Creating memories … the Holy Grail of customer service

Fourteen years ago, my daughter Alex was seven years old and in 2nd grade. One day she had an after school activity. She was supposed to call me on the pay phone at the school when she wanted to be picked up. Alex brought seventy-five cents with her, three quarters. At thirty-five cents a call, we figured that would be enough – even if she messed up once and had to redial.

Well, at about 4:30 she tried to call me, but dialed the wrong number (as we planned for). That should have been no big deal since she had enough to make another call. Wrong!

Problem was – Pac Bell pay phones didn’t give change. The wrong number swallowed up two quarters – leaving her with just one, not enough to make another call. After about twenty minutes she found another quarter and finally got hold of me. She was visually upset though when I picked her up.

Now this is really no big deal in the whole scheme of things. But I just had problems with the fact the pay phone didn’t give her change on the initial fifty cents. So I went on a rant and called Pac Bell – all the way up the ladder to the head customer service in Northern California (we lived in the Bay Area). Carlos, the manager ,was sympathetic to my cause and agreed. In fact he was going to bring it up at the next managers meeting (not like anything would change – but nice gesture anyway).

What happened afterwards though, ended up being one of those stories I’ve told at least fifty times. Carlos hand wrote and sent Alex an apology note with two quarters taped inside along with his business card. Fourteen years later, my daughter still has that card … with the quarters still taped to it. He created a memorable experience for us, clearly when he didn’t have to. He respected the attention and time we invested in his firm – and did something about it.

No company or brand can do that – only a person!

Anyone who’s been in a relationship knows that much of the time things are rocky – arguments happen. Anyone married can attest to that. But there’s always those times, those memories that, well … are remembered. It’s these memories that cerebrally push aside all the “day in day out” squabbles. It’s the way our brain works. Synaptically, we cannot remember everything – it has to choose.

In a way, our relationships with our customers are really no different. We remember the out of ordinary experiences – whether good or bad. Our brain focuses on the fringe. We remember that waiter who arranged for us try out a new menu item before we took a chance on it.  We remember the time when we couldn’t return that item one day after the return period expired – just because it was company policy. And we remember bad situations made good, like Carlos and the quarters. We don’t remember getting our food on time. We don’t remember things going smoothly. Those things just fade away, a casualty of selective memory.

Why is it then most companies only concentrate on making sure things run perfectly without event – hoping nothing bad happens. But unfortunately we won’t have any good memories either. We’ll have no memories at all. Every firm wants to have relationships with their customers … but they don’t do anything to create the experiences that will be the foundation of these relationships.

But really, a company can’t have a relationship with you – only another person can. Pac Bell couldn’t do what Carlos did. And there’s no way to write that situation into a training manual. But how many employees are trained in making memories and remarkable experiences – and empowered to make them happen. I would guess not many. It takes an engaged employee to turn a bad situation into a great one – one that will be a building block of a long-term relationship between the customer and your firm.

Now imagine a company philosophy that focused on “making memories.” Imagine an employee training program that stressed using the element of surprise, creating remarkable experiences as a marketing tactic. Imagine a weekly employee contest won by the the most remarkable customer experience. You could be the Karma King (or Queen) of your company for the week.

Sign me up! I’ll can never have too many memories!

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Please comment below and share with me the memories a company has given you … memories that has made you a long-term loyal customer.

If you’re on Twitter please follow me … there’s cool stuff happening over there too @clayforsberg.

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No … it’s our fault!

Back a year and half ago, Fargo, North Dakota (my home state) was going through a potentially devastating flood.  Associated Press reported a story about Fargo’s mayor,  Dennis Walaker – the hero of the Fargo flood.  Here’s an excerpt from the story:

“When an 8-year-old girl died after the car she was riding in spun out of control and was struck by another car, Walaker blamed the crash on a rut that the city failed to fix.  He thought it was important to let the driver — the victim’s 15-year-old sister — know it wasn’t her fault, and he wasn’t worried that it could open up the city to a lawsuit.”

When is the last time you or anyone else in your firm acted like this?

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Are you talking Swahili to a Frenchman?

Updated July 5, 2013: This post was written three years ago, but it seems especially appropriate right now. In the last few days we’ve seen the successful coup by the military in Egypt. The military with the help and overwhelming support of the youth, the Millennials – ousted former Egyptian President Morsi in non-violently, in only a few days. What I find interesting is way the two apparently disparate groups (the military and the youth) communicated. It was via social media. The military posted their position and intentions on their Facebook. In other words, they communicated with their allies in their language (medium).

The famous quote by Marshall McLuhan seems especially appropriate at this time: “The medium is the message.” This is something our American President Obama should take a lesson from. Standing behind a podium on network television will not endear nor communicate with the younger generations … the social media generations.

That sounds absurd, right.  Who would try to communicate to a Frenchman in Swahili?  Actually a lot of us do the equivalent of that – a lot of the time.

Communication is essentially “getting a message through to somebody,” with, in many cases getting them to act (i.e. take out the garbage, buy my product, etc.).

I don’t understand Swahili?

