Two Rules of Extraordinary Customer Service Experiences

No “return-on-marketing” calculus & employees driven by extraordinary motives

Posted Feb 23, 2016

Mr. Dylan is on the money. You gotta serve somebody. We live in a service economy where most jobs, whether they are in healthcare, retail, education, or hospitality, involve providing some sort of service to customers. Not only has employment in the manufacturing sector dwindled dramatically over the past forty years, but practically speaking, more and more businesses now sell intangible services alone or in combination with tangible products. As consumers, we are far more likely to buy a service instead of a physical product on a daily basis.

Starbucks Barista Note Used With Permission of Frank Warren (www.postsecret.com)
Source: Starbucks Barista Note Used With Permission of Frank Warren (www.postsecret.com)

Compared to products, what makes services interesting is that most services are produced (or “co-created” in marketing jargon) by fellow human beings, at the precise location and moment of time when they are consumed. Because of the human element in the co-creation process, predictability is elusive and there is room for variability from one occasion to the next. During any particular service experience, things can go disastrously wrong or transcendentally right (or somewhere in between), depending upon the company’s policies, the employees involved in co-creating the service, and the consumer’s mindset and circumstances.

Whether it is a delicious cup of cappuccino in a coffee-shop, help with adjusting the air-flow nozzle during a flight, or service during dinner in a restaurant, frontline employees like baristas, flight attendants, and wait-staff all play a crucial role in the customer’s experience.

Consider these three stories of extraordinary service experiences.

  • Starbucks barista learns American Sign Language to provide the same purchase experience to deaf customer as she does to others. A Starbucks barista asked a customer who was a regular at her store in Leesburg Virginia “What do you want to drink?” Now every customer who walks into any one of thousands of Starbucks stores is asked this question. But what made this particular interaction extraordinary was the fact that the customer was deaf and the barista asked him his drink choice in American Sign Language. As if that were not enough, the barista then passed a note (pictured above). She was learning sign language so that she could provide the same experience to this deaf customer as everyone else.
Mr. Judd Frost Used With Permission of Mr. Judd Frost and Ms. Jessie Frost
Source: Mr. Judd Frost Used With Permission of Mr. Judd Frost and Ms. Jessie Frost
  • Minnesota clothier Mr. Judd Frost sends daughter to hand-deliver forgotten wedding pants to bridegroom in Costa Rica. For his destination wedding in Costa Rica, a soon-to-be bridegroom purchased his wedding outfit at Judd Frost Clothiers in Wayzata Minnesota. But in the midst of packing and paying for his purchases, he left his wedding pants behind in the store’s clothing room and flew off to Costa Rica to get hitched. The store’s owner, Mr. Judd Frost, contacted delivery services like UPS and FedEx to get the pants to the groom in time for the wedding. But when that didn’t work out, he sent his daughter (also a store employee) all the way to Costa Rica to hand-deliver the trousers. When asked the logic behind this rather extravagant action, Mr. Frost responded:

“We just want to take care of people so they have a great experience. It’s a big day for them. We certainly weren’t going to disappoint them.”

  • Trader Joe’s employee home-delivers food to an elderly man stranded at home in a winter storm. Now much as most of us adore Trader Joe’s, the store doesn’t normally home-deliver food. But the circumstances in this case were not normal. The 89-year old man in Wayne, Pennsylvania, lived alone. He was too frail to go out during the snowstorm, so he was stranded in his apartment without food. On the phone, he bravely told his daughter that one day without food couldn’t hurt. That’s when his daughter called different neighborhood grocery stores frantically, asking if they would deliver groceries to him. But they all refused. Finally, she called Trader Joe’s. The employee on the phone not only agreed to deliver groceries, but wrote down her rather lengthy order, even suggesting items not on the list (he was on a low-sodium diet). What is more, he refused payment, wished her “Merry Christmas” and took the initiative to drive out and hand-deliver the food to the stranded soul. All without any charge. With no expectation of reward or recompense. This is how the grand-daughter ended her note praising the store and the employee on Reddit:

“The funniest part is now my grandpa is trying to leave his apartment in the snow to thank them, but I think we've stopped him.”

When I first read these stories, each one of them made me go, “Wow, how cool!” No matter what parameters are used, these incidents qualify as an extraordinary service experiences for the consumers involved. It is worth exploring, therefore, what is common between these three cases so that we can better understand what is needed to make extraordinary customer experiences happen.

The first common thread is that the metrics and rules that marketers normally use to provide good service do not apply in any of these stories. These general principles are based on a cost-benefit framework which goes something like this: incur expenses to provide service up to the point where the marginal benefit to the business from the customer (in terms of repeat business, word of mouth, etc. - the "return on marketing") equals the marginal costs incurred from providing the service. Once that point is reached, it does not make any sense to spend more money on serving that particular customer on that particular occasion.  

From a strictly economic standpoint, none of the actions made much sense. No marketer or operations management expert would endorse hand delivering a pair of pants generating only $500 of revenue when the customer was at fault in leaving them behind by spending twice as much (or even more) and flying 3,600 miles. No customer experience expert would advise a Starbucks barista to invest dozens, if not hundreds of hours of her life to learn sign language so that she can treat one deaf customer just like she treats others who are not deaf. No service marketing consultant would suggest changing the “no home delivery” policy for one elderly customer stranded in a snowstorm. They would likely say that one day without food couldn’t hurt the man. Even the iffy chances of social media buzz would not warrant such extravagant, economically suspect actions.

Yet, we witness these types of extraordinary customer service experiences more frequently than we should rationally expect to. Why?

Just like other areas of life, extraordinary customer experiences can only only co-created by employees with extraordinary motives to do so that have nothing to do with economically sound marketing principles. The second common thread in these three stories then is the extraordinary people involved―with extraordinary motives, high levels of competence and high autonomy. The Starbucks barista, the Trader Joe’s order taker, and the clothier, Mr. Frost, are all motivated by far larger and nobler purposes that hold personal meaning for them and in accord with their personal values. Sure, they care about the welfare of their respective organizations. But in each case, their motivations are far larger than the purposes of their businesses, or a motive to earn profits, or even simply to satisfy their customers. This is what makes an experience that should be ordinary into an experience that makes us say, “Wow!”

To provide extraordinary customer experiences, these are the two rules. First, the normal metrics we use to evaluate marketing actions and make decisions as marketers simply do not apply. Extraordinary experiences do not conform to economic thinking. You cannot provide extraordinary customer experiences if you think strictly in terms of nickels and dimes. They will never make sense within that calculus. And the second rule is that utterly motivated employees are necessary; those who are driven by purposes far greater and nobler than simply satisfying a customer and ensuring their repeat patronage. Let's be thankful there are many people like this and savor these extraordinary service experience stories when we come across them.

I teach marketing and pricing to MBA students at Rice University. You can find more information about me on my website or follow me on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter @ud.