Service Magic

Ron Zemke

Watching a skillful stage magician at work is an exercise in awe and wonder. Try as we might to see through the sleight of hand and illusions taking place before our eyes, we come away amused and astonished. Where did those flying cards go? Where did that tiger come from? What happened to the lovely assistant? How did the magician do those amazing things?

We tell ourselves there’s a rational explanation. We know – or at least suspect –mechanical devices and subtle betrayals of the senses are at work in the magician’s craft. But in our hearts we aren’t so sure. We smile, we shake our heads, we wonder. And we are left with a feeling of enchantment that stays with us long after the performance is over.

Service magic leaves customers with a similar feeling. When a service experience is unexpected and unpredictable -- yet so filled with style, grace and imagination that a customer is left with a smile and a story to tell – that’s service magic. Just as the skilled stage magician delivers enchantment to an audience, the service magician brings a touch of charm and delight to a customer’s day, life and world… even if just for a moment.

The Real Stuff

Fran Sims, a St. Petersburg, FL-based consultant, bought a swimming suit from Nordstrom’s downtown flagship store while she was working in Seattle. The sales rep bagged the suit, and graciously accepted Sim’s out-of-state check for payment -- itself no small indicator of service sensitivity.

But when Sims returned to her hotel room, she found a message. The Nordstrom rep had inadvertently left one of the swimming suit straps out of Sims’ bag, and wanted to deliver it personally to her hotel. Sims asked how the rep had tracked her down.

“You remember I asked you to write the name of your company on the back of your check?” the rep asked. “I called Florida information to get the phone number for your company, called them, and asked where you were staying in town.”

Sims thanked the rep and said she could just leave the strap at her hotel's front desk. The rep insisted that since she was responsible for leaving the strap out of the bag, she should deliver it personally to Sims.

This attentive service was unexpected. The way it was delivered was certainly unpredictable. Yet it absolutely met the customer’s need and had value in the customer’s eyes. And best of all it was warmly, positively memorable. This is the stuff of service magic: Acts of customer care that are unexpected, unpredictable, valuable, memorable and reproducible.

Most customers simply evaluate their encounter with your organization as “acceptable” or “disappointing” or “marvelous.” It’s those marvelous experiences that lead to a level and style of service your customers will describe as “magical.” Skilled service magicians and their organizations can deliver such experiences consistently by relying on three components of magic: Place, Process and Performance.

The Magic of Place

Place Magic is a natural or manmade venue with physical attributes that attract and please, and that are subtly enhanced by human endeavor. A cocktail served at sunset on the veranda of a Maui restaurant overlooking a tranquil bay is as magical and memorable as a cold sandwich from room service on a chilly, rainy night in Seattle is forgettable. The waiter who slides smoothly on and off stage, honoring the quiet ambiance of fading sun and sea unobtrusively supports the Maui restaurant’s magic. The actor and actions add their own texture to Place Magic and help complete the experience for the customer.

Much Place Magic comes courtesy of Mother Nature or from the hands of architects and design specialists. But service magicians can enhance the sense of Place Magic by: ∑

Finding or developing a strong “back story.” Every organization has a proud history or founding vision or unique mission to use as a back story. Take, for example, Romano’s Macaroni Grill. First-generation Italian restaurateur Phil Romano recreated the Tuscany home of his childhood: the golden-hued stone and stucco inside and out, displays of fresh food, jugs of wine on the table, and strings of bare light bulbs like oversized Christmas decorations hanging from the ceiling. These distinctive touches remain in every Macaroni Grill to this day, designed to make every diner feel at home in the house Romano built. ∑

Developing and using a customer story. Porsche automobiles have a “back story” that begins on the racing circuits of Europe. Porsche showrooms “tell” the tale of that racing tradition through photos, décor and written materials. Salespeople enfold the customer even further into the magic of the Porsche fraternity by pointing out the ignition switch on the left side of the steering column—placed there so drivers in cold-start races, like the 24-hour Le Mans, can turn the ignition with their left hand while simultaneously shifting into gear with the right. That’s the kind of tidbit that makes Porsche lore personal to would-be purchasers. ∑

Dressing the “set” in concert with your story. Steinway and Sons of Long Island City, NY, makes the word’s finest grand pianos. The company’s showrooms match its history, story and mission: Floors of marble, chandeliers of crystal, chairs of teak; sales people impeccably dressed and chosen for their musical knowledge and understated manner. All evokes a subtle magic that expresses the Steinway commitment to quality and exactness. ∑

Dressing the cast to fit the story. This is straightforward in a theme park or an entertainment venue. Even in professional settings, doctors in white coats and nurses in scrubs, custom may dictate dress. Sometimes an actual or approximate uniform makes service magicians more recognizable to customers. At Home Depot, for example, employees wear bright orange aprons—“costumes” that make it easy for customers to spot them in the giant warehouses and reinforce their role as home-repair experts.

