E = mc2

For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction.

Yesterday I wrote about an outstanding customer service experience at my car dealership; today I’m going to address its alter ego. Sadly, I recently had a hotel experience that was as bad as my car experience was good.

In a nutshell, I arrived late at night at a hotel where I had a reservation. In fact, not only did I have a confirmation number, but upon making the reservation, I had also coughed up a one-night deposit toward my stay. Check-in should have been nothing more than a perfunctory swipe-the-credit-card-hand-over-the-room-key process.

Alas, it was not to be.

As soon as I gave the night clerk my name, she told me that the hotel no longer had a room for me. They had, as she brusquely told me more than once, “a head in every bed.” After a few minutes of flabbergasted and indignant conversation, I had no choice but to move to the alternate hotel where she had placed me for the night. Note that even though said hotel was a 20-minute drive and I did not have a rental car, the clerk did not even offer transportation.

After my night in exile, the hotel manager called me to make amends. She offered an apology and to pay for my entire stay. She said all the right things and even offered to send the hotel shuttle to pick me up when I was ready to check in to my original room.

She worked hard to make sure I knew she was serious about making things right. When I arrived at the front desk for round 2, the clerk was prepared for me. She called me by name and set about making me feel comfortable. I ended up with an upgraded room, free internet access, a fruit and cheese tray, and lots of apologetic smiles. I hadn’t asked for any of it, but I appreciated the effort to make up for the hotel’s mistake and considered the bad situation rectified.

Until the bill came on the day I was set to check out.

The room that was supposed to have been comped was now charged to my credit card. That wasn’t what the manager had promised, so I sent an email to follow up with her once I was back in the office. She politely but firmly told me that I was mistaken, that she had never agreed to comp my room.

I know I wasn’t mistaken. I never asked for a free room, but she offered it. I even repeated it back to her when she originally called me to make amends. In fact, she had even made a point to tell me that I would get my HHonors points, even though I didn’t have to pay. I didn’t make this up.

Throughout the trip, I had planned to blog about the situation as an example of a bad experience turned good in a customer service win. Instead, by not making good on her promise AND telling me (her customer) that I was wrong, the manager unraveled all the good work she had done.

The sad thing is, I doubt she has any idea.

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Service with a smile

I may be the only person in the world who enjoys taking her car in for service. In addition to regular oil changes and tire rotation, I do everything the guys at my dealership tell me to do: air filters, power steering flushes, brake pads, you name it. They follow the manufacturer’s recommendations, and I follow them.

It’s working for me. At 130,000 miles, all of which are mine, I haven’t had a single major issue with my car. At this point, I’m pretty sure that when I decide to replace it, it will be because I’ve gotten tired of it–not because it wore out.

Reliable car aside, the real reason I love my service guys is that I trust them. They not only tell me what they’re going to do and then keep their promises, but they also go out of their way to treat me (and my car, of course) right. Whenever they recommend a service item, they make sure to find a coupon to accompany it. When there are rebates offered, they make copies of the receipt and staple them to the necessary forms before they even tell me about them; all I have to do is mail them. They provide a comfortable waiting room with that includes a business center, a playroom to corral exuberant children, and free WiFi. Coffee, donuts, and pastries are free, too. These guys understand that building a relationship is the key to retaining customers.

By the way, I don’t have a luxury car. I have a mid-level Toyota.

Think small

Walking through Madison, Wisconsin, hungry and hot, I stopped in my tracks when I came across what looked like a giant bird house next to the sidewalk. Through its glass door, I saw that it contained a small collection of books. Intrigued, I moved in for a closer look.

The sign on the box said Little Free Library. It offered a simple, grassroots vehicle for sharing books. Borrow one, add one, whatever. What most warmed my bookworm heart, however, was the placard which read, “This Little Free Library is a gift from friends who wanted to PAY IT FORWARD. They hope you will do the same!” Books AND an anonymous good deed? Wow!

I visited the website, littlefreelibrary.org, to learn more about this effort. There’s no big explanation, no grandiose vision for the world–just stories of individuals and libraries, punctuated by how-to tips. It really is just a grassroots effort to pay it forward. There’s even a locator to find all the spots where people have placed Little Free Libraries (more than 3000 around the US!).

