Terrified, she ran screaming through the arcade. The panic on her face was real as she fled, her childhood fears manifesting in pursuit.

We rushed to the doorways of our stores and stood aside, curious and eager to see what was happening. As it all became clear we laughed as one, briefly bonding over this lady’s ordeal and joyfully watching on as the Queen of Hearts strode menacingly behind her.

This seven-foot foam caricature pursued the woman out of sight, it’s size as imposing as it’s silence. As the woman’s screams faded, each of us could recall the Queen of Heart’s ominous catchphrase “Off with her head!” and understood her compulsion to flee.

I chuckled out loud and returned to work.

“Now that’s a new one”, I laughed to a small family of passengers. Their arms were full of merchandise. Four of everything I’d guess, given their uniform appearance – T-shirts emblazoned with the family name.

“Hilarious”, the mother drawled in a thick Texas accent. “I can relate. This morning, Chip and Dale kidnapped our kids!”
Her children gleefully nodded confirmation.

Then, the panicked lady’s voice returned, growing louder upon its approach though this time more jovial and commanding. “Stop!” she called out.

We all ran back to the doorway just in time to see roles reversed. This time the Queen bounded past us first, clutching the lady’s handbag as its rightful owner now gave chase. Even she was now laughing uncontrollably, returning in the direction of her loved ones who were all so delighted to let the Queen slip past and evade them.

This would be a memory they’d treasure and talk about together forever. Telling their extended family and friends at every opportunity, and often dreaming of their return.

A Whole New World

Customer Service can be a difficult pursuit to maintain.

In many industries, once a professional has acquired their essential skillset the practical application of those skills remains consistent. Pilots will follow procedures, skilfully controlling their planes. Lawyers will stay abreast of the law, practicing it with greater proficiency as their careers progress. Doctors must adhere to a strict code of conduct and provide greater care as their experience grows – regardless of their bedside manner.

For those in Customer Service roles though, the sense of urgency and importance is not always as visible. Complacency can set in over time and the consequences seem less dire if visible at all. Where an experienced production-line team member can engage muscle-memory to complete a task, the performance of a Customer Service Rep remains more susceptible to their own mental state, the demeanour of the customer, and the pressures of the working environment. To simply go through the motions is not enough to ensure a chance at repeating the job. There is no conveyor belt constantly rolling customers into the store.

And it’s common to mistakenly think you’ve got customer service skills all mastered.

Years ago, I arrived in Florida to work on board one of the Disney cruise ships as confident in my skillset and abilities as any skinny, pale guy in his early twenties can be. I’d secured my position onboard by honing and developing essential skills. From standard warm greeting procedures to knowing how to anticipate the customer’s needs, fulfilling them quickly and efficiently. From serving them with rapid confidence to generating increased sales through advanced sales techniques. These are all essential skills to hone, and customers will respond positively to them when performed well, but let’s be honest; they’re not the hardest concepts in the world to understand or replicate. In any competitive market, there are standard levels of service expected by customers and a generally positive customer experience is not enough to ensure loyalty or return business.

For me, although I’d been doing all of the above correctly for years and increasingly pleasing superiors to that point, it wasn’t until I arrived to serve in Mickey’s navy that I truly came to understand the importance of the customer experience, and the absolute impact it has on customer satisfaction and retention. Now, this article is not all about lavishing praise on Disney. There are readers out there without a care for the brand but the fact remains that as a company focused on customer interaction, they have been at the forefront of customer service standards for decades.

So how do you create fantastic customer experiences, and just as importantly, how do you maintain them to an elite level?

You’ve Got A Friend In Me

It’s all about being genuine.

You can hire bright, outgoing staff and instruct them how to greet a customer professionally and politely, but if they don’t possess and convey the kind of genuine care and warmth that simply can not be faked then your business is only meeting standard expectations. Not excelling them.

You know what I’m talking about. You can see through someone’s disingenuous eyes and smile when they’re only being nice to you through obligation alone. There are times we must all admit that this very sincerity we’re expecting from others is lacking in our own heart for one reason or another. It’s something that must be overcome though, and can be even harder for some staff who may be experiencing additional feelings of restriction. A common fear is that management may interpret an employee’s jovial customer service as excessive fraternisation, a distraction from other duties. Another modern concern of employees is that their interactions be interpreted as being overly familiar with the customer and/or overstepping their mark.

Regardless of which psychological issue may be restricting the kind of genuineness we’re talking about, the only way to overcome it is to give ourselves and our employees complete licence to express ourselves freely and comfortably. To instil a confidence that serving the customer really is the most important job, and promote a culture and awareness that it’s ok to have fun with customers. To truly share experiences and enjoy their company as much as their custom.

