Customer service in the trenches

The holiday shopping season shines a spotlight on lowest-paid, undervalued assets of the customer experience: your front-line brand ambassadors. I’m talking about the clerks, baggage handlers, and waitstaff operating in the trenches of customer service to pour your coffee at Waffle House, process your Blu-ray order at Best Buy, wrap your gift at Nordstrom, or check in your luggage at the airport as you head out to a family holiday soiree. The front-line staff can make or break your brand. They create critical first impressions. Their judgment calls can create either a ho-hum dinner or a memorable night out. And their personal styles can make your brand more human and approachable. Two recent examples:

  • One of the pleasures of shopping at the Oakbrook, Illinois, Barnes & Noble is chatting with Dave, who works in the media department. Dave does not simply process customer purchases or point you to the Sci/Fi Blu-ray section. If you spend more than 30 seconds talking with him, you’ll learn that Dave is a passionate film buff with an encyclopedic knowledge of seemingly every movie ever made. Just last night he and I explored Barnes & Noble’s Criterion Collection film collection. Dave critiqued some of the more unexpected choices in the Criterion catalog. Why, for instance, did Criterion choose to feature Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy over Clerks? The question sparked a discussion about Kevin Smith’s career and one of our usual enjoyable exchanges about movies. Dave makes Barnes & Noble a more personal experience.
  • Recently my family and I toted four pieces of luggage to the United Airlines baggage roadside check-in at O’Hare Airlines en route to a weeklong vacation at Disney World. The baggage handler who processed our luggage reminded us that United charges $25 per checked bag. He pointed to one of our bags, which was lightly packed. “You sure you don’t want to carry that bag onboard?” he asked. “It’s pretty lightly packed. You can save yourself $25 if you take it with you.” He was right: in our haste to prepare for our vacation, we had not packed as efficiently as we could have. His taking the initiative saved us money (and got him a bigger tip, by the way).

A couple of take-aways:

  • The baggage handler’s actions cost United $25 in the short term. But he was obviously not thinking in terms of a one-time transaction — he just wanted to make our lives easier. In doing so, that baggage handler created a longer-term favorable impression that is good for United’s business.
  • I don’t think you can train people like Dave or that baggage handler to be the kind of people they are. Dave and my United baggage handler are the kinds of employees who make the customer experience better simply by injecting their own passion (Dave’s for film and the baggage handler’s for helping others) into their jobs.

Do you hire for passion?

How do you handle mistakes?


Everyone makes mistakes, and companies are no different. How one responds to a mistake speaks volumes for the credibility of a brand. Two cases in point from this weekend:

  • The Advertising Age website was down when I tried to visit the site the morning of October 11. I found myself entertained by the interstitial message admitting to the site not working, especially the part about Ad Age staff “shouting at each other more than usual.” A little self-effacing humor goes a long way.
  • On October 9, my United Airlines Flight 532 from Chicago to Boston was delayed by a mechanical problem. The United Airlines crew and pilot responded with grace and understanding, and by the time I landed in Boston, the following email awaited me:


After receiving the message, I chose a $150 e-credit for a future United Flight. But what really mattered was the crew showing what seemed to me genuine concern for the disappointed passengers.

What are some examples you’ve seen of companies addressing customer service mistakes in a way that surprised you?