By JC Thompson

I’m a frequent traveler… an avid business traveler, at that. I am one of those—the few that love the hustle of the airport, the challenge of how I can get back home when a flight is cancelled (which happened twice this week), and the laughable moments that come along the way—like this window seat with no window.

I guess I’m lucky. I can shake my head at events that would anger and frustrate others and I laugh out loud from deep in my belly at the absurdity of life. It’s through those moments I appreciate the remarkable ones.

As a consultant by trade, working for a firm that specializes in defining and elevating customer service, I focus on the subtlety of a check-in experience or the collateral I receive during interactions with staff. Based on this daily reality, I am admittedly spoiled – rotten – when it comes to the amenities and privileges of frequent travel delivered via great effort by the staff of the companies I frequent. These are the people to whom I attempt to impart a vision of what exceptional experiences look like.

Throughout my career, I have believed that why experiences matter and how to deliver them are the most important components of creating a memory. This week as I checked into a hotel in Dallas, I realized I forgot a very important part: Who. The effort and care needed to truly know your customer is not only the most important step in the memory-making process, it renders the other steps useless if absent. How can you deliver what a customer values if you don’t take the time—or care enough—to ask him? And using that knowledge to customize an offering is what exceptional service is really about. Here’s what happened:

It was going to be a long day. I popped out of bed just after 5 a.m. and fumbled around in the dark for an outfit I had selected and ironed the night before…no time to look good at 5:15. No time for coffee either… not today! I hopped in the car and cruised down an empty freeway to Sky Harbor (which is probably the best-named airport in the world to those of us who enjoy a good pun). I took the train from the parking structure and everything was surprisingly smooth. I even had time to grab that coffee at one of the local establishments that have opened in the terminal over the last few years (Buy local!) The plane boarded on time, we cruised out to the end of the runway and we were…. Not Off.

The pilot calmly announced, "Hmm… Well, that’s interesting. We are going to go back to the gate and have someone check this out." (What was 'interesting' was the Flight Control System. Sounded important to me, too.) For this frequent yet nervous flyer, this was the worst (ok, second worst) possible outcome. Of course, in typical fashion I had planned a meeting in Dallas 30 minutes after my scheduled landing time. (What could go wrong?)

The flight attendants offered the standard information for delayed passengers with connecting flights, and who was the first person to get off that plane? This guy! ('Bye broken plane! I'll get a working one, thanks.)

This is not another article about airlines and their incompetence. Circumstances landed me in Dallas for arrival at my destination just in the nick of time. I attended the meetings, delivered my pitch, made connections, and got out of there.

After sitting in hellish Dallas traffic (only 7 miles in 1 hour), I arrived at a Dallas area hotel (which will remain anonymous) to find a friendly, engaged, well-groomed front desk agent who genuinely seemed to care about my trip into town. He asked the purpose of my visit (business, of course) and performed all the to-do’s you experience upon check-in with a gracious smile. I quickly slipped into the elevator and arrived at the doorstep of my relaxing home-away-from-home (exaggeration). I inserted the key card into the guest room door and took a step inside. What I found was one of the most magical and thoughtful gestures I have experienced… Swans.

(Yes, swans)

Swans were everywhere: Swans kissing on the bed. Swans in the bathtub. Swans on the desk. This was aggressive swan usage! This team LOVED swans. (Or the hotel mascot was a swan? I’m not sure.) Clearly, someone had taken a considerable amount of time and care handcrafting these swans for me. "What did I do to deserve these swans?" I thought, "Was my day this bad?"

"Did the staff notice me fumbling with my ID, flustered after a cancelled flight? Did they whip up 12 swans to save the day? That must be it!"

An armada of swans. That will forever be my memory of Dallas.

In this customer experience story, the team did NOTHING wrong. In fact, they may have done too much. My operations-focused mind was thinking, "Productivity at this place must be close to zero." (Either that or they have a staff member who just makes swans 8 hours a day.) Regardless, it didn’t matter because the swans didn’t matter. Not to me and probably not to a lot of people.

Who would care about the swans?

  • Honeymooners
  • Lovebirds
  • Children under 4
  • Grandmothers
  • And the list goes on

What can we learn from this Swancident? (See what I did there?)

The 'how' your team gets things done is important and ensuring they know 'why' they are doing it is also important. And nothing is more important than getting to know your customers… what they value, what they are passionate about, and what will really 'WOW' them. That is the difference between a one-time customer and a relationship that will last a lifetime.

My 'WOW' for this trip was a clean, comfortable place to lay my head; a bottle of water; and a kind smile at the end of a long day. This hotel delivered all that in spades. My 'WOW' is different from your 'WOW', as it should be. In fact, we all have different 'WOW's. That makes us and this world unique.

  • Constantly evaluate whether your 'WOW' moments are personal and meaningful
  • Innovate! Demand new ideas from yourself and your people
  • Customized = Authentic
  • Stop thinking, "What can we do for everyone?"
  • Start thinking, "What can I do for this person right here?"

If you would like to share your Swan Song with me, email me: [email protected]