It all started with a cancelled flight and a series of unfortunate incidents.  It ended with a key insight about what organizations need to do to ensure exceptional customer service for every guest. The insight is this: the difference between a remarkable experience and a poor experience is an employee that cares about the customer.

The Challenge

Sitting at my desk at 5:30 on a January evening, I received a text message that my flight for the next morning had been cancelled and the airline, because I am one of their most frequent fliers, had already provided me the service of booking me on the afternoon flight. Unfortunately, the airline had no idea what my needs were.  They assumed that I could arrive 4 hours later. No, that would not work as I was scheduled for a speaking engagement and I had a commitment I could not break. I quickly booked myself on the late night flight leaving in just a few hours and I began rushing around to finish my packing and get to the airport.

My travel woes continued when I arrived at the small regional airport located one hour from where I would be speaking the following night. Since my arrival was scheduled at midnight, I had decided to shuttle to a nearby hotel and wait until the next day to come back and pick up my rental car. When I hurriedly booked my room before leaving Atlanta, I called the hotel, part of a chain where I spend about 50 or so  nights per year, and by whom I am considered to be one of their most loyal and valuable customers, to confirm the shuttle would be available. The woman who answered assured me they would be and that all I needed to do was to call back when I arrived and they would send the shuttle. Except it did not work that way. When I arrived just before midnight, I called and I called and I called. In fact, my cell phone shows that I attempted to reach the hotel five times, allowing it to ring until finally the phone went dead.

Knowing that the airport would be closing soon, I noticed that the rental car counter for the company with whom I had reserved a car for the next day was still open. I decided before I was stranded, I should go ahead and pick up the car and drive to the hotel.  I approached the lady at the counter working for a company from whom I rent cars from about 30 times per year. She was efficient enough and gave me the contract and keys to the car. It was late and I was a little frustrated so I tried to make small talk with her as she was “processing” me.  She did not really engage and I gave up, taking my keys and walking to the car.

The hotel was 3 miles from the airport and about one mile into the drive, I notice that the “low tire pressure” warning light was displayed. I knew from experience that sometimes this happens when the weather gets very cold as it was on this frigid January night. Part of my drive was on a major interstate and I soon noticed that the warning was more urgent.  Now it’s 12:30 a.m. and I am facing the possibility of a flat tire on a major interstate in an unsafe part of town. I check the tire and see that it needs air, but is not flat. I drive the mile to the hotel. Checking the tire once more, I know that I will have to deal with a flat tire in the morning. But since it was midnight, and the airport was closed, I was sure that the rental car agency would be happy to help me the next morning. After all, I am one of their most valued customers.

When I arrive at the hotel, where I am a platinum status guest, I see the shuttle parked out front and the flight crew from my flight standing at the counter. The desk clerk is nowhere to be found, but the shuttle driver is sitting in the lobby. Finally, I ask, “Is there a clerk on duty?” The shuttle driver volunteers to find her. When she comes out, I explain that I called and called and called but no one answered. She said they were busy. Clearly, they need a better system for getting their guests from the airport.

The next morning, I called the road side emergency assistance line for the rental car company and explained the situation. After a lengthy hold time, and a very long conversation, they informed me that they could send someone within 2 hours to change the tire and charge me $75.  After that, I would need to drive back to the airport and exchange the car. I explained that they gave me a car with low tire pressure to begin with and I asked again, “and you are going to charge me to change it?” She informed me that I could change it myself. Neither option seemed like the best one at the moment.

While the rental car agent put me on hold, I cautiously approached the hotel desk. After all, the night before had been a near disaster. I was sure they could not help me with a flat tire, but I was a little desperate. That would have been the case, except now I was interacting with an employee who cared about the guest. She really wanted to help me and she knew who could do it, but it would be up to him whether he wanted to do it or not.

A few minutes later, my knight-in-shining armor appeared. Well not exactly. “Ben” trudged toward me not looking overly happy, but he was headed to the car.  It was cold, really cold, and Ben was not a young man, but he bent down on that cold asphalt and changed my tire. I could not have been more grateful. I began to express my gratitude and make small talk with Ben. He loosened up and told me that the tire looked as though it was damaged and he knew that damage did not happen on my 3 mile drive. Then he pulled out the temporary spare.  He said, “This is not the first rodeo for this tire either.” In the end, I gave Ben a nice tip and was grateful, freezing temps and all, that he changed my tire.

My next task was to drive back to the airport and exchange the car. Given the circumstances, I was expecting they would be ready to do anything to help me. I was wrong. I don’t know what difference all those stars next to my name in their system makes, or that I have a certain color elite status. Before I was done, I felt like I did not matter to them at all.

I explained the circumstances, expecting them to be happy that I did not suffer injury or death. Instead, the agent gave me a clip board and said, “you have to fill out an incident report.” Really. It was a flat tire. Their flat tire.  They sent me away in an unsafe vehicle and yet she began to lecture me on how I would have to pay for the tire because I declined coverage. By this time, I am almost as late as if I had taken the afternoon flight that the airline had rebooked me on, so I quickly signed the form, took the keys to my new vehicle, checked all the tires and left. It could have been much, much worse, but quite ironic given that I write and speak about remarkable customer experiences for a living. I am always collecting new material.

This entire experience from the random rebooking of a flight to an unanswered hotel phone to inattentive and rules focused rental car agents to a rude hotel desk clerk to a more attentive hotel manager and finally,  a gruff angel named Ben, all reminded me of what I believe about remarkable customer experiences.

The difference between a remarkable experience and a poor experience is simply an employee who cares about the guests.

The Solution

So just as simply, here is what I recommend if you are a leader wanting to provide your customers with remarkable service experiences:

  1. Select people who care.
  2. Train people to care more.
  3. Develop people who want to care but need help.
  4. Help people who don’t care find another job.

To create remarkable customer service, every team member must care about the customer every single time. It only takes one person not caring about the customer one time to damage your brand. If you have an organization full of people not caring about the customer, then they will destroy your brand. Do you want to grow your brand and attract and retain customers?  Then care more. Care enough to be sure you have team members that care about the customer and if you don’t, then do something about it. Choose to be remarkable.