You may wonder why people would do this when most cities have their own public libraries. I can think of lots of reasons. It brings people together. It creates a sense of community and a way to give back. It accommodates travelers like me who don’t have credentials at every local library around the country. People can access these whenever they want. They can grab a book to occupy a busy toddler before entering a restaurant or borrow one to pass the time in a park. People can share books they love with others or explore a text they might not otherwise have discovered. Shall I go on?

In any case, I think this is a wonderful idea. Not only does it appeal to my aforementioned bookworm heart, but it also shows that it doesn’t take a grand-scale effort to make a positive contribution to a community. Even if books aren’t your thing, I challenge you to use this example to consider ways you can pay it forward. Like the Little Free Library, sometimes thinking small might be the way to get there.

Flying high

In less than two weeks, I will ride my bike a grueling, but beautiful, 190 miles to benefit cancer research. (See my note HERE if you want to learn more.) The price of entry is a fundraising commitment that seems impossible: $4300, and I treasure every gift, whether large or small.

Many, many people support me with donations and encouragement, but no one believes in me more completely than my daughter. In 2010, she begged me to let her set up a lemonade stand so she could have some spending money. At the end of the day, with a sly grin she proudly handed me the entire proceeds, $13.25, for my PMC ride. That had been her plan all along.

Last year, she gave me the only $5 she had in her possession, with a note that said, “Just do it, Mommy!” and she followed up this year with a flurry of organization. In May, she began prodding me to get on the bike, get my fundraising letters out, and get on with it. If it weren’t for her, I’d probably still be procrastinating.

Little did I know, her organization didn’t stop with getting me in line. For months, she has quietly squirreled away every coin, bill, and birthday check that has come into her possession. Yesterday, she presented me with $47.64 that helped push me over the threshold of my fundraising commitment. Stunned at her forethought and planning–not to mention the generosity of giving me everything she had–I had no words beyond, “Are you sure?”

Some part of me feels guilty for taking money from a child, but a bigger part realizes that this is her way to shine. She has long-since thought this through. This is her gift to me and to the cause, and she has worked hard to pull it together. To refuse it would not only be an insult to her efforts, but it would also constrict the very thing I should be nurturing: her generous heart.

As a parent, I struggle daily with knowing when to direct, when to guide, when to suggest, and when to back away. I want my kids not only to do the right thing, but also to identify it and choose it for themselves. That means I can’t always tell them what to do; I have to let them make their own choices. It’s hard, because I think of all the ways they could fall down. What I often forget, however, is how much higher they’ll soar if I remove my tether. Today, my daughter is soaring higher than I ever will.

Blackout

Any of you with a professional football team in your hometown likely noticed that the NFL recently made a change to its broadcast rules. For the past 39 years, the NFL had required local broadcast affiliates to black out home games when they were not 100% sold out 72 hours before kickoff. The league used this policy to “encourage” fans to see game in person rather than resorting to watching in the comfort of their own living rooms.

Whether the NFL finally found a heart or it realized that it risked losing fans (i.e. revenue) in these uncertain economic times, the league relaxed the 100% requirement to 85%. A smart move, in my opinion, for a variety of reasons that you can feel free to discuss with me offline if you’re so inclined.

Unfortunately, even as local fans started jumping for joy, several teams announced that they would stick to the old rule–100% sell-out, or no TV broadcast. Fans of the San Diego Chargers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Buffalo Bills, and my beloved Indianapolis Colts immediately transformed their joy jumping into hopping mad. Even though I plan to watch every home game from my season ticket seat, I’m mad, too.

Besides getting my dander up at this strongarm tactic to sell season tickets (the Colts are about 2000 season tickets short of sold out, and owner Jim Irsay notes this in his letter to fans explaining why he’s sticking to the 100% rule), this policy is just bad business practice. Teams [you can substitute businesses here–it applies equally] should be making people fall in love with them. To do that, they have to be accessible to their fan [customer] base. The more chances those fans have to see and interact with the players and teams, the harder it is to ignore them. If people never have a chance to see a game, whether in person or on TV, how can anyone expect them to become fans?

Give fans a chance to get to know the players. Show them personalities, playing style, rockin’ touchdown dances. Give them opportunities to rally behind the team. Build a community that brings people in, not one that keeps people out.

I have a million other arguments on this subject, but none is as vehement as this one. It’s the people who love you who buy jerseys, posters, stickers, license plates, and yes, tickets. You can’t fall in love with someone you’ve never met.

P.S. You can read Irsay’s letter by clicking the image above.

