Serving When Customer
Pain Must Be Involved

Castor oil:  “A foul tasting oil used in the 1950s to cure whatever ailment a kid claimed he had that would keep him from having to get on the early-morning school bus.”

Chip’s mother believed castor oil was a miracle cure.  From a stomachache to sore legs to ringing ears, a spoon full of castor oil was the all-purpose answer to almost any malady.  But, she added a small twist.  Before she directed Chip “Open your mouth” she would ask “What is the best-tasting thing you have ever eaten?”  For Chip it was wild blueberries.  “Now, think about that great taste.”  Thinking about it never really turned the castor oil into blueberries, but it surely made it go down easier.

All customers face occasional foul-tasting aspects of getting service.  Doctors have emergencies that leave you stranded forever in the reception area; airlines have cancelled flights; hotels have room keys that occasionally don’t work; and popular restaurants have longer-than-normal waits at peak times.  Smart service providers find ways to turn castor oil into champagne by helping their customers to “think about blueberries.” 

Find a Way to Bring a Sense of Joy

When we exited the Hertz courtesy van at the Hartford airport, the below-freezing winter wind bit hard.  But, the Hertz attendant had a warm smile and an eager-to-help attitude.  “This is way too cold!” one of us commented.  She almost giggled. “Now, you guys know, in Hartford we do weather as entertainment!”  Ten miles down the road we were still laughing at her unexpected “wild blueberries” comment.  What can you do to make service maladies seem more palatable to your customers?

Sometimes humor can send a message that “we don’t take this seriously.” Perish the thought!  However, if there is a way to bring comic relief to an otherwise anxious moment, it can allay the pain and leave customers confident that they have a trusted partner at the helm. A Southwest Airlines plane made an especially hard landing in a cross wind as it came into the Harlingen, Texas airport.  As the jet raced down the runway passengers overheard the pilot over the intercom saying, “Whoa, big fellow, whoa!”  His comical retort, as if he had accidently let passengers eavesdrop on cockpit chatter, caused every passenger on the plane to laugh.  It completely erased the memory of the harder-than-normal landing.

Let Customers “Count Cows”

Counting Cows was a backseat game that parents used years ago to quell the endless “Are we there yet?” queries from their children.  The rules were simple:  each person took one side of the car when the journey began.  One point was given for every cow you saw on your side; five points for every horse, and if a graveyard appeared on your side, you lost all your points and had to start over again.  Active participation in a simple, competitive game made the car trip seem much shorter.

Today’s customers have a strong need for speed.  They’ve seen faxes give way to emails, which gave way to text messages from anywhere at any time.  Netflix and FedEx taught us you could get it next day; went even further:  an order for new shoes placed online in the evening would arrive at our doorstep the next morning. Customers are as impatient and restless as youngsters on a long car trip.

But, there is a way to quell their annoyance with slow service.  Let your customers “count cows”!   Look for ways to help them put up with a delay.  Just as Disney World entertains guests who are waiting in line to board that special ride, entertain your customers in an engaging yet appropriate way.  Is there a way you can make getting service seem faster by turning the wait into a compelling game?  How about a clever contest? A social gathering?  How can you manage the customer’s perception of service speed as you work to improve its reality?

Use Future Perfect Thinking

Think ahead and anticipate what might happen.  This way you can proactively prepare the customer (or yourself!).  A Northwest Airlines pilot took service matters into his own hands when trying to get a group of delayed customers from Minneapolis to Orlando on time. Because a mechanical wing problem had forced the already-late business travelers to get off one plane and trot across the terminal to board another, this pilot knew he was facing an angry, frustrated bunch of passengers. The new plane was only partly stocked and the pilot knew it would take another thirty minutes to finish loading the food and supplies.

So he made an executive decision: he stopped the loading of dinner and readied the plane for takeoff.  Then, as they were taxiing down the runway, he told the passengers about his decision, saying he figured they’d rather get to their destination on time than have airplane food on the way. To make it up to them, he gave every passenger three free drink coupons to be used on the plane or anywhere in the Orlando airport. The flight arrived within twenty minutes of their scheduled arrival time.  Not a single passenger complained about the lack of dinner inflight.

Be Totally Honest

Michael Graze had been looking forward to his birthday party.  He and his mom had planned it out in great detail, inviting many of his school pals.  So when the six-year old’s Power Rangers birthday cake from the local H-E-B grocery store arrived with Michael spelled “M-I-C-H-E-L-E” he was distraught.  The great centerpiece of the party had turned to an object of derision through a spelling error!  He swore he could never show his face in school again.

When H-E-B’er Julie McCoy heard of Michael’s distress from his mother, she didn’t hesitate.  First, she was completely honest and took full accountability for the error.  Knowing that apologies and refunds would be small solace for a little boy’s crushed spirit, she arranged for a new cake and a new party – this one at a local children’s amusement park, with Michael as host and H-E-B footing the bill. 

Finally, Show Off Your Best Generosity

Special touches in times of worry make the Marriott Rivercenter in San Antonio a hotel that customers love. A business traveler was awaiting the arrival of her husband and son for a weekend getaway after a long business conference. The two were delayed by severe weather in Dallas, which she happened to mention to a hotel staffer. To her surprise, the frontline staffer had milk and cookies sent to her room as soon as the two weary travelers finally arrived at 10 p.m. “That simple, unexpected, gesture of milk and cookies was a welcome surprise,” she says. “It turned a very worrisome evening into a very pleasant memory.”

All customer service has its “not so fun” parts.  Great service comes from thinking about the customer experience through the lens of partnership.  Stand in your customers’ shoes and consider what would soothe anxious feelings.  Be a strong steward of your customer’s emotional bank account by depositing resourcefulness, patience, and generosity.

© 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.