In the annals of brand experience, there is no reward quite so prized as that of personal appreciation and recognition. As consumers, we like to think that we have a choice in the brands we buy and frequent, and feel (justifiably) validated when these brands acknowledge that they value our custom. As we have noted previously, the sweet sound of one’s own name alone can inspire the warmest of feelings and brand fidelity. And when we are offered something a little extra not available to everyone else, then BAM! we can feel like veritable A-Listers, even when such a perk is merely earlier access to spend more money on the brand. But the converse of this happy brand experience, of course, occurs when we realize that the recognition and appreciation we previously believed to be bonafide — or if feigned, at least voluntarily offered — becomes but a rote incantation dictated from on high and robotically invoked by fiat, rather than genuine impulse.
Such was the arc of a recent customer experience with our frequent traveling partner, Delta Airlines. Our call with a Delta telephone agent who helped us with our reservation concluded with a cheerful, “Thank you for your loyalty to Delta, Mr. [BrandCultureTalk].” So far so good. Then at check in, the agent intoned, “Thank you for your loyalty.” Twice in one day, hmmm. Upon entering the Delta SkyClub, “Thank you for your loyalty” again, and upon presenting our boarding pass to the gate agent . . . well, you get the idea. Twice is a coincidence, thrice is a Black Swan and four times is, well, an absurd indication of a well-intentioned customer recognition program gone awry.
Setting aside the question of whether we actually deserved to be thanked for a loyalty that was inspired by an absence of choice (Delta and AirTran/Southwest control 100% of the non-stop LAX-ATL flights and 92% of all traffic at ATL!) rather than an affirmative fidelity to the Delta brand, the fourth invocation of the exact same phrase struck us as, well, canned — because it assuredly was. When it becomes apparent that the phrase is required, the effect becomes the opposite of that intended.
Now we're not slagging off the hard-working LAX Delta employees. It's not their fault. And finding the right balance is neither self-evident nor easy. Too loose and standards become inconsistent and dangerously dependent on the idiosyncrasies of the individuals who represent the brand. Too tight and brand loyalists view the effort to offer a proprietary, elevated brand experience as yet another cynical program to extract maximum cash out of customers at the lowest possible cost. For example, when interacting with Chick-fil-A, a proffered “thank you” will ALWAYS be met with “my pleasure.” Absolutely consistent, and absolutely devoid of humanity. Why does Chick-fil-A do this? Purportedly because the founder Truett Cathy stayed at a Ritz Carlton hotel and enjoyed when the staff responded, “my pleasure.” Consistent? You bet. Meaningful? No way. We would prefer a sincere or even cursory “you’re welcome” to a parroted “my pleasure” any time.
Not so very long ago, even the august Ritz Carlton brand fell prey to this same folly. For a time, nearly every one of the "ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen" of Ritz Carlton would automatically respond to any request by a guest with the phrase “my pleasure.” But what was at first distinguishing and delightful quickly became monotonous and predictable. Ritz Carlton employees also snatched guests luggage and accompanied guests everywhere, even to the restroom unbidden. The Ritz had conflated control, rigidity and formality with sophistication and elegance. But they changed course. After 20 years of rigorous enforcement of the “20 Rules,” Ritz Carlton relaxed the rigid adherence to the rules and implemented instead 12 Gold Standards to enable staff to offer what guests actually wanted, rather than what Ritz Carlton thought they should have (to wit, more in keeping with what we have previously written about the Four Seasons brand experience).
What we really want most from brand experiences employers simply can’t force or contrive : warmth, respect, validation and yes . . . even genuine appreciation. But successful service organizations can inspire them — not every time for every interaction — but more often than not.
In reporting what he had learned during an undercover assignment as a room service waiter at the Ritz Carlton in Boston, then Senior Harvard Business Review Editor Paul Hemp noted, “Great customer service should be based on dynamic principles rather than a rigid formula. You don’t demand that employees say, ‘Certainly, my pleasure,’ until it feels right to them. You don’t mindlessly assume every guest wants to be pampered; some people just want to eat their dinners.” And all people -- even jaded branding consultants -- will welcome a smile and a “thanks” more than a mindless catchphrase.