Some time ago, I read an interesting and useful article by Erika Andersen about the very bad things that happen when companies are too nice. In the article, Andersen describes eight things that happen in an organization when people are “polite at any cost.” These include lack of employee feedback and bad ideas being implemented because no one questions them.
She used the phrase “terminal niceness,” which she quoted from a report by Halley Bock. Andersen's emphasis was on what happens within an organization. I see other problems arising from this practice that relate to the impact on customers.
For the last few years, businesses have appropriately focused on customer service. Managers make sure employees are cheery and cordial. They train for the very important people skills that bring customers back to their businesses. However, I find that this practice is not always aligned with the business’ basic product or service.
I experienced this situation last weekend at a hotel in California. The staff was very cordial and worked to make our experience fun. When I ran into hotel staff in the elevator, they unfailingly greeted me and asked me about my day. The young men at the curb smiled warmly and genuinely seemed to welcome our return, and the employees at the front desk used our names, looked us in the eye and generated an attitude of service.
However, behind that wonderful cheeriness was the sense that the hotel was just a little below the standards I expect. Overall, the stay was pleasant, but the same elevators where the staff warmly greeted me seemed to operate using an unknown logarithm. Sometimes they required a key to move. Sometimes they did not. Sometimes it was impossible to insert the key into the elevator slot. The dark wood floors were just a little too scratched and dull. The windows were just a little too dusty, and the plants on our balcony were dead or dying.
I have stayed in and enjoyed hotels in the same chain before, but despite the cheery attitudes at this location, I would not rate this hotel as a top choice in the TripAdvisor reviews I sometimes write.
This experience reminds me that leaders and managers fall short when they focus exclusively on customer interaction. Customer service is more than an attitude. Just as in Andersen’s article, I see problems for customers when people are “polite at any cost.” These problems include:
- Employees grow to accept the idea that a smile replaces basic services.
- Customers may have the gnawing feeling that smiles and positive comments are insincere.
- Managers and employees believe that everything is wonderful when it could be much better.
- Customers may be more willing to accept without complaint a lower standard, but they may not return.
- Customer interaction replaces attention to detail.
This discussion reminds me of a thought-provoking Ted Peters video in which Mr. Peters tells the story of Conrad Hilton, the hotel magnet, who was asked the secrets of his business success. At the end of his career, Mr. Hilton attended a roast in his honor. At the end of the roast, the host asked him to speak. Mr. Hilton stood in front of the group, squared his shoulders and said, “Always remember to tuck the shower curtain into the bathtub.” With that, he sat down.
Attention to detail of every kind is the point. The focus cannot be only customer interaction or product design or service. It must be an overall concern for excellence in every area.