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By: Arianne Cohen
Last year, real estate broker Dee Waddell was in her Athens, Georgia, office when a large truck decorated with neon-pink zebra stripes appeared. A man dressed as a white-and-pink zebra jumped out. “He was wearing the pink zebra with the big head and everything,” laughs Waddell. It was Zeke, the mascot of Pink Zebra Moving company, which had just finished relocating her clients. To express the company’s appreciation, Zeke presented her with a stuffed pink zebra, and a small pink zebra truck. “They were there just to say thank you and to keep me coming back,” says Waddell. “It worked.”
Pink Zebra had already made a strong positive impression on Waddell. Two days before Christmas, the company had moved another pair of clients, a Georgia couple and their seven-week old baby. As part of their customer-service efforts, they showed up the day prior to the move with vouchers for dinner—three menus, pick one—correctly anticipating the family had already packed away their dishes. At their new house, the couple found toilet paper with pink bows in every bathroom, and a zebra baby toy.
When was the last time you heard of a business—much less a moving company—buying a customer dinner and toilet paper? If the post-pandemic era has struggled with anything, reviving customer service is it. Many firms, large and small, are still hobbled by labor shortages that persist no matter how the economy is doing—shortages that have hit customer-facing businesses from restaurants to retailers particularly hard. Other outlets struggle with the ongoing shift to digital and AI-based customer-service tools. Ever hear of customers raving about a chatbot?
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Most of these problems rarely make headlines, but any of the biggest ones can become a CEO’s worst nightmare, like when a combination of tech and staffing issues led to a monumental meltdown at Southwest Airlines last December. Headline-making or not, customer service is in a steady decline: Forrester Research’s 2022 customer-experience study, for example, found that 19 percent of companies’ ratings had fallen since the previous year. Remarkably, customers rated zero companies as “excellent,” and only 22 percent as “good.”
All of which leaves leaders and consumers alike wondering if there is any hope. That’s where outfits like Pink Zebra—and a handful of other very resourceful entrepreneurs we found—come in. These organizations claim they have figured out the trick to both sparking employee engagement and understanding what customers really want. And they’ve done it without going broke. “You need more than just a happy workplace,” says Denise Rousseau, a professor of organizational behavior and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. “There’s an infrastructure of experience that makes it happen.”
Is service with a smile still viable? Is it still something that large organizations can take to scale? Here are some lessons from three creative outfits.
Pink Zebra, Southeastern US
A move by Pink Zebra Moving company is not just a move, but an experience. The movers place music speakers in every room and play a happy playlist. At 10 am they do pushups, with a smile. At noon they do jumping jacks, with a smile. All this in an industry known for absolutely terrible customer experience: A 2022 survey of relocation companies by Trippel Survey & Research found customer-satisfaction levels for half of moving companies ranged from zero percent to 40 percent. The highest customer satisfaction level was 71 percent—meaning that at the best company, nearly a third of customers were unhappy. Not surprisingly, nearly half of households move themselves, and another third rent a truck—leaving just a fifth who bother with professional movers.
Before move day, the company sends customers a stream of emails, texts, and funny videos featuring the zebra mascot.
Enter Pink Zebra, launched in 2021 out of Alabama. For owner Ron Holt, developing creative experiences for customers starts with creative employee training. It’s conducted over five daylong sessions which cover the mechanics of moving as well as theatrical performance. Not everyone goes for it: We are supposed to do...what? “People thought we were nuts,” says Holt, who ran a cleaning company previously. At the start, he says, he lost two dependable and loyal employees over the push-up thing. But these days he says that the peppy, “we’re gonna have fun” culture does half the training for him. New employees, to a large degree, just absorb the vibe.
Push-ups are all in a day’s work at Pink Zebra.
Experts say well-trained employees are critical, but are rarely enough in and of themselves. Successful consumer-facing firms do a lot of advance work on their customers to set up employees for success. Long before move day at Zebra, for example, the company sends customers a stream of emails, texts, and funny videos featuring the zebra mascot. That helps get customers excited about a day that’s usually full of stress. “By the time we get there, we want the customer to feel like we’re their friends,” Holt says.
To be sure, the peppy approach may not fly in all parts of the country (Pink Zebra currently has 13 locations in the southeast). But Holt believes the extra theatrics and little gifts can relieve anxiety about some of the snafus that inevitably crop up in many moves. “We do these things to lighten the mood and pick up everyone’s attitude.”
Salty Sow, Austin, Texas
Like most foodies, Mason Popp has long found restaurant service to be erratic at best. Technology has complicated the scenario, because most restaurants end up building glitchy apps that cause customers grief. The American Customer Satisfaction Index Restaurant Study 2021-2022 found that the mobile-app rating of full-service restaurants dropped 8 percent , while that of fast-food and large chains improved.