The Magic of Process Process Magic consists of the policies, procedures and routines that make transacting business with an organization easy, positive and memorable. USAA, Inc. is a San Antonio, TX-based organization that specializes in providing for the insurance and other financial needs of members of the U.S. armed forces. USAA routinely delivers Process Magic to customers. One example: USAA insurance members returning from the Gulf War were stunned to received prorated refund checks for their automobile premiums -- along with a note from USAA acknowledging that since they couldn’t have been driving their cars while in the Persian Gulf, they wouldn’t be charged for carrying insurance they didn’t use.

Most organizations take care that their processes meet rigid standards and stern rules. They know that customer confidence depends on service promises being kept with a high degree of precision and consistency. Still, service magicians imbue processes with a little magic by: ∑

Selecting a process that customers must endure and enriching it with a little magic. The Monaco Hotel in Chicago, for example, adds a touch of enchantment to the mundane process of checking in. Monaco’s desk clerk fills in the guest’s registration card, and verifies the stay and method of payment. Then the clerk announces that the establishment is a pet-friendly hotel and describes the complimentary companion goldfish program: “We will be delighted to deliver a companion gold fish to your room. At no charge. Your only responsibility would be to give your fish a name. Housekeeping will take care of everything else.” ∑

Adding a fitting alteration to the process. A customer would not expect the waiter to know his drink preference in an economy restaurant, but that personal touch fits perfectly in an upscale restaurant. ∑

Ensuring the alteration is not an isolated gesture. Employees at Baptist Health Group in Pensacola, FL, follow simple scripts to deliver uniform enhancements to customer experiences. For example, after tidying up a patient’s room, cleaning people are trained to ask a scripted question, “Is there anything else I can do? I have some time right now to help you.” Patients often ask room cleaners to close window shades or shut doors. The effect of this small bit of magic? Patients perceive the room cleaners as helpful and thoughtful, and place fewer non-medical calls to nursing stations.

The Magic of Performance

Performance Magic is a surprisingly positive interaction between customer and organizational personnel experienced during the acquisition and delivery of a service or product. It’s the charm and magic created by the hotel employee who, when asked for directions to the Eisenhower Ball Room unfailingly responds, “Sir, it would be my pleasure to guide you there.”

Service magicians create Performance Magic by: ∑

Practicing the subtle art of customer reading. They observe carefully and listen closely so that they can anticipate customer needs to an extent that appears magical. Michael Morse, owner of Café Un Deux Trois in Minneapolis, is a service magician who excels at this art. Just ask the customer Morse heard raving about the egg rolls at the Chinese restaurant across the street. The next time Morse saw that customer’s name in the reservation book, those egg rolls were served to him—gratis, of course. ∑

Creating rapport. They make customers comfortable by unobtrusively directing service encounters, and demonstrating empathy through physical and verbal symmetry. At Aurora Health Care in Milwaukee, for example, employees learn to establish rapport with patients by mirroring or matching patients’ verbal and nonverbal behavior to put them at ease. That means using similar body language and word choices—if a patient consistently uses visual words (“I don’t see what you mean.”), employees would use similar verbiage (“Let me see if I can clear this up for you.”). ∑

Connecting with the customer through conversation. Dialogue that uses effective opening lines, authentic responses and graceful closings sets a warm tone and feel for the encounter. Customers who call MidAmerican Energy’s Davenport, IA, call center don’t get name-rank-phone number grilling. Instead, the utility’s customer service associates listen, making sure they understand the problem before they jump into solving it. They conclude every customer conversation with the question, “Is there anything more I can help you with?”— a line that begins closure and prompts customers to remember any other concern they may have forgotten.

True Believers

Stage magicians perform their feats so convincingly that they, too, believe in magic. “You must believe you are a real magician, not just a huckster with a fast hand,” as one magician put it.

When service magicians and customers share a delightful service moment, one delivered with skill and charm and received with pleasure and just a bit of awe, the interaction is just as magical as the on-stage variety. Service magicians who combine technical know-how with the magical properties of place, process and performance can turn the mundane into magic -- and succeed in making a believer out of the most skeptical of customers.

Category: Customer Care
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