Big time service in a small town

Since moving to the mountains of North Carolina, we have encountered many “small-town” pleasures… being surrounded by caring neighbors, greatly reduced traffic-induced anxiety, and knowing both our mail carrier and UPS driver by name.

Before we even moved in, we happened to run into a local UPS guy who told us that Eric would be our driver.  Based on our businesses, we knew that UPS would be making lots of trips up and down “The Beast” (our neighbors unofficial name of our steep and curvy driveway).

And Eric has proven to be a reliable, pleasant, personable and considerate deliverer of goods. He is always smiling and ready to offer a friendly greeting or comment.  It’s been fun getting to know him, and we especially appreciated the over-and-above service he provided the other day.

First, a little context: while in Orlando recently, my laptop bag was stolen. And yes, my laptop was in it at the time. Upon returning home, I trucked off to the Apple store to get a replacement.  They didn’t have the exact configuration I wanted, so I had to order it and have it shipped to my house. I had already been without my main laptop for about a week, so what’s a few more days?

I knew I was going to have to sign for the box when the laptop was delivered, so I watched the tracking carefully to make sure either my wife or I would be home.  On the day it was to arrive, it said the earliest it would be delivered was 1 pm.  My wife and I had some errands to run, so we got in the car and headed down “The Beast” at about 10 am.  We would be back in plenty of time.

As we headed down the driveway, a very familiar brown truck made it’s way past our driveway and up the road. I wondered if it was Eric just as the truck started to slow down.  It stopped right in the middle of the road, and I knew what was happening.

Eric saw our car coming down the driveway, and because he knew we were going to have to sign for the package, he decided to stop and make sure we got it right then to avoid missing us on his way back through the neighborhood.

To me, that was amazing. 

He didn’t have to do that. He could have kept driving, knowing that he would have gotten back around to our house eventually and maybe someone would have been there to sign for the package, maybe not. In the grand scheme of things, what difference did it make to him?

Thankfully for me, it made at least a little difference to him, and his actions made a BIG difference to me.

And quite frankly, I don’t know if this scenario plays out the same way in a different municipality, if a different driver was on the route that day or if we hadn’t gotten to know Eric before this point. My guess is that it wouldn’t have.

So first and foremost, I am thankful to Eric and his efforts to make sure I got my new laptop in a timely manner.  Secondly, I think there is a business lesson to explore.

Not knowing a ton about the UPS culture, I would imagine that as an experienced driver, Eric has the freedom to make these kinds of decisions… to alter his route or delivery schedule to better serve his customers.  What’s another way to say “freedom to make decisions”?


Yes, I said it. And yes, I know that this was an over-used business cliche a number of years ago.  But here’s the thing… when it’s done right, it actually works.

I think empowerment has gotten a bad rap because of the lazy managers who let the process fail.  You can’t simply say to an employee, “you’re empowered” and expect them to all-of-a-sudden know what they are empowered to actually do.  It just doesn’t work that way.

But that’s what we did back in the day. We told people they were empowered and left it at that. We then scratched our heads when this great empowerment initiative didn’t work.

Once you say, “you’re empowered”, thats when the work actually STARTS!  Now you have to set parameters, provide guidance, seek out suggestions, give feedback, equip with resources, observe behaviors, rinse and repeat.

And maybe lazy is too harsh a word for those managers… maybe forgetful is more accurate?  How often do we forget what it’s like on the frontline, or to be a new employee?  How often do we forget that the things we know BY HEART are things that others may just be learning or may be struggling with?  How often do we forget that not everyone has had the same experiences that we have, which means they could be on a totally difference planet when it comes to appropriate empowerment.

Empowerment is like delegation… it takes a truckload (no UPS pun intended) of work upfront to make it work, but the results can be outstanding!

So whether UPS got empowerment right, or Eric just took it upon himself to help me out, the result was the same, and I am thankful.

Thanks for reading!

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“Art as expression, not as market campaigns”

The title of this post is in quotes because I didn’t make it up… it’s a lyric from the song “Natural Science” by Rush.  It actually popped into my head today as I watched a landscaper carefully shape some ground cover plantings with a weed wacker.

