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Business Lessons On The Fly How a driver changed the way the author thought about customer service.

By Robert Caroll

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It was my last day in Jerusalem and I needed to get home to Amman, Jordan. I bought a shuttle ticket near Damascus Gate that would take me to the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge border crossing. I was in somewhat of a rush because the border was going to close at 1 p.m., so I bought my ticket just in time to take the last shuttle of the day. Ticket in hand, I waited to be picked up. The shuttle service was running behind schedule and I was trying my best not to be irritated. When the van finally came, a cheery driver hopped out and started helping the passengers with their luggage. He was eating some bread, and offered me a piece as he took my bag. I was particularly hungry (I hadn't eaten anything that day) so I gratefully smiled and ripped off a chunk from his oversized, sesame bagel.

I stepped up into the van, ready to go home. But to my dismay, all of the seats were taken. I was shocked. I held up my ticket, confused. How could they have sold me a ticket for a full van? This was the last shuttle of the day! I couldn't afford to be stuck in Jerusalem and miss a day of work. I looked to the person in authority for an explanation, who happened to be the driver. He apologetically told me that they had oversold tickets and that he would call for another van. It would take at least 30 more minutes. I was not only offended by the poor customer service but I really didn't believe another van would ever come.

So how did I react? Did I yell at the driver and cause a scene in front of the other passengers? Did I march back into the front office and give the ticket guy a piece of my mind? To my surprise, I graciously accepted the driver's apology, admitted that anyone would have made the same mistake, retrieved my luggage, and waited patiently for another van. And another van came. I made it to the border before it closed and arrived to Amman shortly after.

Lessons In Customer Service

The shuttle driver taught me a powerful lesson in customer service that day. In a situation where I would have typically demanded to get exactly what I paid for (you know how Americans can be), I meekly accepted the unfortunate circumstances and left the bus still feeling good. The driver's secret was in his kindness. Before I had a chance to be mad at him about anything, he offered me a piece of his bread. And because he was kind to me, I felt socially obligated (perhaps only unconsciously) to be kind in return.

Humans are complex creatures and customers are their worst variety. One of the biggest problems in business is that you have to get your money from the customers. An easy way to make the transfer of services and goods an enjoyable experience for both you and the customer is to practice proactive customer service. Notice I'm encouraging you to be "proactive," not "reactive."

Reactive customer service (which most companies seem to practice) means you're dealing with problems once they've happened.

Proactive customer service means you're eliminating problems before they appear.

Image credit: Shutterstock.

The van driver practiced proactive customer service through the Rule of Reciprocity. In the seminal marketing book Influence, Dr. Robert Cialdini teaches how the Hare Krishna community used the Rule of Reciprocity to help create a multibillion-dollar religious organization. In the 1970's, the Hare Krishna disciples would give away flowers to people in airports. When travelers tried to refuse the flower, the disciples would insist that the flower was a gift. Once the traveler accepted the flower, the disciple would quickly ask for a donation. More often than not, people would hand over some cash. Regardless of how much they didn't want to, social pressure was at work urging travelers to pull money out of their pockets. Like the shuttle driver who gave me a piece of bread so I would behave how he wanted, the Hare Krishna disciples gave away flowers so travelers would behave how they wanted.

When you're selling something, you get to control the environment. You can prime the customer for whatever you want them to experience. For example, many retailers install mirrors behind checkout counters in order to make customers feel very self-aware. Before they even begin talking to the clerk, customers can see themselves in the mirror and thus tend to put on their best behavior. Retailers use this method to decrease arguments regarding store policy, returns, etc. before they even happen.

Built On Customer Service

Zappos, Nordstrom, Amazon, and others have made customer service their primary business. For them, a positive customer experience means big revenue. Google is also known for its exceptional customer experience. In 2013, Google ranked number five in MSN and Zogby Analytics' seventh annual customer service survey. I mean, how are you going to complain to a company that gives you everything for free?

Happier customers usually translates to better business. Try to think of ways you can reach out to your customers and make them happy before they can be mad at you. Many of the startups that come to Oasis500 don't spend enough time thinking about how to handle the customer experience. Remember, they have your money. A pleasant surprise –even a piece of bread– can go a long way.

Robert Carroll works with Oasis500 to fund and coach startups throughout the world. His work with entrepreneurs began at a venture seed fund in Utah and a tech startup in Silicon Valley. Stay in touch by following @robgcarroll or by subscribing to his weekly newsletter on
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