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Extreme Customer Service: Lessons From Companies That Go Above And Beyond

Heart-shaped pizza from Afghanistan, Olympic donuts, and 10,000 helicoptered tacos. A look at some over-the-top ways companies are keeping their customers happy--and what you can learn from their extreme measures.

Most companies say they’ll go the extra mile for their customers, but few will go the extra several hundred miles--and by helicopter.

Last summer, though, Taco Bell did just that, sending 10,000 tacos to the Alaskan town of Bethel, which had been pranked into believing its residents were soon to get their very own Taco Bell. (They were not.) Freighting in 950 pounds of beef may be a rather extreme example of ensuring customer satisfaction, but it is by no means an isolated incident. Rather, several companies of late have been throwing practicality to the wind in the name of crafting a singular experience for those whose satisfaction they rely on--from Mini sending care packages to customers it had accidentally spammed to the Krispy Kreme employee who accommodated a request that anyone else would have (at best) chuckled at. In the process, they’re also making the competition look tame.

At a time when every company pays lip service to service, to being more "human" and to listening, social or otherwise (and at a time when, in fact, most service is abysmal), these are examples that demonstrate employees at every level of a company delivering on those promises and then some.

Below are case studies of three brands who aimed exceptionally high recently, and what you can learn from their approach to service.

Mellow Mushroom

What Happened
Soldier Shawn Fulker knew that pizza made his wife Josephine at least a little happy while he was away in Afghanistan. With her birthday coming up, Shawn wanted to do something special, so he sent an email to Josephine’s favorite chain, Mellow Mushroom, inquiring as to whether they might be able to accommodate a special delivery to Jacksonville, FL from far, far away. Not only did the company honor Shawn’s request, they made a heart-shaped pizza for his wife, and bought balloons for her on the way.

"Obviously, we were very pleased with what the manager of the Jacksonville store did for a loyal guest and someone serving our country," says Annica Kreider, VP of Brand Development at the company. "This story really caught fire, but we think it’s a great example of what we do every day."

Tips For Amazing Customer Service

Mellow Mushroom offers a comprehensive training program for its managers and franchise owners, which is called (wait for it…) Shroom University. Although SU has a state-of-the-art test kitchen for back-of-the-house training, the company’s whole customer service model is taught there as well--and is integral to its continued success. Here are three tips from Kreider on going above and beyond.

1) Know Your Stuff and Be Proud of It
"Guests expect us to be the subject matter experts on our products, and we are proud to do so. We have proprietary products that combine with our cooking method to make our pizza different from all others. It’s our job to share with the guest what makes it special, and even suggest some of our favorite things and ways they may enjoy their meal even more."

2) Know Your Guests As Real People, Not Demographics
"Our guests are very loyal and our restaurant teams make a special effort to get to know them. The owner of our restaurant in Conyers, GA recently received a bank of tickets to an Atlanta Falcons football game and not only did he take a few of his top employees, he took some of his best customers. One of our servers, Taylor, a college-age girl in Cumming, GA, has developed a special relationship with an older couple who come in to her store regularly. Two of her regulars, Ben and Sue, come in every week just to see Taylor. They both have a multitude of personal health issues and our food fits in with their special diet regimen. Taylor takes the time to talk to the couple and inquire about their health, lives, and grown children. They just love these visits."

3) Go An Extra Step, Whether They Ask Or Not
"While we often honor requests, we also just go an extra step to really make it something memorable and special. A high school girl emailed in, wanting to invite a guy to the Sadie Hawkins dance. She wanted to know if the store would help her by spelling out “Sadies?” on the pizza in pepperoni. We saw the email at the corporate level and our PR and special events manager reached out to the girl and got all the details to make it perfect. But there was also the manager of one of our units who set up a fundraiser in-store for Northern Kentucky University’s "Best Buddies" program that aids in helping students with special needs. Instead of just hosting a fundraising event, he set up a special time for the participants to get on the line in the kitchen and be able to make their own pizzas. That our guests want us to be part of their lives at this level is truly a privilege and we want to make sure we respect and honor it."

Krispy Kreme

What Happened
Jia Jiang has a lot of experience with taking rejection. He is prepared for it at all times, and thus prepared for a better life. In fact, it kind of knocked Jiang off of his pivot last summer when he didn’t get rejected at Krispy Kreme. As part of the YouTuber’s stab at a Rejection Therapy challenge, Jiang went into a Krispy Kreme with a ridiculous request; he wanted five donuts interlocked like the Olympic rings. He was hoping to get brushed off and be on his way, but apparently he walked into the wrong donut shop because the person he spoke with at the counter eventually figured out how to grant this odd request.

"We’re always excited when one of our teams goes further to get people the help they need. People choose us for any number of reasons," says Dwayne Chambers, Chief Marketing Officer for Krispy Kreme. "Whether it’s a Saturday morning and they want to feel like a better dad with their kids, or they want to treat the office, we’re always trying to help people accomplish what they want. I think this is just another example of one of our teams helping to get someone what they need."


Tips For Amazing Customer Service

The operations team at Krispy Kreme spends a lot of time training to handle the basic tasks, such as keeping donuts stocked and the house clean. Having an emphasis here frees the team up with extra time to be nice to people--something that forms the nucleus of all customer service. Here are three tips from Chambers on how to go above and beyond.