Jasmine ground cover (similar to the stuff my guy was working on)

He was taking such care, yet his movements looked effortless.  The end result was quite stunning and I thought, “this guy’s an artist”.  Maybe not in the painter/musician/dancer/poet terms of the word, but certainly in terms of someone who cares about what he is doing, i.e. his craft.

So then I thought, couldn’t we all elevate our craft to the artist level?  To me it starts with understanding the definition of the word “art” (from

Art: the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.

I think there are three words or phrases that pop out no matter what your chosen craft might be (i.e painter, musician, leader, salesperson, writer, carpenter, teacher, landscaper, insert any profession here).

They are:

Quality – We all want to do quality work, but is that a sliding scale?  Your quality will be measured against others and by others.  But, it’s imperative for you to measure the quality of your output based on it’s relationship to your previous efforts. Is your quality getting better?  If so, you are moving in the right direction.

Appealing – We all need our work to appeal to someone, but will it appeal to everyone?  Certainly as a musician or painter, the answer will be no, and that’s okay.  You may have a narrow niche audience for your craft, but if you consistently provide a high quality product, they will be a loyal bunch. What this looks like for a leader, for example, is being able to adapt your style to appeal to the various individuals you will be leading.  You need them to be loyal so you can produce a quality product.

…Of more than ordinary significance – This is the kicker. We can provide quality and appeal to our audience, but what’s the significance?  In other words, who cares?  And more over, who cares more than an ordinary amount?  When YOU care more than an ordinary amount, it shows in your work. When that amount of attention is given to providing an experience, service, or product to someone else, they can’t help but notice and appreciate the effort you have put in. They may even call it stunning. They may even call you an artist.

If you haven’t made a plan improvement for 2015 yet, feel free to use this as your guide.  Elevate your quality and appeal, and deliver more than ordinary significance in everything you do.  Can’t wait to see what you can accomplish!

Thanks for reading and Happy New Year!!




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Taking the Mystery out of Mystery Shopper’s Reports

A month or so ago, I wrote the following article for the IAAPA Family Entertainment Center newsletter FunExtra.  A few people have asked me about the topic of mystery shopping lately (especially given my new partnership with Amusement Advantage) so I thought I would run the article here as well.  Enjoy!


Secret shopper reports do not want to end up living in a drawer.  Unfortunately, that’s where many spend their dying days, mostly because we could be too busy to squeeze all the great information out of them, or we just don’t know how.  On behalf of all of the secret shopper reports out there, that stops today.

In this article we will discuss the report itself, what to look for and what to do with all that information.  We’ll also focus mostly on the employee side of the coin.  If a shopper says there is missing paint, there is missing paint – not a lot to discuss.  It’s the far more complicated world of employee behavior that I think trips most of us up.

The Report

For a manager or leader, the heart of the secret shopping experience is the report.  That’s what you signed up for – to get this unbiased account of how your facility and employees are performing.  You now have a tangible representation of how your business is seen by someone you don’t know.  If you care at all about your guests’ experience, this is powerful information, and it should be taken with a few considerations.

The report is a snapshot. Each report covers the events of one day, and individual reports should be viewed as a starting point for determining the best actions to take based on the needs of your company and employees.  You and your staff still need to observe on your own, using the shoppers report to supplement what you’ve seen.

Also consider that as objective as secret shoppers are, they are still human beings.  They still have opinions, feelings, and previous experiences that guide their assessment of your facility.  This is not to say that we should discount them for this reason at all.  If anything, this support the role of the report as a snapshot.  All of your guests are different, too.  So a non-shopper guest might interpret a situation differently than the shopper, but you will only get one piece of data.  That’s why you still need to do your own homework.

What To Look For

So you’ve got your report in front of you, now what?  Later we will focus on actions you should and shouldn’t take based on a report, but even before that you have to know what data you have and what it means.

