When Nice Doesn't Matter

As a customer experience speaker and trainer, I spend a lot of time stressing the importance of being likable to our customers. Courtesy, empathy, and being personable all go a long way in building loyal customer relationships. But I also want to stress that being likable isn’t the ONLY important element of strong customer relationships. A lot of factors make up the customer’s experience, and we have to get the basics right. Likability can compensate for minor service errors, but there’s a limit to how forgiving customers are when we consistently get the basics wrong.

After checking into my hotel on a recent trip, I decided to have dinner in the lobby restaurant.  My server, Steve, introduced himself in a friendly manner, told me all about the specials, and took my drink order. He asked where I was from and we had a nice, brief chat. It looked like the beginning of a good dining experience. It wasn’t.

The next hour or so was an excruciating exercise in tracking down Steve, getting what I actually ordered, getting drink refills, paying my check (and getting a correct check in the first place), and finally getting out of that restaurant. It was an amazing streak of incompetence. The restaurant wasn’t busy, so none of the problems could be blamed on crowds. Steve simply didn’t know what he was doing.

But here’s the thing – Steve was friendly throughout the experience. And he repeatedly apologized for the multiple waits, order errors, inaccurate check, etc. He was a great apologizer, but a lousy server. If there had been just one problem, or even two, his friendliness might have overcome my frustration. But nearly all of the basics of a decent dining experience were poorly executed, and no amount of friendliness was able to make up for it.

During a recent routine physical, I had to have my blood drawn. I hate needles. Just the thought of a foreign object in my vein freaks me out. If I need to have my blood drawn, I need it to be quick. A very friendly nurse came into the examination room and started preparing to draw my blood, talking with me along the way. She could see by the expression on my face that I was nervous. “I promise to be gentle, and it will be over before you know it.” Her gentle voice put me at ease and I thought, “This won’t be so bad.” It was bad.

She put the needle in my arm and I could tell she was having trouble finding the vein. She moved the needle around in my arm and my panic started to rise. “Well, it looks like I didn’t get the vein that time. Let’s give it another try.” By now I’m starting to sweat and feeling sick to my stomach. Round two didn’t work either.

“Wow, I’m so sorry; you’re a difficult stick. Let’s try the other arm. If that doesn’t work, we’ll try the back of your hand. Don’t worry, we’ll get it.” I’m now in the middle of a nightmare. She sure was friendly, but I was ready to pass out. After four attempts, she gave up and asked another nurse to give it a try. The other nurse was clinical, matter-of-fact, and not very personable. But she got the vein in one shot. I loved her.

The point here is that a loyalty-driving customer experience encompasses more than being nice. We have to get the basics right. In a restaurant, the food order needs to be right, the server needs to be attentive, the check needs to be correct, etc. Being nice might compensate for the occasional error, but it certainly doesn’t compensate for getting all of the basics wrong. With my blood-draw experience, it would have been great to have a nurse who was friendly and also an expert at drawing blood. But if I can only get one of those elements, I’ll take the expert every time.

Here’s something to think about: What are the basic expectations your customers have? How effective are you at expertly executing the basics every time?

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