Leading Sprinkles People

A guest post from Chip Bell, author of Sprinkles.

I must admit it. I’m a sucker for valentines. I smile when I get one from a friend or loved one. But, I swoon when one comes unexpectedly from a total unlikely source. It always reminds me of getting a valentine in the fifth grade from the cute redhead on the back row. I did not know she knew I even existed. When I opened it and turned to look at her, she winked and smiled. I melted on the spot!! But, I am getting way ahead of myself.

Creating a Customer-Focused Culture

I had a mid-afternoon keynote in Alexandria, VA and strolled down the street from my hotel to find lunch at a local restaurant. The place where I settled was quiet, comfortable and with an interesting menu. But, mostly I noticed the upbeat attitude of everyone in the place.

I had finished my lunch and the waitress brought me my check…and, a valentine signed, “Susan.” When I opened it and turned to look at her, she winked and smiled.

The consultant inside me demanded I learn a bit more about the restaurant manager whose leadership no doubt contributed to her ingenuity and warmth. Now, I fully realize folks can be creative and friendly without the permission of some boss. I also know leaders can contribute to the capacity and commitment of frontline employees to deliver innovative service, not just good service. Good service is like a tasty cupcake; innovative service is like a great cupcake with sprinkles! Susan added sprinkles.

I cornered the manager-owner, Jim and asked if I could buy him a cup of coffee for ten minutes of his time. “Sure,” he said, “the place is in good hands with all my people.” I told him about the valentine and smile (the wink I considered just between Susan and me).

“That Susan is always coming up with whimsical ways to surprise our guests,” he told me. I was not chalking it up to just her personality. “What do you do to support your employees in helping them deliver surprising service?”

“First,” he said as he began his leadership lessons, “I don’t think of them as employees but as fellow-owners, partners you might say. That means the respect and consideration you would give a friend, especially a friend you depend on like I depend on them. People come here because we have great food. But, we want them to tell their friends. And, it is things like your Sandy valentine that makes them tell other people. They need the freedom to try silly things. One of our employees brought in leftover gourmet desserts from a family reunion so our guests would have a free dessert for a day.”

“Do you worry about them giving away the shop?” I probed. “For instance, it they got free desserts there would be no need to buy the dessert on your menu.” He smiled. “They make smart decisions when they are intimately familiar with our P&L. Everyone here knows what comes in, what goes out, and what everything costs. Remember, they are like owners. And, if we have a nice profit, they get free ballgame tickets or a case of wine or a night with their family in a nearby hotel. But, mainly, they get a kick out of watching people like you smile when something like a valentine comes with your check. That is the kind of people we try to hire.”

Leadership is about instilling pride, inspiring greatness, and supporting innovation. As I was getting up to leave, he offered one last lesson: “Take great care of your partners, they will take care of your guests, and your guests will take care of your growth and profits! And, the coffee is on me!”

Zappos, Leaders, and Cracker Jacks

Zappos has so many folks looking to benchmark their magic, that they offer a menu of ways to learn their playbook. Teaching culture has become a revenue stream. While the rest of us carefully guard our best practices, they offer you shot of Grey Goose, and welcome you to play along. Why?

My theory– they know we don’t have the guts to pull it off.

They’ve seen thousands of mesmerized execs return home to create more rules and standards that absolutely ensure a culture like that will never exist.

Cracker Jack Service

Chip Bell’s latest book, The 9 1/2 Principles of Innovative Service offers easy suggestions to creating great customer service cultures. No Grey Goose required. He advocates for “Cracker Jack” service, differentiating experience through surprise.
It was not the colorful box of caramelized popcorn that enamored consumers; it was the free toy inside. While financially worthless it was emotionally priceless. And, it is a reminder of the clout of simplicity.
His advice is extremely simple. Build cultures of empathy, delight and surprise. But most of the LGL community in not in the C-Suite, making the big rules. You can’t build a Zappos from the bottom up. So, how do frontline and middle management leaders encourage creative, zappos-like magic within their existing cultures? I called Chip.

He shared,
“Customer service organizations rely on command and control when they hold a belief that the frontline is not capable of handling such responsibility. The downward spiral begins when the capable people react to that kind of treatment, by doing exactly what you’ve told them to do. Frontline leaders can structure the work so the reps find joy in the experience.
He offered this simple suggestion.

Ask reps to consider, “what’s something I could say to this customer today that would really surprise them?”

I’m off to try that.

I appreciate the conversation with Chip in the writing of this post. Chip is the author of 20 books, including Wired and Dangerous (co-authored with John Patterson) and Take Their Breath Away (also with John Patterson). He is a senior partner with the Chip Bell Group and serves as a consultant, trainer, or speaker to major organizations. Find his new book on simpletruths.com.

*Excerpt from INC: Ten Steps to Zappos Success