Feb 13

Delight the customer

At an annual Microsoft company meeting early in my Microsoft career (likely around 1999), Steve Ballmer interrupted the lively flow of the event to read a few letters that had been sent to him from executives around the world. As I recall, Microsoft technology was not working perfectly for these customers, and they weren’t happy. After he read the letters, Steve broke into a speech about “delighting the customer” – a mantra he adopted for some time, and I continue to use to this day. Unfortunately, while that credo ran for a few years, I distinctly remember not hearing it for the last several years of my career at Microsoft before I left in 2004. Instead, the saying I remember hearing more was about shareholder value. Perhaps I over-remember the negative aspects, but that’s what sticks in my head.

My father helped me land my first job as a teenager. I worked at a Taco Bell in Montana that was privately owned. While many corporate-owned and franchised stores had a very forgiving policy on taco sauce packets (the customer always being right and all) and offered free refills, we included only two packets of hot sauce unless you paid for more, and had the soda fountain behind the counter – refills weren’t full-price, but they weren’t free either. The owner was steadfast about these policies, and became quite irate if you violated them – even when a customer became upset at these policies that differed wildly from any other Taco Bell they had ever been to. I hated it, and so did my peers, and our customers.

As I’ve mentioned before, my first job after college was selling VW’s and Subarus. The dealership I worked at was notoriously stingy, and they would “roll you” as the terminology for selling you a car goes, without floor mats (even the ones that had come in the car from the manufacturer) or a full tank of gas – unless the customer specifically asked for them. Customers would inevitably leave the dealership pissed, and possibly in a position where they wouldn’t be likely to return to us in the future for sales or service. Inevitably, I decided to play a few games with the sales process, and began telling customers, “You’re going to want to ask me about floor mats and a full tank of gas.” Inevitably, they’d reply back, “What about floor mats and a full tank of gas?” – and I’d say, “Great! We’ll make sure you’ve got floor mats and a full tank of gas.” It didn’t come out of my pocket in the sale, and frankly, I felt it wasn’t the dealership’s money to keep. More important to me, I even understood then that sales is all about making your customer feel great about their purchase – not making your customer feel like they just got shafted. Customers don’t tell friends, “Hey, I got shafted at that dealership on floor mats and gas. You should buy your car there.” No. They don’t do that.

For the past year or so, my VW GTI has had a slow leak in a tire on the driver’s side. Whenever the temperature dropped, I knew that the tire pressure management system (TPMS) would kick in and tell me that the tire had finally dropped enough pressure to be a problem. For the last 3 days beginning on Friday, this has gotten progressively worse, and I’ve had to inflate the tire every day (yes, I’m getting it fixed tomorrow).

On my way to work, in the northern end of Kirkland, there’s a 76 gas station that offers incredible service. Most importantly for me, they offer free air and water for your car if you need it – no purchase necessary.

This last Saturday morning, I had to stop by my office in Kirkland to pick up a coat that I had left there before my eldest daughter and I went skiing. As we left, I realized I needed to inflate the tire before I left town. I looked in my wallet, knowing I would have to pay $1.00 at the nearby Shell station to fill up the tire. Only three quarters, and $3 in single bills. Digging deeper, I found two dimes and a nickel. I headed over to the Shell station where I would blow $1 on 20 lbs of pressure for one tire – for the day.

I pulled the car up, and – since the machine only took quarters, headed in to the station for a quarter. The attendant was talking quite loudly on the phone, and even though he saw me, continued rambling on his (personal) call while I waited at the counter… for a quarter. After a minute or so, he asked, “What do you need?” in a terse tone. I said, “Need to swap this change for a quarter for the air machine.” He huffed at me, got up, opened the till and swapped my change do a quarter. I left, filled up the tire, got in the car, and told my daughter, “I’m never stopping here again for air – or gas.

I don’t have a problem with someone charging me for air or water. It’s their business. But then don’t be an a-hole when the extent of my transaction with you for the day is that purchase of air. The 76 station in Kirkland gives away air and water. Not because buying that equipment or running those services is free. No, it’s a loss leader. You give those away and when a customer needs gas, they’ll keep you front of mind. Delight your customer. Tonight, as I drove home, I had to fill up my tire again before I can take it in for service in the morning. I stopped and filled up my gas tank while I was there as thanks to them.

When you nickel and dime your customers, you make their lives more complex, you can frustrate them, and make them angry and vengeful. They don’t forget that. When you treat your customers with respect – and go out of your way to help them – they also don’t forget that. Delight your customers.