When Giving Customers A Little Extra is a Big Mistake

A bottle of wine and a lavish cheese plate greeted me as I entered the hotel room. You’d think an oenophile like me would be excited to see these gifts after a long day of travel.

You’d be wrong. 

The bottle of wine came with a lot of bad options. Should I drink it? I was only there for one night. That’s too much wine. 

Perhaps I could have a glass, but it seemed like such a waste to open a bottle of wine for just one glass.

I could bring it home. That would mean I’d have to check my suitcase instead of carrying it on the plane. A checked bag would translate to an extra 30 minutes waiting at the airport and a $25 baggage fee. That seemed pretty steep for a $20 bottle of wine.

I could leave it. Would somebody’s feelings be hurt if I left their gift behind? I hope not. I really hate hurting people’s feelings.

The cheese plate was another dilemma. It was too late for cheese tonight and cheese isn’t exactly the breakfast of champions. Besides, it looked like it had been sitting in the room for a little while. This one was a lost cause. A total waste.

These gifts were provided with the best of intentions. It’s too bad the result wasn’t delight but rather consternation over wasting them.

Sometimes, giving customers a little extra turns out to be a big mistake.

Unanticipated Consequences

We’re taught to think of customer service as going above and beyond. Do something extraordinary for someone and they’ll remember us for a lifetime.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out the way we hope. Here are a few examples:

A free dessert at a restaurant can backfire if the guests are already stuffed or watching their diet. Do they eat something they don’t want or reject such a nice gift?

An upgrade to the deluxe package at the car wash can backfire if the customer is in a hurry and finds the smell of air freshener to be sickening.

Upgrading an airline passenger's seat to an exit row can backfire if it separates her from the rest of her family.

Small gifts like these are given with the purest intentions. However, these unanticipated consequences can causes these gifts to become annoyances to the customer.


Thoughtful Gift Giving

I’ll be the first to admit I struggle in this department. There isn’t a perfect answer. And yes, the thought really does count.

So, let’s start there. One way to avoid any trouble is to ask.

At the restaurant, a server can ask her guests if she can bring them a dessert on the house.

At the car wash, the ticket writer can ask if he can upgrade the wash to a deluxe package at no extra charge.

At the airline, the gate agent could ask the passenger if she'd like to be upgraded to an exit row seat.

Asking accomplishes two things.

First, it verifies that the little extra is something the customer actually wants. Second, it avoids wasting the gift on someone who doesn’t want it. 

Of course, there are sometimes when you don’t have the luxury of asking. Or, asking might ruin the surprise. So, what should you do then?

Look at it from the customer’s perspective and think how you can brighten their experience. One of the best hotel amenities I ever received was a bouquet of flowers at the Napa River Inn

The flowers were cut from the hotel's garden and my wife and I could see the same rose bushes in bloom outside our window. It brightened up our room throughout our stay and created an even stronger connection to one of our favorite hotels.

Zendesk Q3 Benchmark Yields Some NPS Gems

Zendesk recently released its 2014 Q3 Customer Service Benchmark report. The customer service software provider tapped into its massive database of Net Promoter Score (NPS) results to uncover some interesting gems. 

The report looked at 103,000 responses from 230 companies. Here are some of their more interesting findings.

NPS Yields More Comments

Zendesk found that NPS surveys yielded a 13 percent response rate compared to 21 percent for Customer Satisfaction (CSAT) surveys.

Despite the lower volume, NPS surveys yielded more comments. 

Zendesk recommends a survey sample size of 1,700. (See their math here.) Using their response rate and comment rate averages, this translates to more aggregate comments too.

Zendesk also found that NPS yields far more comments from positive surveys than CSAT. 

Why do comments in positive surveys matter? 

It helps to know what you’re doing well. And, customers who generally like your brand, product, or service may often give a high survey rating and then provide some constructive feedback in the comment section. 

In a recent client project, I found that 5 percent of positive surveys contained negative comments.


Upset Customers Write More

NPS surveys generally classify respondents into three categories:

  • Promoters: People who give a 9 or 10 rating
  • Passives: People who give a 7 or 8 rating
  • Detractors: People who give a 1 - 6 rating

Zendesk found that comments left by Detractors average 106 words while comments from Promoters average 63 words. Clearly, upset customers have more to say.

Their 2014 Q2 Customer Service Benchmark uncovered a similar trend for support tickets submitted through the web. The more a customer writes, the angrier they are likely to be.

Broken Promises = Unhappy Customers

The report analyzed the comments in NPS surveys to rank the top six reasons customers were detractors. Four of the top six came down to companies unable to keep their basic promises

  1. Poor customer service
  2. Waste time
  3. Doesn’t work
  4. Time consuming
  5. Don’t know you
  6. Difficult to use


NPS Resources

There’s a danger in focusing on just one magic metric. But, NPS can be a powerful tool if used correctly. 

Here are some resources to help you learn more:

ICMI’s 2014 Contact Center Demo and Conference Re-cap

Last week’s Contact Center Demo & Conference in Chicago, IL was a blast. There were great keynotes, engaging breakout sessions, and lots of networking.