Flat out

During the summer, I do a lot of long training rides on my bike to get ready for the PMC. Considering that I’m usually on desolate country roads for hours on end, I find it fairly surprising that I haven’t encountered much adversity. No flat tires, no pop-up rain storms, no close brushes with death.

Until last weekend, that is.

Giddy after picking up my freshly tuned-up bike from my local bike shop, I set out on a 45-mile ride. Less than two miles into it, I heard a hissing whoosh of air that could only mean one thing: I had a flat.

Frustrated and indignant, I did what any capable, middle-aged woman would do. I called my dad. I figured that my plans were shot and that he could pick me up and take me home.

While I waited, however, it occurred to me that I had a tire-changing kit in my saddle bag. I had never changed a tire, but I flipped my bike onto its seat anyway. I grabbed the new tube and the tools and tentatively set about making the swap.

Having only a vague idea as to what to do, I was thankful to find instructions on the tube box (instructions!). Although somewhat more difficult than the box led me to believe, my inexperienced hands had the new tube in place and the tire almost completely reinstalled by the time my dad pulled up in his truck. Under his watchful eye, I finished the job and put the wheel back on my bike. Giddy with accomplishment, I decided to continue my ride.

Alas, the adversity continued. Though the tires rode well, the black cloud over my head turned out to be more than figurative. Just before the halfway point where I was meeting some friends, the skies opened and drenched me, thundering menacingly all the while. I made it to our meeting place, waited it out, and eventually rode home on wet, steamy roads.

Bummer of a day? Nope.

Even though I certainly didn’t wish for it, I faced down two of my biggest bicycling fears that day. First, I’ve always been petrified of “flatting” when I’m out by myself. What would I do? Well, it finally happened, and I was forced to deal with it. In that exercise, I now know that I CAN. The idea of flatting no longer seems so daunting. I rode, I flatted, I conquered.

Second, the idea of riding in the rain with smooth, skinny road tires has always left me shivering with dread. Besides the gritty, oily goo that sprays my legs from the tire, the pavement just plain gets slippery. In fact, the painted road markings might as well be a biker’s version of a Slip ‘N Slide. With no other options on Saturday, I had to face down that fear, too. I rode in the rain and I survived.

I wouldn’t have chosen to flat my tire or to ride in the rain. Given the choice, I would have avoided both at all costs. Fate had other ideas, though. I couldn’t cut and run; I had to face down my fears, and I DID IT. I felt like the master of my universe.

Flat tire + thunderstorm = one great day. Who knew?

You’re important

Yesterday I dropped off 42 pieces of clothing at my dry cleaner. That’s right, 42. The fact that I have anything at all left to wear astonishes me, and I’ll probably have to take out a loan just to pick up all that stuff. Ouch.

In any case, I don’t usually do that. My normal routine entails dropping off about 10 pieces or so every few weeks–not enough to get me noticed. That, coupled with the fact that I clearly hadn’t been there in a while, made me all the more surprised when the lady at the counter called me by name as I walked through the door. She even proceeded to tell me that she and The Boss had very recently discussed my absence and that I was on her call list. (This was substantiated by the $20 credit that The Boss had placed on my account.) They frequently discussed their top customers, she said, and wanted to be sure they remained satisfied. She missed me.

This entire conversation took place before she looked me up in the computer. I’m pretty sure it was the real deal.

I left what I thought would be nothing more than a drop-and-run feeling unexpectedly buoyant. I was on someone’s top customer list. I–as an individual, not a faceless customer–was important to someone’s business. I was worthy of tactical discussion with The Boss. Maybe it’s ridiculous, but that short encounter made me feel important for a few minutes afterward.

As I ponder my dry cleaning event, I come away with two important insights. First, businesses should be having conversations ABOUT their customers regularly. They should be asking questions like Who are our best customers? What are their names? Why do they choose our products/services over others? What can we do to make/keep them happy? How can we connect with them?

Second, businesses should also be having conversations WITH their customers. They should tell them what they think of them. Get personal. Call them by name. Acknowledge their importance. Tell them they matter.

This second insight gets put into practice a lot less than the first, I suspect. Maybe more companies than I think are having the internal conversations, but I’m pretty certain that they aren’t extending those to the people who matter. It’s such a simple step, but it’s one that is all too often forgotten.

People like to feel important. Telling them that they are will go a long way toward building lasting relationships.