1) Just Be Nice
"One thing we always try is hiring nice people. When you surround yourself with people who have that mindset, you allow them to be themselves, and allow them to look beyond the textbook of what they need to do. The sad part is you don’t really need to exceed expectations anymore. You hear from people these days about this great service they got somewhere, and when you ask about it, what you find out is that they just did what they were supposed to do. Somehow, that’s become great service. It’s really a bad commentary on society that the new standard of good service is 'everything went the way it’s supposed to.' Instead, we should do what it takes to make extra time to be nice to people."

2) Make Sure Everyone Understands the Mission
"While it may sound a hokey, the mission of our company is about touching and enhancing people’s lives. If we extend that message all the way down to the individual managers and team members, those decisions of what to do become a lot easier. You just do the right thing--from the top down. Our CEO lives and breathes that mission. He continues to emphasize that we won’t be successful because we sell more donuts—that’s not what the business is about. It’s about people, and about touching and enhancing their lives, and if we do that, we will still sell plenty of donuts."

3) Put Team Members First
"If your team members are not having a great day, it’s hard for them to help the customer have a great day. So we have to make sure we’re focused on our team and who they are. Our CEO, Jim Morgan, always says, put your faith--whatever that is--put your faith and your family first, and Krispy Kreme wil take anything you have left over after that. The belief there is, if you’ve got your own balanced life going on, you’re gonna feel better about yourself as a person, and about your family, and where you work--and you’re going to be able to share that with other people. If you’re stressed out and you don’t like where you are, that’s not going to happen."

Taco Bell

What happened: A merry prankster got the people of Bethel, Alaska (pop. 6,200, closest fast food fix: 400 miles) all atwitter with the mouth-wateringly real news that Taco Bell was opening a restaurant in the tiny town. When word of the hoax and the ensuing broken hearts got to Taco Bell, through its social media team, a whole phalanx of brand personnel mobilized. The end result: Taco Bell airlifted a taco truck into Bethel with enough fixings--950 pounds of beef, 300 pounds of lettuce, 150 pounds of cheddar cheese, 500 pounds of sour cream, and 300 pounds of tomatoes--for 10,000 (free) tacos. While certainly the most impressively scaled, it’s not the only feat of customer service from the fast food brand (others include responding to a Facebook fan asking for a customized Speedo emblazoned with the brand’s previous tag line, "Think Outside The Bun").

“The more we learned about (the hoax) the more we wanted to do something for them,” says Amy Kavanaugh VP of Public Affairs & Engagement at Taco Bell. “It started as a straightforward response and it really grew from there.” Beyond the social media and communications teams, Taco Bell brought in people from other departments in the company as the Bethel response grew in scope. “We started to talk about, can we, operationally, bring them tacos. And the idea got bigger. We learned how isolated the community was and we were looking for ways to deliver them.” The franchisee in the area joined what Kavanaugh says “became a mission internally” and the airlifting idea was born, and executed.

Tips For Amazing Customer Service

1) Structure your company so that departments are working together and information is shared
Kavanaugh says that about 18 months ago, Taco Bell restructured its approach to meld internal and external communications, to be able to respond “quickly and authentically” to conversations happening in the real world and to create a more robust two-way dialog with the brand’s key audiences: consumers, franchisees, and its “team members”--Taco Bell’s 150,000 employees. “Alaska is a perfect example of why working closely across departments is key," she says.

2) Have clear principles that all staff know, and live them
“Our culture is very strong,” says Kavanaugh, and she says that there are several well-articulated principles that guide staffers at all levels. They include: “Are we hungry for more; are we being helpful--in terms of anything that comes up, from a tweet to a customer service question; are we being understanding?” Other guidelines include: “Never follow--we’re a brand of firsts; be grateful; be relentless--we don’t give up easy; and be young at heart.” Kavanaugh says, “If we’re all operating with the same principles, everyone knows what to do. It allows people to do their jobs without having to run everything up the organization.”

3) Take a Big-Picture View of ROI
Kavanaugh says while Taco Bell has metrics to work to just as any brand does, they are continually being optimized. And Taco Bell CEO Greg Creed and CMO Brian Niccol encourage the kind of big ideas--like airlifting tacos--that are difficult to put metrics around. “They encourage us to do something that hasn’t been done before," she says. "We do know that our customers are so engaged with the brand and so passionate about it. Something like that--listening to those voices and having people encourage us to do something is support enough.”

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6 Comments

  • Ron Kaufman

    The value of "extreme customer service" is multi-faceted: great PR (like this article), great pride for employees (attracting and retaining with spirit), great experience for customers (with word of mouth benefits), and impact on the larger community beyond customers (including social observers, lurkers, and fans). Calculated like this, the cost of occasional "extreme customer service" is a very wise and rational investment.

  • Shep Hyken

    While the best companies are able to deliver customer service that
    is consistently better than average, every once in a while it’s nice to have
    something “WOW” you – a level of service that is extreme. This article is
    filled with examples and ideas to do exactly that.

  • Heather Curtis

    These are fantastic! I'm sharing this article with my team to use as creative inspiration for how we can work on our own customer service awesomeness.