Here’s a re-cap of the conference in case you missed it.


Conference Overview

The conference, known as CC Demo, is put on by ICMI. They provide research, conferences, and training for contact center professionals. 

CC Demo attracts a nice blend of participants from senior leaders to contact center supervisors. You can read an overview here or check out the conversation on the Twitter backchannel.



There’s just too much to cover at a conference like this. Something’s going on everywhere you turn!

Here were a few highlights for me.


Chip Bell’s Keynote

Chip did such a great job keynoting last year’s CC Demo that he was brought back by popular demand! He shared six strategies for delivering innovative customer service from his book, 9 1/2 Principles of Innovative Service.

One fun moment from Chip’s presentation was when he talked about staying at the Hotel Monaco in Chicago. They made his stay a little brighter by putting a gold fish named Trixie in his room. 

He recounted a return trip to the hotel where the front desk associate asked him, “Shall I send Trixie up to your room, Mr. Bell?”

It got even better when Marriah Barnett sent this Tweet:

Leslie O’Flahavan’s Email Session

Too many conference sessions are death by PowerPoint. Not Leslie’s! Her session was called Not Dead Yet: How to Write Great Emails to Customers in the Age of Social Customer Service.

It was highly interactive with great conversation and hands-on activities. Here were a few take-aways that stood out for me:

  • Critical reading is critical - make sure you understand what the customer wants.
  • Sound friendly, not stodgy by writing like a real person.
  • Integrate self-service options whenever possible.


New Research from ICMI

ICMI’s Senior Analyst, Justin Robbins, gave us a sneak peek at some of ICMI’s latest contact center research.

Here’s one stat that really stood out:

The average contact center agent uses seven screens to serve customers.

That’s up from five screens last year. Given the destructive qualities of multitasking, it seems like this trend is going in a dangerous direction.

Robbins also shared the results of a survey outlining the top ten challenges faced by call centers. Captured here in two grainy phone photos:

ICMI’s next big conference is the 2015 Contact Center Expo & Conference. It runs May 4 - 7 in Orlando, Florida. There’s already big buzz for this one! 

How Companies Waste Your Time and Their Money

It took seven contacts to get my new cable modem up and running. 

This blog will show them how to stop wasting our time and their money with issues like this. The spreadsheet jockeys at the cable company will miss this one. I’m not writing this for them anyway. 

My hope is that you can use this framework to prevent icebergs like this from happening in your company. 


The Experience

The first part of the process seemed easy.

All I had to do was call customer service, tell them the model of my old modem, and they’d ship me an upgraded model. The newer model promised faster internet speeds.

Sure enough, the new modem arrived a few days later. It came with easy-to-follow installation instructions that made it seem like a snap.

It wasn’t.

The modem didn’t work. I tried several times but no dice. Finally, I gave up and called customer service (contact #2).

The customer service rep apologized and told me she’d ship a new modem out right away. In the meantime, I had to drop off the defective one at a FedEx center to ship it back (contact #3).

The second modem arrived. It didn’t work either.

Called again (contact #4). The customer service rep immediately suggested I ship it back. Again. I’m starting to think that (a) all of their modems are defective or (b) there’s really another step in the process the rep isn't mentioning.

The call got disconnected before we could have that discussion.

Called again (contact #5). Same story from the rep. I asked for account credit if I was going to have to go through the trouble of returning a second defective modem. “You’ll have to talk to someone in another department about that. Hold please.”

Cold transfer to someone who had no idea what I was talking about (contact #6).  He wouldn't give me any account credit. He didn't care about my problem, either. It wasn't his department.

I still need a working modem, so I call again (contact #7). Finally, I get someone who is helpful.

She explains that it’s necessary to call in to activate the new modem. Yes, it doesn’t make a lot of sense if you need the modem to use your phone. (Good thing I called on my cell.)

No, she didn’t know that the instructions that came with the modem tell people to activate it online. We both agree that doesn’t make any sense if you can’t get online until you call to activate the modem.

At least she was friendly and empathetic.


Holes in the System

There are a number of holes in the system that caused these repeated service failures. 

The first is the process. You can’t call in to activate your modem if your phone service is tied to the modem. The technology exists to skip this step entirely.

The second is the instruction sheet. It doesn’t match the actual process. Step four expressly tells customers to activate their new modem online. 

The third failure point are the customer service reps. They’re held to a talk time standard which makes them all too eager to get customers off the phone. “I’ll go ahead and ship you another modem,” kicks the can downstream so they can end the call quickly.



Problems like this can easily be prevented. For every problem prevented you wind up with a happier customer and one fewer contact to handle. Everybody wins.

Here are multiple ways the cable company could have prevented this:

  • Find a way to make the new modem work right out of the box with zero activation.
  • Have real customers beta test the instructions to make sure the process works as expected.
  • Emphasize first contact resolution with customer service reps so they’ll do a more thorough job of solving problems.
  • Review contact reports to spot icebergs that might indicate a systemic problem.
  • Review inventory reports to identify an abnormal spike in new modems being returned.
  • Review returned merchandise to identify why working modems are being returned as defective.

