The last time I stayed in a Ritz Carlton, my son, who was about 1 year old at the time, got very sick.
We didn't bring a thermometer with us, but I could tell just by feeling his skin and seeing how lethargic he seemed, that he had a fever. I immediately called the front desk to see if they happened to have a thermometer I could borrow.
The Ritz Carlton sent up a professional from their service department with a thermometer. My son's temperature was a very-high 103 degrees. Inside, I was panicking. The professional remained calm and suggested we accept an escort to the hospital.
After hours in the hospital, a diagnosis and medicine for my son, we headed back to the hotel, exhausted. In my room, I found a pair of stuffed lions nestled together on a chair - one was a girl and one was a boy. Along with it came a note with well wishes for our family and concern for our son. The note made it clear that the stuffed animals were gifts for both of our children; they still play with these stuffed animals today. The professional also called us the next day to check on the health of our son and ask us if we needed anything additional for him.
I didn't expect the hotel to have a thermometer. I didn't expect the staff to provide an escort to the hospital. I didn't expect gifts for my children. In fact, at the time, I had no expectations of the hotel. My greatest concern was for my son and what we needed to do to get him well.
I was both surprised and delighted by the service I received. Their extra attention and concern wasn't necessary and didn't have anything to do with my actual stay at the hotel, yet they made my experience as comfortable as something like that can be. I believe kind treatment like this sticks with a person. It stands out. It is remembered. It becomes a story one shares over and over again (like I'm doing now).
Some customer service professionals define this as anticipatory service. With this level of service, companies foresee clients' needs and carefully provide them. Thrilled customers brag about their service to others, boosting word-of-mouth.
Anticipate rather than react
While companies are often praised for how they handle situations after something goes wrong, many experts agree a better way to minimize negative customer reactions is with this type of anticipation. The Marketing Spot's Jay Ehret even argues that the difference between good customer service and great customer service is the difference between reactionary customer service and anticipatory customer service. "You already know what most of those problems are," he advises small businesses. "Anticipate the solution and provide it to the customer before the problem occurs."
In general, customer service has been mostly reactionary. In other words, businesses answer requests or questions from clients. But, today's customers are better educated, more fickle and less loyal, explains Micah Soloman, author of "High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service." His book highlights tips on how companies can work toward providing anticipatory service.
Customers have greater expectations today. It starts with multiple communication channels, Soloman says. Provide channels your customers are using and be prepared to respond to them on whichever channel they are comfortable using, including the phone or social media. And then be open to customers when they switch channels. "Use today's technology to make the experience seamless," Soloman advises.
Soloman also suggests softening upsell strategies. He uses Amazon's example of "Frequently Bought Together" or "What Other Items Do Customers Buy After Viewing This Item" messaging. "Harder sells can backfire since people like to be pulled in with personalized messages rather than pushed along with the crowd today," he explains.
Hiring the right people to fulfill this level of service is also crucial, advices Gregg Hake, an award-winning blogger, entrepreneur and wellness expert. "Anticipatory service cannot be scripted or taught," he says. "In fact, it is a level of service that comes from within.
"It doesn't cost any more to provide anticipatory service," he adds, "though it does require a level of vigilance, selflessness and genuine care that isn't typical in today's me-centric world. It emerges organically, I believe, when the right conditions are established and maintained in the corporate culture."
Is your company culture fostering surprise and delight in your customers? Great customer service stories are rare today - so rare that when they happen, the company that delivers them receives praise and, in some cases, publicity.
A little extra service can go a long way.
Nicole Wisniewski is a 15-year green industry veteran and award-winning journalism and marketing professional. She is currently a senior project manager in The Davey Tree Expert Co.'s marketing/corporate communications department. Visit her blog at www.mybiggreenpen.com or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.