Customer service in the trenches

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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?

2 thoughts on “Customer service in the trenches

  1. I\’m sure your baggage handler is a nice guy and doling out practical advice might simply be part of his good natured personality. However, there could be a more cynical view:

    The handler knows that sparing you a baggage fee is likely to improve his tip so there\’s personal incentive at work. Additionally, you both have a common enemy: big, bad, United Airlines. After all, it\’s their corporate greed in the form of nickel and diming that\’s eating away at your vacation money before you\’ve even left, right?

    The handler, of course, work for United and is therefore part of that behemoth, but everyone in the scenario knows the handler is not to blame for baggage fees. That gives enough room between you and the handler on one side and United on the other to create a temporary alliance and bond. That\’s where the magic you experienced happens. There\’s nothing like a common foe combined with personal gain to make some customer service interactions memorable, valuable and positive.

    • Thank you for your comment, Mike. I obviously don\’t know the baggage handler personally. Whatever his motion might have been, he had no way of knowing whether he would even receive a tip from me when he suggested we personally tote the lightly packed bag instead of checking in the bag. You make an interesting comment that \”everyone in the scenario knows the handler is not to blame for baggage fees.\” Yes, I agree with you from a purely rational standpoint. But customers are not always rational. Unfortunately people often take out their frustrations on people in the front lines, especially in stressful situations like enduring the hassle of airport travel.

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