That’s six ways to either prevent the problem or stop it from spreading. Six tactics I’m fairly certain the cable company hasn’t tried.

But you can try them. Make sure customer-facing processes work. Listen for icebergs. Put your employees in a position to give a damn about the people they serve.

Training Concept You Need to Know: The Magic Window

The Constanzas earned their nickname in new hire training. Their constant bickering perfectly imitated George Constanza’s parents on the the TV show Seinfeld.

This argument was over a role place exercise.

“You’re not doing it right,” said Mrs. Constanza. She was breaking character to correct Mr. Constanza’s data entry error.

“You can’t see me! You’re on the phone!” yelled Mr. Constanza. He wanted none of Mrs. Constanza’s coaching as he struggled his way through entering the order.

“But you’re doing it wrong.”

“You can’t see me! You’re on the phone!”

The scene devolved into a stand off. Mr. Constanza kept trying to figure out the computer system. Mrs. Constanza retreated to another part of the training room.

The trainer watched the entire scene and did nothing. 

She was deliberately letting them fail to see if either one would make it through the magic window. 

The Learning Curve

It’s helpful to take a trip along the learning curve to understand why the trainer was standing back while the Constanzas went down in flames.

The learning curve consists of four distinct stages that were first identified by Noel Burch in the 1970s. They're known as the Four Stages of Competency: 

  1. Unconscious Incompetent: You don’t know what you don’t know.
  2. Conscious Incompetent: You know what you don’t know.
  3. Conscious Competent: You know what you know.
  4. Unconscious Competent: You don’t know what you know.

Most people can relate to these stages when they think about how they learned to drive a car. 

You were Unconscious Incompetent before you got behind the wheel. Driving may have seemed easy, or least it was more exciting than intimidating.

A specific situation jolted you into the Conscious Incompetent stage. This probably happened the first time you drove. Perhaps it was an oncoming car or stalling a manual transmission vehicle. 

Passing your driving test was the ultimate Conscious Competent moment. You were vividly aware of everything you did as the person in the passenger seat noted every move on a checklist. 

Today, you are a Unconscious Competent driver. You can get in your car, drive to work, and have no idea how you got there. Driving a car doesn’t take much brain power at all.


The Magic Window

The most important part of any learning process is the transition from Unconscious Incompetent to Conscious Incompetent.

I call this transition the Magic Window.

Learning is impossible unless a person makes this transition. People stuck in the Unconscious Incompetent stage don’t realize exactly what they have to learn, so they aren’t able to change behavior.

Which brings us back to the Constanzas. 

Neither one of them had made it through the magic window. They repeatedly failed at exercises yet couldn’t seem to grasp that they were falling behind. The rest of the new hire class made it through a long time ago. 

Pairing the Constanzas in the role play was a deliberate move. So was letting them work it out without providing feedback. The trainer was following an established protocol to give them one more chance to reach the Conscious Incompetent stage.


The Magic Window Protocol

There’s a protocol trainers should follow to move their learners through the magic window.

The first step is challenge

Learners need to experience a challenge so they move from Unconscious Incompetent to the Conscious Incompetent stage.

It might be a quiz, a hands-on activity, or even a difficult discussion question. 

An unfortunate side effect of challenge is learner confidence and motivation often takes a dive. Nobody likes to fail, especially if other people are around to see it.

It’s tough to balance challenge with learner self-esteem, but it’s essential.

Sadly, challenge alone isn’t always enough to help people move through the magic window. The Constanzas were challenged but didn’t realize they were struggling, even when they began falling behind their fellow new hires.

That’s when a second step is required: feedback.

This is when the trainer gives the participant specific feedback about their performance. A good trainer is careful to preserve the learner’s self-esteem, but is also direct in their assessment. They make it clear what aspects of performance need to be improved.

This direct feedback is often enough for the participant to realize they have some learning to do. Unfortunately, the Constanzas both found this feedback hard to accept. The trainer gave them feedback individually, but their reactions were remarkably similar.

They thought they were doing fine. They’d work harder to make sure they caught up. There was even a hint that the trainer needed to be more effective.

That’s when a third step is required: self-assessment.

At this stage, the trainer asks the participant to self-assess their performance. This shift to self-critique can often help a participant overcome self-esteem barriers and focus strictly on their performance. 

Some participants finally admit they're struggling. Others, like the Constanzas, continue to insist they’re doing just fine.

That’s when a fourth and final step is required: failure.

This step feels a bit harsh, but it’s also necessary. In this stage, the trainer allows the learner to fail on their own without a figurative safety net. (In situations where a literal safety net is required, this step would be cruel and should be avoided.)

In this particular class, the trainer paired the Constanzas together for a role-playing activity so other participants wouldn’t be affected. This gave them once last chance to break through the magic window. 

Unfortunately, neither one of them made it. They blamed each other. They blamed the trainer, the computer system, and the content. 

For them, the magic window remained closed.