At Salty Sow, customers rave about a swashbuckling vibe, and part of this comes from Popp, the restaurant’s general manager, who has immersed himself in the business. During the pandemic, he served as manager, assistant manager, server, groundskeeper, host, and bartender, and each role has helped him to better understand his customers and his employees. “You gotta get your hands dirty and lead from the front,” says Popp. If he sees questionable staff service, he says, rather than immediately classifying it as negative, he seeks to figure out if there’s a pattern—then takes action if needed. Each week has a staff-training theme that’s often derived from these patterns.
Salty Sow’s staff are trained to anticipate guests’ needs.
He says he tries to train his wait staff to anticipate what guests are looking for. This is not always intuitive at a restaurant whose customers range from bros in board shorts to businesspeople attending formal diners. “My biggest lesson is, ‘First, read your guests,’” says Popp. The staff is taught to spend 30 seconds trying to do just that, sometimes observing before interacting, other times just asking questions (“So whaddaya here for?”). Staff are trained to pause and plan their strategy, which could be, “Let’s fly in some plates and get some drinks in your hands,” or “Let’s seat you for that four-course meal with wine pairings.”
Despite his own experiences on the restaurant’s floor, Popp has discovered that how waitstaff go about reading and meeting customers’ needs cannot be dictated. Instead, he looks for hires who have worked at a few different levels of service, from fast food to luxury, and who instinctively know the sweet spots of each. He also opts for applicants with infectiously positive attitudes who understand that their role is to support an establishment. “If they tell me too much about what they’re looking for and expect, that’s a yellow-to-red flag,” he says. Then he lets them loose to work their magic. “We impart the mission statement, and then kind of let them do their thing.”
Poor Richard’s, Colorado Springs
One large structure stands out among the brick rectangular buildings of downtown Colorado Springs: a blocklong business with candy-orange and hunter-green trim that sells food, wine, books, toys, chocolate, more food—everything one needs for a leisurely afternoon. It’s called Poor Richard’s and the complex inside is a maze dotted with extras to bring customers ease and joy. The bookstore has a free self-gift-wrap station. The play area has a lending library so that kids can take stories home to finish. And the café sells greeting cards and stamps alongside free pens and a mailbox. Near one entrance, a wall of puppets is positioned so that customers can play with them. “We originally put toys out for kids, but it turns out that adults like them more,” says co-owner Richard Skorman.
Poor Richard’s owner Richard Skorman.
This is all the brainchild of Skorman and his wife, Patricia Seator. “We didn’t ever want to shoo people away,” he says. Customers are encouraged to stay for as long as they’d like. Many start with coffee, decide they’re hungry, and end up wandering around with wine. “I think we’re the only toy store in the country with a liquor license,” Skorman jokes. Customers have more or less free rein, and the store’s unstated mission is for individuals, groups, and children to feel like they own the place.
To create that palpable sense of ease and thoughtfulness requires a lot of staff—something that experts say too many other firms today fail to realize. “Staff are often seen as a cost to the company, rather than a resource,” says Rousseau, the professor. The pandemic only accelerated the belt-tightening, as firms learned how to run their teams on skeleton staffs. Chronic understaffing puts substantial pressure on frontline workers, says Rousseau. They are very likely to encounter high workloads, low paychecks, and angry customers. Needless to say, customer service has suffered.
“We do these things to lighten the mood and pick up everyone’s attitude.”
At Poor Richard’s, the management team has figured out a unique solution: they cross-train their 50 employees. When a party of 30 unexpectedly appears in the restaurant, or the bookstore line grows to 10, workers can push old-school doorbell buzzers that run into other departments, and staffers from the upstairs office or neighboring shops and food areas will appear as reinforcements. To be sure, it’s a solution that has its downsides—bookstore workers are not known for their food-service skills—but crucially, it allows staffers to feel supported. “Sometimes we don’t do a perfect job, but 90 percent of the time we’re giving people good service, and the employees are happy,” says Skorman.
He may be onto something. Rousseau says that excellent customer service requires that employees have both bandwidth (the capacity to address situations as they arise) and autonomy (independence to help customers as they see fit)—in addition to a generally pleasant and well-resourced environment. That bandwidth and autonomy can be deeply affected by work overload, bad hours, or high stress. Envision, for example, a clerk at a bookstore cash register, facing a line six people deep. “If she stops to talk, someone in line will say, ‘Quit your gabbing and wait on me!’” says Rousseau. At Poor Richard’s, the overwhelmed clerk simply buzzes for help—and a waitress appears at the neighboring cash register.
Academics say that maintaining such bandwidth allows employees to perform the types of emotional labor that customers most appreciate—in particular, the connective empathy that is critical when customers have a problem, and the acting skills that service staff use to create a mood and positive experience. Both disappear easily. “You can’t be harassed by your boss, you can’t have three other customers waiting for you, and you can’t have a quota,” says Rousseau.