Two Small Moments, 9 Years Apart

September 16th, 2010

by Stephanie Fierman

I opine regularly on customer service because for many businesses – particularly service businesses – the phrase is almost a misnomer.  Call it what you will: the employees who take calls, live chat with a shopper or interact in person are the brand.  No amount of ad dollars or coupons or general cajoling can overcome a bad experience(s) long-term.

For me, it’s almost a transcendental point.  Brands are about emotion. They’re about warmth, connection and a true, deep understanding that we must reflect back to the customer in order to create preference and earn loyalty. The sad fact – and opportunity – for businesses today is that it really takes so little. Consumers feel so beaten down by lousy service that the tiniest bit of helpfulness and sincerity has a magnified impact that radiates the brand message back out to the marketplace.  But for many companies, it’s not in the DNA: it can be more comfortable to advertise, fool with pricing and open mega-call centers, because that’s what we’re taught.   Then you get out into the real world and discover that, essentially, the golden rule is everything.

Go figure.

So let me tell you about two small moments that had a big impact.  They are certainly on a different scale, but I think they have something notable in common.

Moment #1:  September 21, 2001 – New York City.  I am a long-time New Yorker.  I don’t think it’s the only place in the universe to live, but it’s my home and I’m proud of it.  No matter how long I live here, the New York skyline still gets me every time I return from somewhere else.

On September 11, 2001, I was somewhere else and the flight freeze meant I couldn’t get home.  It sounds ridiculous, but I felt as though I should have been there. It’s my city.

I wasn’t there when it got hurt. I wasn’t there when friends died.

When I finally did make it back, I took the 6 train down to the Financial District.  I think it was September 21. When I climbed out of the subway, I found a planet I did not recognize.  Crowds were everywhere.  The sidewalk was thick with people, milling around, shouting to get each other’s attention, taking pictures and generally contributing to the chaos.  I took five or six steps out of the subway stairwell and and froze.  When I stopped, I noticed some gray particles floating in the air, landing on me.  It took me a few seconds to realize what they were.  

It was the end of the world, and all I could do was stand there under a big scaffold, staring in the direction of a still-smoking hole in the ground.

I don’t know how long I stayed immobile, with the flakes wafting down on my sweater.  It must have been a minute or two because suddenly a cop emerged from the sidewalk mosh pit.  He walked over to me, put his hand on my arm and said, “Are you ok, miss? Do you need help?” And then he stood there, waiting for the answer.  From me. One little person. He maintained eye contact and just waited, with the kindest look on his face.

Snapped out of my daze, I immediate said I was fine, embarrassed that I’d taken this guy away from the melee.

I have never forgotten that moment, and never will.  That cop had everything more important to do, but he took a couple seconds to care.  He put a human face on the inhuman.  I think he saved me, in a fashion, right there on the sidewalk. 

I’m not saying that I having paid attention to reality in the last nine years, but that experience changed my view of the New York City Police Department brand, just a little bit, forever.  

Moment #2:  September 11, 2010 – a Target store in suburban New Jersey.  I might as well tell you that I’m addicted to online Target coupons at the moment, and had a fistful of them when I rolled my cart up to check-out yesterday.  Among my treasures were two units of the same product, so I had simply printed two of the same $1-off coupon.  I’d been wondering how Target controlled for one person printing the same coupon over and over, but hey: who am I to question a larger life force?  Plus, the last time I was in the same store, the clerk let me use both (yes, I’d done this before), so I thought I was in good shape.

Once this new clerk had scanned and bagged my purchases, I gave her the small pile of coupons.  I don’t think we’d made eye contact yet.  When she got to the two identical coupons, she handed one back to me and said, “Yyeahhh [pause] the story with this is [pause] you can only use [pause] one of these coupons.” Now I wouldn’t say she put her arm up to her face to block a strike, exactly, but she looked… uncomfortable.  It was pretty obvious that she’d said these words before with less-than-pleasant results and was bracing for impact.

Busted!  Darn it. In a split second I decided whether or not I was going to whine to get the second dollar (“But the last time you took them! Wahhhh!”), but it just seemed so not worth it.  She really looked pretty miserable and – as a result – any hissy-fit I might have been working up to just lost steam.

I just looked at her and said “OK.”

She looked back, startled, and thanked me

Odd. And now she was staring at me. 

As I began to wrestle with the bags, the woman said, “Let me see that other coupon.”  I figured maybe there was some other deal she was going to give me, or maybe she just wanted to throw it away, or whatever.

She took the second coupon, scanned it to give me the second dollar off and said [quote], “I just love how you handled that.”

After I pushed out a “Huh?” she just repeated herself, smiling and shaking her head, looking visibly relieved.  I made an off-hand comment that I’d been working on not sweating the details and she responded, “Well it’s great.  It’s working.”

Interesting.

By taking a breath for just a second and factoring in someone else’s vibe, I not only got better service but some seriously positive karma, as well.  The next time I go to that store, that moment is what I’ll be thinking about.

So this post, my friends, is about two things.  One, I wanted to tell a story in remembrance of 9/11 and what was lost.  Second, both stories (plus the one about the JCrew supervisor several weeks ago) are about tiny actions that made a big difference.  Moments in which someone acted human and kept the big picture in sight (when maybe we expected the opposite).  These are the interactions – the moments of truth – that are remembered and associated with your brand in the person’s mind.

If you have a business and/or nurture a brand, reinforce for yourself and your organization what you want that association to be and commit yourself to injecting these moments into the experience of your prospects and customers.  And as I mentioned earlier, the horrible condition of customer service is good for the rest of us: it means that you can create these experiences, frankly, without jumping all that high.

And away from work, I suspect all of us could use a few more of these moments for ourselves and others, as well.  Do something different.  The smallest kindness might produce something surprising.

 

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