Don't mind the gap, expand it!

Apr 27 2007 by Andy Hanselman Print This Article

As far as many businesses are concerned, their attitude towards customers is all about consistency. Consistent mediocrity, that is. The only way to break this habit is to break the rules.

Apparently, drivers on the London Underground have been ordered by their bosses to stop making any sort of unnecessary chat or announcements to passengers that 'do not relate' to journeys.

Take, for example the announcer at Baker Street station who I recently heard saying: "The Bakerloo Line is running normally today, so expect delays to all destinations".

I like that – it certainly brought a smile to my face. And let's be honest, we could all do with a bit of something to brighten up our day. (You can hear some of these great announcements hereif you're interested!).

Banning them is a real shame. I LOVE the irreverent and often, funny announcements you hear on trains, buses and airplanes. They usually add to the experience, not detract from it. I think they show that the people are actually interested in what they're doing.

I far prefer the Easyjet steward who explained on a flight I was on recently that the only fags allowed on board were the crew, to the scripted, uninteresting and disinterested drones I normally come across on flights.

Southwest Airlines, the Dallas-based success story, have established a fantastic reputation for extraordinary customer service and are particularly known for colorful boarding announcements and crews who burst out in song.

On landing, one stewardess is reported to have said: "please be sure to take all of your belongings. If you're going to leave anything, please make sure it's something we'd like to have." Another quipped, "there may be 50 ways to leave your lover, but there are only four ways out of this airplane"

But this is not just about air stewardesses, pilots and train drivers, it's about anyone who contributes to the customer experience.

In fact I'm convinced that we need far more rule breakers - individuals who go off script and are able to project real personality. We certainly need fewer script followers, automatons, and jobsworth's.

Do not make the mistake of assuming that consistency always equals good.
As a customer, I'm attracted to businesses where the people working there are allowed to express themselves. And in this, I'm one of many.

Doesn't this create inconsistency? Perhaps, but that doesn't mean it's bad. What's so desirable about consistency anyway? Which would you prefer? Consistently mundane, dull and boring, or occasionally stimulating, different and engaging?

In other words, do not make the mistake of assuming consistency always equals good. A consistently great experience is not the same as a consistent experience.

Unfortunately, that's a trap that too many businesses fall into.

Businesses should strive to provide a consistently great experience – something that's memorable or remarkable. Unfortunately many appear happy to sacrifice the chances of their people creating this by imposing restrictions and insisting they stick to the rules.

They focus solely on minimum standards, and these in turn ultimately become the maximum standards, or the norm. In other words, they strive to achieve mediocrity, which they do with alarming regularity. Their philosophy appears to be "aim low, reach your goals, avoid disappointment".

There's nothing of course wrong with rules, but too often, organisations set the wrong ones. That's why I'm an advocate of creating new rules that encourage individuals to aim high, take responsibility and enhance the experience by actually thinking about the customer.

That means providing useful ideas and information, making customers smile, listening to them - not just responding to requests, but anticipating them, and doing something as a result – all of making them feel valued, getting some personality across and just doing something extra.

Here's a simple 10 step process to making this happen:

  • Establish MINIMUM service standards / levels which ensure that the customers get what they need, that correct information, and procedures are followed (e.g. safety info, updates, etc).
  • Aim HIGH. Spell out expectations of HIGH standards – Describe how you'd like it to be.
  • Generate ideas from the people at the sharp end – what works for them?
  • Provide guidelines for unacceptable, acceptable and ideal behaviours.
  • Monitor performance and get feedback from customers.
  • Share Best Practice, highlight the good stuff, eliminate the poor stuff.
  • Encourage, support and reward your champions.
  • Challenge your challengers.
  • Keep it at the top of the agenda – remind people regularly.
  • Stay HIGH

Of course, I fully accept that there are limits to what front line staff should do and equally, that there is usually some standard information that they should be excepted to communicate, but individuals who make the effort to personalise the experience and raise a smile should be commended not condemned. It's better to aim high, and not always make it, than not bother trying.

So don't 'mind the gap' between ordinary and extraordinary. Find ways to expand it!

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About The Author

Andy Hanselman
Andy Hanselman

Andy Hanselman helps businesses and their people think in 3D. That means being Dramatically and Demonstrably Different. An expert on business competitiveness, he has spent well over 20 years researching, working with, and learning from, successful fast growth businesses. His latest book, The 7 Characteristics of 3D Businesses, reveals how businesses can get ahead, and stay ahead of their competitors.