A Work of Art

I got to see an artist at work today. He wasn’t a “statue” performer at Fisherman’s Warf in San Francisco. He wasn’t a street musician in Central Park in New York City. He wasn’t a mime in Covent Garden in London who offered for sale a CD of his performance. (I’m still trying to figure that one out.) He was a customer service rep for a rental car company at Atlanta Hartsfield Airport.

Like all the great customer service experiences I’ve had or witnessed, this one caught me totally by surprise. I don’t know how many hundreds of times I’ve boarded the shuttle bus at the terminal, ridden to the rental car site, looked for my name on the board, hunted for my car in its space, (sometimes) found the car and driven away. This time there was an agent in the company uniform greeting customers when the bus arrived at the board.

He had one, very specific job to do. You see at this site the layout is such that there isn’t room on just one level of the garage for all the spaces serving the premium member customers. So the premium spaces were split between two levels of the garage with two boards listing customers’ names. Not exactly rocket science but a situation quite likely to cause confusion and create problems. So the company had implemented a very elegant solution – they placed this individual there to proactively deal with the potential problem before it could develop into a customer service issue. In effect they provided the canvas on which this artist would work his art.

And he went to work following three fundamental principles for all great customer service experiences. The first of these is . . .

Give clear directions up front.

He met the opening door with a smile on his face, got everyone’s attention and briefly and clearly communicated the situation and our instructions – “This facility has two name boards. The one in front of you is the first one. If your name is on it, please step out of the bus and tell me your number. If your name is not on this board it will be on the second board at the next stop. In less than 15 seconds he told us what the situation was, what to do and what to expect to happen next.

The second principle is . . .

Provide assistance based on accurate and timely knowledge.

As each person stepped from the bus and told him the number next to their name on the board, the agent gave them simple but specific and usable directions to help them find their car. “3rd row that direction.” “Along the back wall.” This was all the more impressive because there were not an easily multiplied number of spaces in each row. He knew his area and had handled about sixteen customers in less time than it took me to write this paragraph.

So far so good. Impressive? Enough to get my attention when I’m used to encountering similar situations where no help has been provided with the result being a regular stream of customers queuing up to complain to an overworked, stressed out desk clerk that they didn’t find their names on the board. But the icing on the cake and what made me certain of what I was going to write about in this blog entry tonight was that he also followed the third, and I think most important, and I’m certain most difficult fundamental principle of great customer service . . .

As the last of the first group took their directions and went off to their cars, the agent had one final word for those of us left on the bus waiting for the second stop. “I’ve got another board downstairs with your names on it. Have a great day.” It was such a subtly different way of saying it but it made a huge impression. “I’ve got another board . . .” It was his board. He was taking personal responsibility for me finding my name and being on my way.

It is often those very subtle – and sometimes inexpensive – touches that add the “wow” factor to great customer service experiences, that turn everyday customer interactions into art. Customers are hungry for a personal touch and will often go out of their way or even spend more to experience it. Great service is so rare that a business that practices these fundamentals can stand out from the crowd and dramatically improve their competitive edge – all the more important in this tough economic environment. My challenge to any readers of this post is to measure any process improvement or technology initiative against whether it better enables your organization to follow these fundamental principles:

  • Give clear directions up front
  • Provide assistance based on accurate and timely knowledge
  • Make it personal

Consistently great customer service is attainable and it is worth the effort – both for the serving organization and the customer being served.