How to “Serve in the Dark” Like a Partner

How do you create a partner-like relationship with customers whose face you never see?  There have always been a host of service providers whose only service signature was the quality of the work they left for the customer--the hotel housekeeper, the auto repair person on the other side of the "customers not allowed beyond this point" sign and the night nurse who checks your medical stats after major surgery when you are too drugged to communicate.  But what do self-service providers do to create a solid interpersonal relationship with customers?

The route to creating a positive service relationship with customers requiring service without direct contact is to simulate the quality of a partnership.  As with service in general, the effective management of service details can turn an "at arm's length" encounter into a responsive, kinship experience.  It means first making the relationship matter and then seeking subtle, but powerful actions designed to communicate care, trust and authenticity.

On a three-week driving vacation, a couple stopped at a coin-operated laundry in Montana.  It was very early in the morning.  The place was spotless.  Inside and out.  And, empty.

Surveying the setting, the couple could not miss the pot of hot coffee and vase of fresh flowers on a small wooden table next to the change machine.  Two pictures of the owners and their kids were in the center of the bulletin board along with a 24/7 phone number “if we can help.”  Other customers had accepted the obvious invitation to add pictures of their family.  On the wall was a colorful welcome sign with a “don’t forget we have free wi-fi” line included.  The newspaper rack had an unexpected surprise--a left-behind Wall Street Journal.  And, it was that day’s paper edition!  The couple felt as welcome as the previous customers whose photos were on the bulletin board.

Sights, Signals and Symbols

The coin operated laundry was more than a functional transaction.  It was a cavalcade of communications designed to send a clear set of messages--you matter, you are not alone, and you are welcome.  All sense of separatism had been removed from the experience.

Look at the all the sensory signals and symbols.  Do signs or website banners sound like warm instructions to valuable partners or like tough laws for greedy criminals?  Like the library that changed “overdue fines” to “extended use fees,” the tone can communicate a lot to your customers.  “Don’t leave trash on the floor” can be altered to read “Thank you for helping us keep your Laundromat as clean as you want your clothes to be.”  “Our washers are allergic to liquid Clorox” has a completely different feel than a “Thou shalt not…”

Find a way to leave behind personalized communication to frequent customers.  Chip orders his dress pants from M.L. Leddy’s, an upscale western wear store in the historic Stockyard’s section of Fort Worth.  John Ripps is the sales rep he e-mails but never sees.  Chip’s pants measurements are on file; he simply requests cloth swatches, selects one or two and places his order with John.  Two days after any purchase Chip gets a handwritten personal thank you note.  When the tailored pants are made, he gets a heads-up e-mail (or phone call) from John typically sounding like: “Partner, your pants are being shipped to you today and they are truly gorgeous!”

Always Provide a Back Door

Customers enjoy the convenience of print-at-home tickets, online shopping, online reservations, etc.  They like automation if it works, was crafted with them in mind and makes their service experience easy.  They prefer fast, simple and their way.  Channel means a medium of transmission.  And, if the transmission feels one-way to the customer, they feel as alone as the vending machine user in a remote location.

Customers also want to be able to quickly and easily connect with a human being to bring fast resolution to any problem that arises.  a look at some of the great web-based companies we have already describe--they practically scream, “we would love to talk with you if you need us!”  means creating an experience that there is a guardian of the transaction always watching over the encounter, eager and able to help if there is a hint of consternation by the customer.

The best websites are easily tailorable by customers with obvious access to “somebody back there” via numerous channels--“call us, web chat with us, e-mail us, pony express us.”  The message should be “we are here for you and enjoy communicating.”  Insure all customer-contact people have easy access to customer information.  At USAA every phone rep has instant access to all customer files, including the customer letter that arrived this morning.

Trust Your Customers

Bob Frandsen of Homestyle Laundries says, “One thing that I do to keep customers loyal is that I always send out the customers their refund money if they have filled out a refund slip.  Even if they only put down that they lost 25 cents, I spend 39 cents in postage to send them their refund.”  Trust your customers and they will trust you back.

We are both fans of Dell Computer.  Should your newest laptop computer have a gremlin inside, Dell will send the replacement computer along with a box to return the sick computer…not the other way around!  They trust their self-service customers, even with a pricey laptop.

Airport concession stores sometimes put the morning newspaper purchase on the honor system.  Instead of standing in line just buy a USA Today, customers pick up a copy as they put a dollar through the slot in the money container above the papers.  When store operators are asked about the end-of-the-day shrinkage, they will tell you that, while they may lose a paper are two, it is more often due to customers’ accidently picking up two copies instead of one.  The trust practice benefits the in-a-hurry customer trying to catch a flight.  And, it helps the store to manage efficient traffic flow with customers buying either more items or items less common than a newspaper.

John is crazy about his Kindle.  He will tell you that he reads more now than ever! has made choosing books an amazingly easy and user-friendly process.  Yes, as everyone knows their website recommends new books for him to read and he can see what those who have already read the book have to say about it.  What he likes the most is the ability to download a book “appetizer” and, if he enjoys the appetizer, point and click from his Kindle to have the entire book downloaded in seconds.  It seems magical and very personal!

"Serving in the dark" does not have to be silent service, stoically given without customer rapport.  The superior service provider finds ways to build a partnership with self-service customers even if that relationship must be more like a dedicated pen pal than a friendly neighbor.  As customers require service delivered more quickly, more independently and with greater convenience, "serving in the dark" will become, to paraphrase the ad line, "the next best substitute to actually being there."

© Chip Bell Group, 2023.  Courtesy of John R. Patterson (  Permission is given to download and distribute this article as long as it contains this copyright notice.