Be Our Guest

With such supportive foundations in place and regularly reinforced, staff can be free to build upon their interactions with customers beyond the superficial. Of course there will always be customers who display a dry preference to be served in a more formal manner, but for those more receptive to greater hospitality the opportunities to brighten and enhance the overall customer experience become prevalent.

I’m not quite suggesting anyone go ahead and steal their customer’s purse in the same light-hearted fashion as the opening example. There has to be context and there has to be an evolving level of familiarity. To achieve that familiarity though, and properly nurture the customer relationship, the simplest and most genuine way to do so is as you would with your own family and friends.

When you welcome someone into your home you genuinely care that they feel comfortable and enjoy themselves, even if you’ve accidentally left that pizza box on the coffee table. You hurriedly dispose of it as you proudly discuss the pictures on your walls and the great deal you got on all that wine in the rack.

Welcoming someone into your place of business should be no different. People expect you to be proud of your surroundings and if they’ve come there in the first place, they’ll politely listen as you welcome them with news of the deals on offer. Beyond this lies the opportunity to engage them on a more enjoyable level and truly influence the quality of their customer experience.

As time progresses at home, pleasantries settle and the conversation becomes naturally lighter and more relaxed. Depending on the personalities involved, in-jokes and banter may even begin. My mates like to rib me for that time I horrifically farted while we were all locked in a Cambodian taxi. The joke was really on them. But I digress.

Back on the salesfloor, no one’s going to try leading with an accusation of flatulence (after all, whoever smelt it dealt it). Banter may not even suit the personalities of the customer or team member in question, or be appropriate for the situation. A more intellectual conversation may be in order. What matters most is that the team member seek to engage the customer on a more personable level wherever possible. If a more down-to-earth conversation is the way to go, it’s important to remember the principle of being one-hundred percent genuine. Asking someone to tell you all about their Maple Leafs T-shirt is pointless if you couldn’t care less about Ice Hockey, but maybe you’re interested in travel and where they might be from: “I don’t know much about hockey or the Leaf’s, but I hear Toronto is a fantastic city?”

If there is room for banter, don’t be afraid. It can be a great way to get people smiling if things are kept within the right parameters. As long as comments are kept good-natured and light-hearted without being vulgar, aggressive, derogatory, or criminal in any way then be yourself and have fun with each other. Certain topics may be taboo, but there are always a few go-to subjects that are great for material. Sporting rivalries are one of them. Musical tastes can be another. Personally, I stay well away from politics. Even though particular targets can seem universally acceptable to ridicule, the likelihood of this topic evolving into negativity is a needless risk to the sales environment.

Whatever you come to talk about and bond over, remember to extend these relationships to co-workers. Introducing and including them is imperative to solidifying bonds between customers and the business as a whole. Hogging customers is counterproductive. If Mrs Smith tells you she breeds dogs, she really needs to hear all about Johnno’s Bichon Frise.

Whistle While You Work

Some might say it’s naïve to suggest that every business can afford to have their staff gas-bagging all day to the detriment of other duties. In fact, that’s completely true. Expected workloads have risen starkly over the decades, long past the days when we had a team member operating every elevator and manning every door. So the last piece of the puzzle we’re putting together here, and the key to creating memorably joyful customer experiences, has to be the ability to master that delicate balance between giving customers your complete attention while still getting all of your physical work done; and teaching your staff to do the same.

The secret is to use it. Incorporate that very work into the conversation. If you’re pumping up footballs, throw one to a customer. If you’re stacking Christmas decorations, start singing a carol with them. If you’re making pizza, toss one into the air whether it needs it or not. Entertain. There’s no better way to sell your products than by using them. Product knowledge increases, tangible benefits can be demonstrated, and the overall customer experience is vastly superior over a competitor who only says, “Welcome to our store. What you want is over there”.

Let It Go

It takes confidence to work in customer service.

Then, to successfully enhance the quality of the overall customer experience, it takes even more so. Confidence in your own knowledge and abilities. Confidence to be playful where appropriate, and confidence to accept and learn when the customer simply wants the job done quickly and efficiently. Not every customer is going to be a willing audience, and that’s ok. For those that are though, we must be willing to open ourselves up. To suspend self-consciousness in the interest of maximising the potential enjoyment and satisfaction of each customers’ shopping experience.

At the end of the day, it all adds up to creating exactly the kind of vibrant, welcoming environment that customers (and staff) truly look forward to returning to.

Hakuna Matata.