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Genuine Simulated

October 18, 2010

Passing the guy selling knock-off purses on a quick-fold blanket by the subway exit,  I think of my dad. I can almost hear him say, as he has so many times:  Genuine Simulated. That’s gen-you-WINE SIM-you-lay-ted if you want the phonetic spelling.   He’s said it while wiping off the green circle around his arm from the fake Rolex he picked up at a flea market. He’s said it while putting back a pair of “man made upper” sneakers in the aisle at K-Mart.

“I’m cheaper! I’m just as good!” the genuine simulated article cries out, begging you to buy.  Of course anyone who has purchased a pair of pumps at Payless knows this isn’t true.  Give them a few days and the insoles will stink.

The same is true of the saccharin customer service that results from overzealous training of otherwise unmotivated employees.  What first seems to be genuine interaction is soon revealed as simulation built on memorized phrases and rote responses.  Some recent examples point out important lessons for creating real customer engagement.

The undertalkers

It was the lunch rush, so standing in line I had plenty of time to observe the interaction between the cashiers and the customers. The transactions were simple enough, but given the rate at which orders were being put in, I was pretty impressed by their accuracy.  As I inched closer, I began to listen to the cashiers as they invited those of us in line to step up so they could transition from one customer to the next. “Canihelpyounext” was what they were saying, but I had to struggle to move beyond the basic verbal cue to move closer to the register to get to the point where I understood what they were actually saying.  “Can I help you? Next?” I finally heard from each of the four cashiers in succession, and with the monotone delivery, the phrase lost not only all meaning, but all elements of the desire to provide the service and expediency the situation demanded.  Their quick actions did convey their sincere wish to minimize the distance between me and my food, but their words never delivered the moment beyond transaction to real interaction.

The uberbarista

I was sucked in by the novelty of being able to order a latte at the drive-through. I imagined them calling me by name and politely asking each other for permission to put in my order as I pulled up to the window to pick up my drink. I didn’t factor in the fact that my expectations for drive-through speed had been set by managers who timed tasks and fast-food chains that stuck stopwatches at eye-level.  My beverage took longer for me to say than it takes some places to make a hamburger.  Someone had factored this in though, because as I waited out the awkward moments for the milk to foam, the barista leaned down on his elbows, looked into my car, and asked me about my plans for the weekend.   The conversation went on for several minutes until his carefully trained ear heard the call that my latte was waiting. He cut off our friendly chat, turned for the drink, and handed it to me blank faced without a word. I drove away puzzled until it hit me: someone had trained him to make small talk. His fake interest and my certainty that he was killing time while he waited for the espresso machine just made me feel creepy.

The real deal

I’m at the train station a lot – and by a lot I mean practically every day.  Yet, without fail, the woman with the mop and the smile greets me at the door with a hearty hello that wrestles me out of my morning fog and demands my attention.  She stops for a moment to really look at me, wrapping her forearm around the wooden stick and looping her index finger over the top.  Sometimes she leans just a little bit into it if we get going in conversation.  She asks me about my weekend, too, but always with real interest.  The only thing that might distract her from our conversation is a fellow passenger stopping to greet her as well.  Now a didactic supervisor might see her leaning into her mop and talking to me with a grin and think she wasn’t doing her job.  But believe me, if her job is to make that train station sparkle with welcome, her greeting is just as central to her effectiveness as her mop bucket.  Someone has obviously recognized and rewarded this, incentivizing her initiative and ending up with happy passengers. At the same time it is clear that there is no clock-watching manager looking over her shoulder at unswept corners, no one has sat her down in a training room and told her the words she must use to greet each person who comes in the door.  She’s human after all, and she has figured that out on her own, using words that are appropriate for the space we’re in and the task at hand, but which are also true to who she is, and therefore authentic.  Genuine simulated? Nope. She’s the genuine article.

The takeaway

Faking customer service will always fail.  No matter how many scripts they memorize or simulations they participate in, employees cannot be cajoled into emotions they do not feel.  Both the undertalkers and the uberbarista were armed with a few choice phrases aimed at simulating real engagement. Each failed at its own end of the spectrum revealing them both as genuine simulated. These contrast starkly with what I observed at the train station.

The best way to foster genuine, not simulated, human interaction between customers and employees? Remember that employees are human beings, too.  Recognize their unique talents and where they intersect with your business objectives – regardless of their official role in your organization.  Give them ownership of their tasks and ensure that they understand and embrace your real goals. Empower them to execute in their own style, within the parameters of your brand.  And when they do, take notice and make sure their peers do as well.  In the end your customers, and your bottom line, will benefit.

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