How to blow away your customers – do something unexpected

This past Sunday was my first visit to a place in Hendersonville, NC called The Dugout.  My friend Brad and I went there to have some lunch and catch the Patriots game. Little did I know that I would be blown away by the actions of one of the employees.

As you might have guessed from the name, the Dugout is a sports bar.  Lots of TV’s, sports memorabilia on the walls and plenty of “pub grub” on the menu.  When our server, Josh, told us that everything they make is fresh and homemade, I was excited to try to the food.

And it was good. I had the fried green tomato and shrimp BLT.  Yum.

But that’s not the “blown away” part.

At about half time in the game, I asked Josh what they had for dessert.  The only thing they had that day, he said, was a sugar (or gluten – I can’t remember now) free pumpkin pie cheesecake.  I am a sucker for pumpkin pie AND cheesecake, so you put them together…

Pumpkin Pie CheesecakeYeah.  I’ll take a slice.

When I ordered, Josh asked if I would like whipped cream.  Um, of course!

He brought the slice over a few minutes later and informed me that they were out of whipped cream, so….

(Get ready to be blown away…)

He said he would make some!  And he did.

A few minutes later he came back with a small bowl of fresh (and REAL) whipped cream.  He had literally put some cream in a bowl and whipped it.

I’ve made whipped cream before – it’s not that hard.  BUT, for a server at a sports bar to whip up some whipped cream was totally unexpected.  Yes, I was blown away.

My friend Scott Brown is always asking his clients, “what can you do to ‘plus’ your service?”  In other words, Josh could have delivered the cheesecake and apologized for not having the whipped cream. Okay, they are out, oh well. The “plus” was taking the initiative and putting his know-how to work in the absence of a product or promise that had been made.

Because we were at the Dugout for so long (it was a long game!), I was able to glean a little intel into the perfect storm that allowed this to happen.

My friend Brad said that the owner is usually out and about, very visible in the restaurant, which is fantastic.  Today was a little different and toward the end of the game we found out why.

The owner came out (in a Patriots shirt, I might add!) and was conversing with some of the regulars.  He said that one employee called out today and another didn’t show up, so he had been helping out in the kitchen to make sure everything ran smoothly.

I remember back to leaders I knew that jumped in and helped when the chips were down and what a positive impact it had on the team.  There was a can-do, we’re-all-in-it-together kind of spirit. And even though it may not be the best situation, good leaders can turn it around quickly.

Getting back to Josh, if he didn’t KNOW how to make whipped cream, I would have enjoyed the cheesecake anyway.  BUT, with the owner setting the “do-whatever-it-takes” example, Josh probably felt like he could take it upon himself to do what he needed to do to make things right.

The stars had aligned… the perfect conditions were present for just the right synapse to fire in Josh’s brain, connecting what he knows HOW to do with what he COULD do.


But here’s the thing… this is not intended to be a lesson in teaching your employees how to make whipped cream.  That may not be your business and it might not make sense.

Instead, we should always be focusing on developing the skills and can-do attitude in our employees so they can read a situation and administer a positive solution.  So much of “customer service” training has devolved into order taking and completing tasks.  Probably because we don’t think our employees can handle anything else.  But that’s wrong.

That is us taking a short cut.

You want to stand out in customer service?  You want to provide cool and unexpected experiences for your guests?  You can’t script that.  You can’t put people in a box and then expect them to perform out-of-the-box feats of super-ness.

By the way, when was the last time you did something unexpected (and positive!) for your employees?

If I was blown away with positivity and good vibes as a guest, imagine what kind of impact you could have on your staff.

Thanks for reading!


About the author: After 20+ years in hospitality leadership and human resources, Matt Heller founded Performance Optimist Consulting in 2011 with one simple goal: Help Leaders Lead. Matt now works with organizations large and small to help them improve leadership competencies, customer service, employee motivation and teamwork. His book, “The Myth of Employee Burnout” addresses how leaders can overcome the all-too common phenomenon of employees burning out, or losing motivation over time.

Book cover with amazon






Theme park or a classroom… or both!

Many of us have heard of theme parks and amusement parks being used as a physics classroom… where students study the dynamic forces of rides and attractions to understand the real-world application of the theories they have learned in school.

Now imagine that principle, but for business and leadership!

That’s Lessons In Fun!  A brand-new kind of training seminar that uses the world’s greatest theme parks as your business classroom.  And it’s not just for people who work at theme parks and amusement parks – it’s for ANYONE who wants to be a better leader, improve customer service and gain a competitive advantage!

Scott Brown and I created the program, and it combines our love of theme parks, teaching, leadership, customer service and business improvement! We can’t wait for you to experience it!

Our goal is not to have participants adopt what other companies do (because that rarely works) but to adapt what they’ve learned and experienced to their own business or situation.

For more information and to register, check out



What shuffling through iTunes taught me about business

On a recent flight to Minneapolis, I got the chance to listen to a lot of great music. As it would happen, iTunes did a nice job shuffling through my songs, picking a bunch that I hadn’t heard it a while. Probably no coincidence that many were by Rush, as they represent the largest collection of songs by any artist in my library.

And here is what I noticed. As I listened carefully to these songs, especially some of the Rush songs, I noticed a distinct progression happening… A journey that Rush ITunesthe artist takes you on from the beginning of the song to the end, adding layers and textures, building intensity, telling a story, subtly changing rhythms and melodies to propel us forward to the next verse, chorus, bridge or solo.

It was the first time in a while that I really listened to music as an event, rather than using it a way to fill the air with sound.

And it was great.

And then it hit me. This is what an ideal consumer experience should be like, too.

Think about it… If someone walks through the doors of a store or talks to someone on the phone before their visit, that’s like the intro of a song – setting the tone for the experience.  As they go through the store, they may experience repeating patterns that become familiar, such as brand or promotional messaging – much like a familiar and repeatable chorus of a popular song.

They also get to see, touch and smell different items that continually pique their interest, inviting them to try more. This would equate musically to changes in key or melody, time signature and tempo.

If done correctly, the end result is a very satisfying experience where both the listener and the consumer feels they have been on a wonderful journey that they want to repeat.

Now, I will say that not every song I listened to took me on this journey. Some had a good hook or a great beat, but didn’t quite bring it all together… for me. And that’s okay.

So how does your business compare to this musical metaphor?  Are you set up to maximize transaction efficiency while failing to tell a story, your story, that ultimately draws your customer in and makes them part of the journey?

If so, how could you change that?  When was the last time you truly experienced your business as your consumer does?  It sounds simple, but seeing things from their vantage point can uncover incredible opportunities.

This concept also applies to the employee experience. They start off not knowing much about your organization, but ultimately they will be the ones “telling” your story to your guests. How can you create a welcoming environment, intrigue them with new information and skills, and engage them in your brand so they will WANT to share your story?

If you could do this, both with your guests and employees, wouldn’t that be music to your (and their) ears?

Thanks for reading!


In case you are interested, the song that most inspired this post was “Manhattan Project” by Rush.  Below is a video of just the lyrics, but I challenge you to close your eyes, put on some headphones and just listen. (If you are reading this in an email, click here to view the video.)