The Cracker Jack Principle
By Chip Bell
Ten years ago, I was at the Delta counter getting my boarding pass from the super-friendly gate attendant. Noticing my “fly-every-week” platinum status, she warmly said, “Mr. Bell, I may be able to get you a seat upfront (code for first class); I’ll let you know.” Forget leaving the gate area for anything! This was worth hanging around for! Sure enough, 15 minutes later, she paged me ... and I rushed to the counter. She smiled as she handed me my boarding pass with seat 2A on it. I was thrilled! It had been a long week and I needed a little extra TLC flying home! “Thank you, Delta, and, thank you, Ms. Jenny,” I thought to myself. “You made my week!” It was like Cracker Jack — I got a free prize inside!
Ten days ago, I was in the gate area of Delta Airlines watching the computer monitor to learn if my name appeared on the “upgrade to first class” list. Honestly, I was feeling totally entitled. Had my name not appeared, I would have been disappointed, maybe even a little angry. After all, I give this airline a lot of money each year. But this time my name simply appeared. Today, you do not go to the gate attendant for a new boarding pass. The computer issues you a new seat assignment as you board with the first-class passengers who paid first-class fare.
The upgrade process is designed to be an affinity program — crafted to ramp up the affection of customers. No humans were involved in this historically value-added process. And since there was no emotional connection — no expression of bigheartedness from Delta — my heart never did race; my affection meter for the brand never even budged. It was as functional as a vending machine. I realized I had just participated in the mechanization of customer delight and it completely failed to enchant. So I did not tweet about my upgrade nor did I tell my neighbor.
Delta is a very good airline. But, like many organizations, its focus has become the physical and measurable outcome and not the emotional and subjective experience. However, the consequences of mechanization are even graver for the front-line employees who deliver the service experience.
That gate attendant at Dallas/Fort Worth was filled-to-capacity with check-in, record management, safety concerns, and boarding chores. Robbed of the freedom to be generous or ingenious, she seemed to be merely going through the motions. She was certainly not unfriendly. But her infrequent smile appeared strained, as if there was a super-vivacious person behind her professional mask struggling to be set free. My perception was that this once-upbeat firefly was now shoehorned into worker-bee status. But clearly it was not the monitor and computer that rendered her seemingly dazed; the American Airlines agent on the opposite side of the terminal had the exact same look. We need to bring back real, unexpected customer surprise delivered by people serving people and stop mechanizing delight.
The Cracker Jack Principle
It was not the colorful box of caramelized popcorn or colorful container that enamored consumers — it was the free toy inside. While financially worthless, it was emotionally priceless. And it is a reminder of the clout of simplicity and heart-filled connections.
When my wife traded in her car for a newer model, she was surprised a week later. Turning on her radio for the first time, she discovered the service tech had programmed her radio stations from her trade-in. She tells everyone, not about the car, but about the radio.
The year we celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary, someone asked my wife the secret of our long, “still-in-love” relationship. Without a moment’s hesitation, my wife said, “We never stopped dating!” Customers today need service providers to “never stop courting” — delivering those simple, inexpensive, and unexpected surprises that light up their day and remind customers of their importance.
Why Surprise is Important Today
Customers today are bored. Blame it in part on their elevated standards for all customer experiences. To paraphrase the post-World War I song, “How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen ... Disney World?” Customers look at every website through Amazon or Zappos eyes, every retail outlet through a Nordstrom or Apple lens. Part of their boredom is driven by their over-stimulated, hyper-entertained daily lives. Stores have become sensory theater; TV and the Internet are as vibrant as Broadway after dark.
The largest culprit driving customer boredom, however, may be the absence of random surprise in customers’ experiences. Surprise is not really a surprise if it is predictable. When randomness is gone, the well-intentioned value-adds become a standard customer expectation, adding no value at all. Attraction of loyalty has become programmed and apparent. Customers want a passionate connection with most of the service providers they encounter. And they long for that rare, unexpected, over-the-top service surprise and are eager to tell a great story via word of mouth and word of mouse.
Five Ways to Bring Back Customer Surprise
Start Cracker Jack Teams. When cast members (employees) find a novel way to delight guests (customers), they share it with everyone. For example, when a housekeeper in a Disney World hotel found if she moved souvenirs around in the room it made kids believe they had come alive while they were in the theme park, it became a practice in every property.
Always make your first encounter with customers one with a super-welcoming attitude. Your mother taught you about the importance of a first impression. Make your smile a “Steinway®” smile — one that is contagious and sparks a feeling of joy in all those on the receiving end. Aim your best eye-hug at those you serve.
Stop sending out surveys and instead start a conversation with your customers. We all get too many surveys these days. Get feedback from customers in novel ways, not the old “tired” and true. Ask interesting questions: “What is something no one in our profession has done for you that you would enjoy?” or “If you were in charge of making our service to you super positive, what would you suggest?”
Examine all your customers’ experiences though the five senses. How can you make that required form a positively unique experience? What if your customers were given a cheerful pen — one with a feather on top — to complete needed paperwork? What do customers hear in the background when they call? Is your website a delight? What is a positively memorable leave-behind you could use? A colorful balloon? A candy kiss?
If you can’t reduce customers’ wait time, manage their perception of wait.Remember how Disney World entertained you while you waited in a queue? Or told you how long the wait might be? Or kept you cool with misters in the summertime? If Disney was in charge of your customers’ wait, what might they recommend?
Make the Little Things Matter
We were working with a client in Nicaragua. One evening we elected to try the hotel’s upscale restaurant. I ordered my usual Jack Daniels on the rocks. Now in every restaurant in America such a request would yield a highball glass brought to the table already filled with ice plus the special adult beverage ready to drink. But at the InterContinental Real Metrocentro in Managua, I was not served Jack Daniels, it was presented to me!
The waiter brought a tray containing a full bottle of Jack, an empty chilled glass, a container of ice, and a tall shot glass. The glass was then filled with ice — one cube at a time — and placed before me. The bottle was presented much like a wine steward might present a chosen bottle of wine. Assuming approval, the Tennessee whiskey was poured into the shot glass which was then lovingly poured into the ice-filled highball glass! A simple shot of whiskey was treated like pricey Dom Perignon champagne.
What if service providers made the mundane magical? What if every service moment was treated as an extraordinary event for a cherished customer? The check-in hotel clerk would come from behind the desk to give you your room key along with a warm handshake, the taxi driver would take your luggage all the way into the hotel lobby, and the service tech would explain your auto repair, kneeling eye level with you as you sat comfortably in the reception area. Customers are not interested in being treated as royalty served by a slave. But they do notice when the service they receive clearly indicates they are treasured.
Chip R. Bell is a customer loyalty consultant, keynote speaker and author of several national bestselling books. His newest book is bestselling The 9½ Principles of Innovative Service (www.simpletruths.com). He was a keynote speaker at the 2013 NAHC Annual Meeting and can be reached at www.chipbell.com.