One word I will ask you to keep in mind is trends.  What are the trends telling you?  You may see on one report that Suzie was rude.  She wasn’t smiling and she never said thank you.  This is surprising, since most of time when you see Suzie, she is smiling and making great conversation with the guests.  That “trend” (or break in the trend, in this case) should tell you that you need more data.  Here are some questions you could ask to gather more concrete information:

  1. Was this an isolated incident? Is this the first time anyone has mentioned Suzie being rude?
  2. Was there something going on that day that would have caused Suzie to be acting differently?
  3. Who was she working with?  Were they people she got along with or not?

This is just a small sampling of the kinds of information you would need to have to know what to do next.

Other trends to look for on the report include:

  • Policies – are there multiple people not following rules, or is it just one or two?
  • Areas/departments – are there certain areas or departments that are performing consistently well (or poorly)?
  • Comments – is there anything similar (in tone or content) in the verbatim comments that can give you more insight?

What Do You Do Now?

To this point, you have probably seen that it takes more than just a quick read-through to pull out all of the pertinent information.  But that is a necessary component of the process, in order to be able to take the right actions.

Looking at the situations above, what do we do about Suzie?  I think we discuss the report with her and ask her about her side of the story.  It’s very dangerous to reprimand based on the comments from the shoppers report.  Since this is not going to be immediate feedback (given the time it takes to compile the report), it’s best to look at it as a learning opportunity, not a disciplinary action. On the other side of the coin, it would be appropriate to praise or recognize an employee’s performance based on the shoppers report.  They still made a good impression, and the more that is acknowledged, the more likely it is to happen again.

What if you notice that all the employees mentioned were not following a particular rule or procedure?  That might be an indication that there has been a miscommunication about the procedure, maybe it just recently changed, or it’s something the employees don’t like doing.  In all of these cases, it would take some investigation to find out what’s going on and why.

One of the most important things you can do with the information in this report is to share it.  Share it with your management teams, with your employees (as appropriate; be careful of negative or damaging comments) and get their perspective on the best way to either make things better or continue doing the good things you are already doing.

Delegating or getting assistance with looking over the reports will not only ensure that you get the most out of them, it will also save the reports from living out their days in a dark and dreary desk drawer.  No one wants that.

Small town customer service

I can see now why John Mellencamp was so proud to be from a small town. There seems to a slightly different approach to customer service (among other things) which is refreshing and surprising if you aren’t ready for it.

While tending to some family business in the sleepy little town of Harbert, MI, my wife and I were on the hunt for some plants. Nothing fancy, but we had a small porch that needed sprucing up. After a quick search on the iPhone, we realized there was a nursery right around the corner. Since it was after 5 pm, I called to see how late they would be open.

A very nice gentleman with a deep “James Earl Jones” type voice answers the phone. I ask their hours, and he says very politely, “are you coming over now?”. At first I thought it was an odd question, until he revealed that he thought I was someone else; someone he was already expecting. When that got cleared up, he said, “well, we usually close at 6, but if I know you are coming, I can stick around.”

This is honestly much different than the responce I usually hear. It is usually much more emphatic and unwavering. Right off the bat he is being flexible and accomodating… Which was nice, but a little surprising. He was already looking out for me, which made me want to look out for him.

I told him we were on our way, but if he didn’t see us by 6, don’t hang around.

Granted there are a few differences between the circumstances of big city and small town service interactions. In a small town you usually have fewer people and a more laid back atmosphere, which any service provider will tell you immediately makes the job easier. However, the big difference in this case had nothing to do with the service in the store- it happened before we got there.

The difference is caring. Caring not just about the sale and making the right change, but caring about the customer. Caring about them as a person, not as a walking wallet.

What’s more important to YOU as a consumer? If you value the way you are treated, you can bet that your customers feel the same way. Unfortunately, we don’t spend nearly as much time on that aspect of an employees performance as we do on upselling or even product knowledge. The thing that we want most as consumers is what we spend the least time on training and reinforcing with our employees.

Does that make sense to you? If not, I think you just figured out your next “to do” when you get back to work.

Thanks for reading!!

Want Better Customer Service? Be A Better Customer!

It’s probably safe to say that at some point in your life, you have been the recipient of less than stellar customer service.  It’s also probably safe to say that if you have worked in the customer service industry for any period of time, there was at least one time when you were not 100% on your game, and your service level slipped.  C’mon, you can admit it (just don’t let it be a habit!).

