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The unexpected customer service hero—we all have one

Once upon a time, when I was in a painful and difficult marriage, the city was doing some road work on my street. Every time I passed the road crew, a tiny woman with curly blond hair and a big smile waved at me as I passed. I don’t mean a subtle, royal hand waggle, I mean her whole arm pumped from side to side as if I was her favorite person on the planet. At least, that’s how I remember it. Yes, she waved at all the cars that way. But I was in such a dark place that this woman’s enthusiastic greeting sent rays of sunshine into my day.

Her job was “flag person.” She was paid to make drivers slow down and avoid hitting the workers making improvements to the road. This is a boring and dangerous job—150 road flag people were killed between 1995 and 2002—often complicated by crappy weather. Generally, as a flag person waves you along, you keep going and the interaction is easily discarded. But I will never forget that woman.

You never know how someone will impact your day. You never know how you’re going to impact someone else’s life.

You never know how someone will impact your day. You never know how you’re going to impact someone else’s life.

Heed the customer battle cry

Most of us chug through our days focused on our own stuff. We’re earning money, paying bills, burning calories, and watching or rewatching Netflix series’ without much thought as to how we affect the strangers we encounter. Most of us don’t think of ourselves as making a notable difference in the world—that’s the dominion of surgeons, shamans, and Peace Corps volunteers. But often it’s the people in the smaller, passing moments who are making an impact on a daily basis, removing small obstacles from our paths. This includes everyone in a customer service role, people that are making it easier to pay a bill, change a name on an account, or get a computer up and running again.

Frequently, these little problems are just the tip of the iceberg. As author Wendy Mass wrote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”

More times than I can count, while fighting some kind of battle, the way I was treated by someone in customer service—a total stranger helping me solve a “little problem”—lifted a huge load of anxiety off my mind. By contrast, I once talked to a Verizon representative about postponing a payment. Her answer was, “I’m sorry. I can’t help you. These are the rules.”

I’ve been a customer of Verizon’s for a long time and that was the first I’d ever heard of such a policy. So I got off the phone, had a meltdown, and then called back. The next representative let me postpone the payment and helped me figure out how to whittle down my monthly bill. She even gave me a credit for something I hadn’t meant to pay for. In that moment, she wasn’t just a woman doing her job—she was my ally against a looming financial crisis. She got in the boat with me and helped me row. And while her actions might have cost Verizon a few dollars a month, they retained me as a customer. You can bet when Verizon asked how I’d rate my experience, I gave it a bazillion stars.

In that moment, she wasn’t just a woman doing her job—she was my ally against a looming financial crisis. She got in the boat with me and helped me row.

What’s in a name?

Customer service agents field a lot of questions, some complicated, some mundane. But they all have some impact on the customer, the person making the request. If an appeal to change a name is the tip of the iceberg, below the water may lurk the daunting process of making a huge identity shift. By assisting with the customer’s request, the agent is helping them move forward. Or, beyond fighting with software, the customer isn’t just trying to complete a task; they’re working to prove their value to their employer so that they can further their career dreams. The software glitch isn’t a little problem; it’s a dragon to slay en route to becoming the person they want to be.

To that flag woman, I wasn’t just another car who might plow down her workmates. I was a person worthy of a big, warm greeting. And, to me, she was a hero.

Service the Southwest way

A customer service person can be a hero. Not all companies get this. Not all companies give their customer service team the opportunity to bring their wit and humanity to the job and really solve problems for their customers.

One company that does is Southwest Airlines—which has famously good customer service in an industry that’s notoriously unfriendly. Julie Weber, Vice President People, credited employees’ willingness to be happy, and to work hard to make others happy, for this reputation. In an email interview, she shared with me how Southwest hires and trains its heroes.

Hire for attitude over skill

Weber said Southwest looks for people who want to make a difference, and that have three specific attributes:

  • A warrior spirit: Strive to be the best, display a sense of urgency, and never give-up.
  • A servant’s heart: Follow “The Golden Rule,” treat others with respect, and embrace the Southwest Family.
  • A fun-LUVing attitude: Be a passionate team player, don’t take oneself too seriously, and celebrate successes.

She explained, “We also expect our employees to work the Southwest Way, which includes wowing our customers by delivering world-class hospitality, creating memorable connections, and being famous for friendly service. We expect employees to show up and work hard.”

Southwest Airlines clearly defines these expectations and has built its interviewing methodology around these attributes. “When it comes down to two equally qualified candidates, the one with Southwest values will receive the offer. And, more importantly, if we do not see that special attitude in either candidate, no offer will be made,” she said.

Happiness onboard(ing)

Happy employees lead to happy customers. Happy customers leads to happy shareholders, Weber said. Happiness is embedded into Southwest’s culture. Every new employee flies to Dallas to attend an all-day, immersive culture course.

Power to make a difference

Southwest employees have “a great deal of latitude,” Weber shared. “Every employee is empowered to make win/win decisions each day for our customers…. The airline industry has the potential for disruption on a daily basis, like bad weather, uncontrollable operational events, and mechanical incidents. It would be impossible and unreasonable to try to put specific parameters on the type of service that should be provided for any given situation. Instead, we empower our employees to use their own good judgment, to make decisions based on what will work for the customer as well as the company.”

We all have customers, and we’re all expected to use our resources to provide outstanding hospitality to our respective customers…no matter who our internal or external customers are, we are empowered to step up and help them, as long as we don’t compromise safety, security, or the integrity of the company,” she shared.

Let your team fly high

Companies that want to provide exceptional customer service—and who doesn’t?—need to understand that the role of a customer service person goes far beyond solving “little” problems. Beyond the minutiae of ticketing issues, or the myriad requests made in-flight, Southwest employees know they’re literally part of a customer’s journey to or away from a new experience, a loved one, or life’s latest challenge. Helping with small problems or common issues might just be a lifesaver to the person on the other end of the line. That’s the mark of true customer service: taking every call, chat, email, or tweet as if it does make a difference.

Susan Lahey is a journalist who lives in Austin and writes about everything that piques her curiosity including travel, technology, work, business, art, sustainability, and cultivating deep, messy, exquisite humanness in the digital age.