Keep Customers Happy by Keeping Employees Happy

The Spirit of Volunteerism

Virtually all customer-service training programs take the same basic approach. Participants are shown examples of desired behaviors and are encouraged to practice behaving the same way in role-plays within the classroom setting. The assumption behind this approach is that maybe, if we're really lucky, once some of the participants have had a chance to try some of these behaviors on for size, they'll discover they kind of like them, and the same skills will be transferred to the workplace in real-world situations with customers. This is a term that comes up often among training professionals-"skills transference." They worry about it a lot, because (in customer-service training, at least) it almost never happens.

Managers typically attempt to bolster their training investment by coaxing, bullying, or legislating the desired behaviors out of their employees any way they can. Workers in call centers are provided with written scripts, for example, to ensure they don't neglect to ask such "caring" questions as "Anything else I can do for you today?"--and, as one call center manager admitted to me, workers can often see each other rolling their eyes in exasperation when the customer at the other end says yes. Cashiers in retail stores are mandated to conclude every transaction by muttering the three words "ha' nice day." (About the only time they refrain from using this hackneyed phrase is when they're dealing with someone they know personally and would actually wish to have a nice day for real.)

Now contrast this with volunteer work. Right across the breadth of our society, many of the very same people who grumble about their unsatisfying jobs and skimpy wages choose to put their time and skills in the service of worthy causes that often involve difficult, unpleasant, even dangerous activities--and often for little or no pay. So what drives them to do it? What makes a worthy cause seem "worthy"?

Virtually without exception, people volunteer to become part of an effort to help other people in some way. It's a shift from an internal "self-interest" focus to a focus outside of oneself, beyond oneself, onto something larger than oneself. Students of human motivation such as Abraham Maslow have recognized a hierarchy of human needs: once basic survival needs have been met, other needs come into play, such as a need for self-worth, a need to feel "useful and necessary in the world," as he put it. The spirit of volunteerism is a natural result of this deep-seated need--and it explains why volunteer work feels so satisfying to those who do it. It gives them a sense of purpose. It gives meaning to their lives.

But what does philanthropy have to do with the kind of experience that draws customers to a smaller flashpoint business like Webers restaurant?

When Customer Delight Becomes a Worthy Cause
A tour of the grounds at Webers begins to clarify what it is that inspires the young people who work there to voluntarily direct all their energies toward customer delight.

For starters, though there are no actual railroad tracks in the vicinity, there are nonetheless eight railroad cars around the grounds. The cars serve as a staff change room, a storage shed, an office, and even a full meat processing plant. Beside the parking area sits a luxurious railway dining car, which guests can use to enjoy their meal in air-conditioned comfort; the car is also equipped with restroom facilities. Children never seem to tire of climbing on and off the nearby caboose, which, like all the other cars, is kept in immaculate condition.

Also, directly behind the restaurant is a large, well-shaded area with picnic tables and an expanse of well-groomed lawn, for customers who prefer to dine outdoors. In this setting, a "quick bite on the road" becomes a full-blown family picnic in beautifully maintained, park-like surroundings, but featuring hot, freshly prepared food with an emphasis on quality and including train-themed playground-like fixtures for children to climb on and play around.

The key principle at work here is that at Webers, amenities like these (including the pedestrian bridge) are not reflected in higher food prices. They are in effect an outright "gift" this restaurant makes to its customers.

As we'll see again and again, in flashpoint businesses many elements of delight within the customer experience are treated as gifts the organization gives to its customers. By adopting this semi-philanthropic approach, these businesses encourage employees to tap into their latent spirit of volunteerism as part of their jobs. Employees in these businesses share a sense of higher purpose--the sense that the work they do for a living is making a positive difference in the world, by helping others or by brightening their lives in some way.

Remember: there is no customer service training for employees at Webers--and this is typical of most flashpoint businesses, including many that are held up as exemplars of superior customer service in books and magazines. No one at Webers spells out the specific behaviors workers are to use in order to please customers in specific situations. Every situation is different. The only constant is have fun, keep things moving, do whatever it takes to make the customers glad to be there; the particulars are left up to the workers themselves.

And not even that much is formally spelled out by management--this is how employees describe their role to each other, to new members of the team. There are no employee handbooks describing the culture of the place in detail; even before new hires come on board, one visit to the site as a customer, for a burger, and they know everything they need to know about the culture of the place. It's imprinted on them for life.

The same is true in any flashpoint business. The most popular deli in New York will have a culture very different from Webers--but no less immediately palpable. Instead of being vague and diffuse, as most organizational cultures are, in flashpoint businesses the culture is razor sharp, laser sharp. In simple terms, it's focused. All of the organization's energy and attention is visibly directed toward one single focal point that overrides everything else: the customer experience. When ordinary sunlight is brought into sharp focus--through a magnifying glass, for example--it can ignite a fire. When the culture of a business is brought into sharp focus, it can ignite enthusiasm that spreads like wildfire.


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