“… We must cut out all that is different, like a cancerous growth! It is essential that in this society, that we not only HAVE a norm, but that we CONFORM to that norm! Differences weaken us! Variations destroy us! An incredible permissiveness to deviation from this norm is what has ended nations and brought them to their knees. Conformity we must worship and hold sacred! Conformity is the KEY to SURVIVAL!” -The Leader, The Twilight Zone: Eye of  the Beholder

There I was, walking into my favorite Starbucks shop on Vista Way. The sun was out for a change, the wind had died down, and my mind was wandering over the 7 different things I needed to get done. As I walked in, there were a few people in the shop sitting at the various tables, but no one was standing in line. That’s when I noticed Sarah standing behind the counter sliding a large (venti) coffee forward.

When I got to the counter, I looked at the coffee, looked at her and said, “This isn’t for me, is it?”

“Yes it is.” She replied with a smile. “I saw you coming across the parking lot.”

Not a big event, but it did stand out in my mind.

Can we call this customer service?


And it was a very different, and unique experience.

Conformist Thinking Produces Formulaic Customer Service

Over a year ago, Time-Warner Cable took over the assets of Adelphia. After the acquisition, they launched an ad campaign that focused on changing the customer base’s perceptions of their service. I’m making an educated guess here, but in my opinion, the message they were intending to deliver was that there was a new sheriff in town and they were going to put the ”customer” back in “customer service”.

The television ad that got the lion share of the airtime, however, sent another message. Again, this is only my opinion based on my observations.

This particular ad had one of their women customer service reps going through her regular, everyday routine. In all of her encounters with other people, however, she asked questions that did not fit the situation. I do not know about you, but when I am in the grocery checkout lane, I don’t say to the cashier, “How may I help you?” When I answer the door to greet a smiling Girl Scout selling her cookies, I don’t say, “I’ll need to verify your account. What is your mother’s maiden name?”

So, what’s the message I got out of all of this?

“Our people are inflexible and incapable of independent thought. They do everything we tell them to do and we do everything by the book. We can’t do anything outside of normal established procedure and you, dear customer, are all the same to us.”

In short, “We have a procedure to follow – and you *will* conform to it.”

Customer Service Involves Managing Processes and Leading People

As I think back on these events, my thoughts turn to something I read in Tom Peter’s book, Re-Imagine.

According to Peters’:

“The quality of everything is terrific. Things that work are not usual. Things that don’t work are unusual. We are afloat, awash, adrift in a sea of sameness. High quality sameness, but sameness none-the-less. …”

He goes on to say:

“The surplus society has a surplus of similar companies employing similar people with similar educational backgrounds, coming up with similar ideas producing similar things with similar prices and similar quality. I call all this the 10x 10 phenomenon. 10 times better, 10 times less different.”

And finally:

“… to succeed we must stop being so normal. In a winner-take-all world, normal equals nothing.”

The point being is there are plenty of corporate people out there chasing after common definitions established by the experts. They typically define customer service as “service with a smile”, “the customer is always right”, “saying please and thank you”, and “making the customer feel welcome”.

Now, don’t get me wrong. These are desirable qualities and activities.  But everybody does them. They aren’t the epitome of excellence anymore. These are now the price of admission into the game – if you want to play, these are the most basic requirement. But they do nothing to make you memorable or stand apart from the crowd.

Customer Service That Stands Out in a Sea of Sameness

Here is what I found remarkable about the Starbucks stores. Their partners didn’t use the standardized customer support book that most other organizations used.  They rewrote the rules. They took risks.  And they focused on making their customers feel special.

In all the stores I’ve visited across this country, I found similar attitudes in all the crews. In Willoughby, a partner once said, “We haven’t seen you in a month. I’m glad your back.”  In Valley View, a partner went out of her way to find me a discontinued venti travel cup because I wanted to go green.. And in Long Beach, California, the partners noticed me working in their store regularly, so they took the time to learn my name and something about me.

In every case, the various crews took time to know their regular customers. And they used that knowledge to provide those customers with outstanding, individualized, personalized service. They made their customers feel important.

Remember, people want to be recognized as individuals. They want to feel appreciated. And they want to feel like they matter.

In his book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie’s 9th principle states that we should, “Make the other person feel important—and do it sincerely.” He didn’t write, “Make other people feel important”, nor did he write, “Make everybody feel important”. He wrote, “Make the other person feel important”. This principle is very specific in its application. That’s the secret sauce that allows you to make the biggest impact on your customers.

So, take some time to know your clients. Don’t conform to the typical customer service attitude, but try to appreciate their uniqueness. And by providing them with individualized, personalized service, you will succeed in making them feel important.