for his stay. While Mountain Dew can be found in Costa Rica, it’s as hard to find as an honest politician. Upon hearing about this inquiry, a team member went out of her way to acquire a12-pack of Mountain Dew, put it on ice and deliver it to the guest’s hotel room, again at no extra cost. Upon arriving at his room, this guest was flabbergasted that the employee heard his inquiry and, without his asking, turned it into her personal quest to deliver a “WOW” experience. Above all, this guest placed this experience at the top of his list in the post-vacation survey.

So where do these “Freds” come from? What is the magical formula for creating a “WOW” customer experience? How can we infuse our team members with a love for customer service and a desire to deliver the “WOW”?

Generally speaking, this kind of service stems from a natural desire in the employee to do good in the lives of others. To foster this desire, it is important to empower employees by building a culture of trust in the workplace.

The legendary Horst Schulze, founding member of the Ritz-Carlton luxury hotel and resort chain, empowered his employees with this simple statement: “We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” He gave employees, including housekeeping staff, the ability to offer complimentary services, up to $2,000, without approval from higher management. What does it say about a company that trusts its employees — 32,000 and counting — with that much trust and ownership of the tasks they perform and the guests they look after? It speaks volumes.

While the statement that “we are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen” can help in the abstract, here are some concrete tips for creating a company culture of trust, condensed from Stephen M.R. Covey’s 13 Trust Behaviors, to deliver “WOW” customer service:

1. HAVE A CLEAR MISSION STATEMENT and EXPECTATIONS. Have a clear and concise mission statement and empower employees to live it by giving them simple instructions. Model the mission statement every day in the way you treat your employees and clients in every interaction. Disclose expectations. Discuss them. Validate them. Renegotiate them if needed and possible. Don’t violate expectations. Don’t assume that expectations are clear or shared.

Having clear expectations, modeling “WOW” customer service and rewarding the behavior you want to encourage will help team members produce results.

2. TALK STRAIGHT and BE TRANSPARENT. Be honest. Tell the truth. Let people know where you stand. Use simple language. Demonstrate integrity. Don’t manipulate people nor distort facts. Don’t spin the truth. Don’t leave false impressions. Be open and authentic. Err on the side of disclosure. Be real and genuine.

Not only do customers crave straight talk and transparency, but it is much easier to have employees operate on the premise of “what you see is what you get” than to teach them all the ways they should hide what they’re up to and then get bugged when they aren’t successful in their obfuscation.

3. KEEP COMMITMENTS and RIGHT WRONGS. Accomplish what you are hired to do. Be on time and within budget. Don’t over-promise and under-deliver. Make commitments carefully and keep them at all costs. Make keeping commitments the symbol of your honor. When things go wrong, make them right! Apologize quickly and make restitution where possible.

Employees whose mistakes are met with grace are less likely to hide their failures; they simply right the wrong. Demonstrate to your staff that keeping commitments and righting wrongs will “WOW” your clients more than simply meeting their expectations.

4. DEMONSTRATE RESPECT and LOYALTY. Genuinely care for others. Respect the dignity of every person and every role. Treat everyone with respect, especially those who can’t do anything for you. Show kindness in the little things. Give credit to others. Speak about people as if they were present. Represent others who aren’t there to speak for themselves. Don’t badmouth others behind their backs.

Employees who know they are respected will treat others with respect. When they know that no one will claim credit for their successes or become nasty about their failures, they feel free to take risks and be generous with clients.

The world is thirsty for amazing customer service experiences. Though those cold cans of Mountain Dew were refreshing in the Costa Rican heat, the real thirst that was quenched was the client’s need to be heard and treated with kindness. As companies create cultures of excellence and trust, employees are empowered to provide the “WOW” for their clients.

Kip Lambert is the chief culture officer and brand ambassador of Destinations Groups Incentives which specializes in group, meeting and incentive travel.

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