As the title of this post suggests, I think that as consumers, we have a big impact on the kind of service we receive.

I think it helps to think of the person on the other side of the counter or the telephone as a person.  Despite what we may be thinking when they tell us something we don’t want to hear, they are still a person with feelings, fears, emotions, a family, possibly pets, a life outside of work… not to mention their own set of personal issues they may be dealing with.

I know a very popular sentiment (especially in the amusement park business) is that when we are working with the public, we should leave our own problems at home… forget about them while at work because ultimately, that guest in front of you just wants their food when it’s hot, and they aren’t concerned with the fact that your hamster got stuck in the Habitrail this morning.

While I do believe our guests deserve our best, I don’t know how realistic it is for most people to flip a switch and NOT think about what they have to deal with (or are looking forward to) when they get home.

Where I think we sometimes go wrong as consumers is that we get stuck with the labels associated with doing business.  We are customers or guests, and they are employees, staff, or the help.  It’s almost as if from the get-go we are setting up an adversarial relationship.  I know people who believe that people in customer service roles are essentially lower life forms, and he/she treats them accordingly.  What do you think his/her view of modern customer service is?  Yep, bottom of the barrel.

When I talk to people about how THEY provide service, most say things like, “I love helping people who are nice.  I would bend over backwards for them.  But start yelling at me, you won’t get anything!”

With this is mind, here is what I would suggest.  Be nice to people.  Notice I didn’t say “employees” or “staff”, but people.  Dare I say treat them the way you would want to be treated?

What are your thoughts?

If Circuit City can do it…

If you Google “Circuit City bankrupt”, nearly 1,290,000 entries appear.  You would think that news of a companies public failure would create doubt, animosity and a general lack of caring from the folks still collecting a Circuit City paycheck.  Yet, when I visited one of the remaining stores a few days ago, I had one of the best customer service experiences I have had at a big-box electronics retailer.circuit_city_logo

Here’s what happened:

Incident #1: I was looking for two specific pieces of computer gear.  One I knew I had to have, the other I wasn’t sure about.  I found the first one without issue, then set my sights on the other.  After finding a model that looked similar to what I had seen online, I decided to ask an employee, Eddie,  if it would work with my current set-up.  What I got from the inquiry was an insightful follow-up question that indicated a knowledge and understanding of the product that went deeper that the product cheat sheet.  Based on my answer, the advice I got was that the product I was holding would not work and I should not buy it.  Eddie then gave me options for resolving my issue – none of which included me buying anything else from his store.

One could argue that Eddie cost the store a sale and some potential profits.  On the other hand, I was grateful for the information Eddie gave so I didn’t buy something I couldn’t use.  I trust Eddie, and I would shop there again.

Incident #2: While checking out, I approached the register with one other person in line.  From behind a display, another employee motioned me over to her register where there was no one in line.  She initiated some small chit-chat during the transaction, and capped the interaction with a big smile and a sincere, “Happy New Year”.

I literally walked out of the store saying to myself, “I don’t remember service like that BEFORE they went belly-up!”

Not being privy to the inner-workings of the electronics giant, I cannot vouch for what has happened behind the scenes.  In doing some research (and there is plenty to go around), I did see various opinions on CC’s business practices over that last few years.  Understanding that the truth is probably somewhere in the middle of all the ranting, I do want to highlight something that was made public.

On Circuit City’s own website, there is an entire section dedicated to answering their customers questions regarding the bankruptcy.  There is a certain sense of ‘up-front-ness’ that is refreshing, mostly because what we normally see is finger pointing and blame.

I would guess that at least at the store I went to, the management teams took this opportunity to communicate to their employees about what was going on.  In my Utopian world, I picture a gathering of employees and management, openly sharing ideas, concerns and suggestions and in the end, each person is better prepared and inspired to face the challenges ahead.

As a consumer, whether that really happened or not is irrelevant.  The service I experienced WAS real, and that is the memory I take away.

THAT is the true bottom line.