Communication can be broken down into four components:

  • Language: This is self-explanatory.  If someone doesn’t linguistically understand what you’re saying … what’s the point in saying it in the first case.
  • Content: A little more tricky and the fundamental issue in marketing.  Would you market diapers to a twenty something single guy?  It actually happens all time with mass media.  The key is to get the right message to right person.  Data base marketing can be the solution to this issue.  Grab the data and structure a message to reflect the characteristics of the recipient.  You market a crib to someone who has a kid on the way.  Presentation is also crucial (when dealing with the sight sense).  For example, the graphics have to correspond to the target.  A message targeted to a twenty year old has to look radically different from one directed to an AARP member.
  • Timing: Do you market Valentine”s Day cards in July … of course not.  But what you do do is get out a message to trade show attendee concerning the product or service they looked at, and getting it out the next day.  Or if you are a hardware store – you should know, for example, your plumbing clients, so you can notify them when you get a good deal on PVC pipe so you can pass it through to them.
  • Delivery mechanism: This is easily the most overlooked of the four.  If you send out a piece mail to someone and you nailed the above three components, your in, right.  WRONG!  If you”re twenty years old, you may not even check your mail every four days.  So much for timing.  Hell, I can’t even get my daughter on the phone … a text or a Tweet, she’s on it – and on it right now.

I read a blog last year, I wish I could still find it – but let me try to paraphrase the message.  This web page designer, excited about his newest project, forwarded the link, via email, to his sixteen year old son to look at.  After two days, he asked him what he thought of latest creation.  His son hadn’t looked at it.  He didn’t even know about it. “Dad, I don’t check my email, if you want to get hold of me … text me.”

Enough said … Swahili is still not the universal language.

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How to run a business in a recession … or not!

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to my friend Jim Albany in Denver.  He mentioned he had taken his fourteen year old son and his scout troop camping in the mountains.  Now, we’re talking about camping in a tent at 7000 feet in Colorado in January.

Wow!  Now I’ve camped a lot – but not under those conditions.  I asked him what his son thought about it.  “Well he used to idolize me … now I think he hates me.”

The timing of this is interesting because I’ve heard many, many commercials on the radio featuring Barack Obama talking about being a good father and how making just a little effort could mean the world.  Well, I think this takes fatherly participation to a new level.  Our president would be proud.

Camping in the mountains

Since I’m a camping “gear head,” we talked equipment.  Jim and and his son had North Face.  North Face is generally considered to be about as good as it gets – expensive, but high quality.

What a great testimonial! Fourteen year old kids conquering below zero weather in North Face.  You couldn’t write a better script.

Well I called up North Face and talked to a customer service rep and told him the story.  I figured he’d share my enthusiasm, or at least, kind of.

Well he didn’t.  Not only didn’t he, he was downright aloof.  “We sponsor pro athletes and they give us all the testimonials we need.”  What gives?  Are there so many pro athletes out there that that’s all they care about?  The recession must have passed North Face right by.  We could all be so lucky.

I wasn’t going to quit though.  I asked for his supervisor.  “No, I can’t do that.”  What?  I was perturbed.  “OK, give me the name of your president – I’d like to talk him,” I said.  “I can’t do that either,” was his response.  I felt like Bill Murray facing Rick Morainas, the key master, in Ghostbusters.

I relented.  One can only go so far to help.

It wasn’t hard finding out that North Face is a subsidiary of VF Corporation based in Greensboro, North Carolina.  Their CEO and President is Eric Wiseman.  Maybe somebody else should talk to him – and maybe they could mention their wonderful customer service.

By the way … Bill did catch all the ghosts in the end.

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What does customer service mean to you?

All firms think they are “into customer service.”  They’re customer oriented, customer centric or in the words of Pizza Hut, “customer maniacs.”

But are they willing to prove it?

Nineteen years ago, right after the birth of my daughter, my wife and I had an encounter with a new Acura dealership in Pasadena.  Three years previous we had bought a new Acura Integra in Minneapolis when we lived there.

My old car

At the time, Acura was a brand new car company (actually a division of Honda).  Their mantra was superior customer service.  Yea, whatever!

Fast forward to California and Acura Pasadena.  It was Christmas time and the grandparents were ready to fly to California and see their first grand-runt.  Two days before their arrival, our car broke … a bad engine head.  Now, Los Angeles is no place to have no transportation especially when expecting visitors.

We limped our car down the road to the nearest Acura dealership (which happened to be in Pasadena) to hope our world would be spared.  I suppose we could have picked up a rental car, but then the experience for this blog entry would never have happened.

We sat down with the service manager and explained our plight.  After his inspection – things went from not great to bad.  The Integra needed a new head and our warranty had expired 20,000 miles ago (apparently, I drive a lot).  The bill would be a thousand plus and it would take a week to get the parts, due to the holidays.

But then something happened.  The service manager (gosh, I wish I could remember his name) didn’t like the idea that the head went bad.  Regardless of the warranty being expired – a head shouldn’t  just go like that.  Talk is, well talk – and action, well that’s something else.

Here was his solution:

Replacing just one head would knock the engine off balance – all four needed to be replaced.  Since our timetable was NOW, he would pull all four off a brand new car on the lot and put them in ours.  And since … in his opinion, it shouldn’t  have happened in the first place, they would honor the warranty.

Well the general manager, his boss, put the foot down on dismantling his new cars – we ended up getting the heads at no change even though it took a week.  We borrowed a car from a friend for a few days and the grandparents and the grand-runt bonded.

We didn’t buy the car in Pasadena.  We hadn’t even been there before, but their service manager was willing to go … well, as far as he could to prove that Acura had “superior customer service.”

I’ve probably told this story fifty times (i.e. positive word of mouth).

Next time you are in a position to practice “customer service” – do something that will not only surprise them … but YOU also!

If you’re not remarkable to yourself how can you be remarkable to anybody else?

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