Friday, June 30, 2006

Palo Alto, Day Two: Customer service master class

After two pretty full days of synthesis and analysis with the folks at IDEO, I had to run back to the Westin and finish my piece of an RFI response we need to send out before the 4th of July holiday. By 8 pm, local time, I was pretty well spent. Still sunny, so out (finally) for a walk and dinner.

I remembered having a great meal at Francis Ford Coppola’s bistro, Niebaum Coppola Café, when it first opened some years ago. I walked by, spotted a little table right out front, looking out on a beautiful Northern California evening… and I was in.

One great salad, a really nice piece of sockeye salmon and a few glasses of excellent Oregon Pinot later (sorry, Francis!) I reached for my wallet and discovered I’d left it back at the hotel. Embarrassing, no?

I called the waitress over, who smiled and called the manager over. And then he proceeded to give me a master class in service. He knelt down – don’t make the customer crane their neck to look up – smiled, assured me that his job was to minimize my embarrassment, and suggested that if I wanted to get my wallet, come back and pay, then that would be just fine. Smiled again and thanked me for choosing Coppola that evening.

That’s it.

I did return – nice night for a walk, though outside my hotel I met the guy who ran the airport van, and who offered to drive me over and back. I gratefully accepted, returned to the restaurant, paid, slipped the driver a nice tip and made it back to my room in about 15 minutes.

Before turning in for the night, I shot off an email to the manager, Dave Grice. I thanked him again for making a difficult situation much easier. This was his response, in part: “I view my job as one that the purpose is to make people feel at ease.”

Notice what he didn’t say: my job is to maximize the profits in the dining room, or my job is to ride herd on the waitresses and busboys, or anything else related to the operation of the restaurant as we might think about them. Of course he manages all those things – but only in the context of the diner’s experience. So they’ll have a good time. Come back. Tell their friends. Give them a good review online.

That’s customer service, imagined not as something that competes with the things you have to do to run a restaurant – but instead, envisioned as a core element of the dining experience. Thanks, Dave, for the lesson in how to do it right.

Palo Alto, Day One: Take my car, please

I’m in Palo Alto with a client for a couple days, attending “research synthesis” sessions facilitated by IDEO. It’s a fascinating process, though rather Post-It intensive. (Note to self: check potential environmental impact of spike in Post-It production and consumption.)

There’s one thing about this first day that struck me even more than the process, though, and believe it or not, it’s about parking. An aside about Palo Alto: if you want to park for thirty minutes or less, it’s your kind of town. Two hours or less, they’ve got something for you, too. All day? Out of luck.

I circled, looked for a garage, felt my blood begin to simmer – the typical autonomic response of a recovering New Yorker. And then I met the IDEO account representative, and he made my problem go away.

He didn’t tell me about a lot I could drive to, or offer me an IDEO parking space. He didn’t give me advice or information to help me mitigate the issue myself.

He asked for my car keys.

He attached a small tag to my key ring with a map on one side and a blank grid on the other, to note where the car was parked and when. A small team of IDEO employees then monitors how long each car has been in its current space, then goes out and moves them to other legal spots as needed. They then note the location on the card and return it to the front desk. All day long.

And if you do get a ticket, by some strange chance, you mail it in to them and they pay it.

When I was ready to pick up my car, I grabbed my keys, noted the location, and used the map to walk the one and a quarter blocks to where it was parked.

So what, you may say?

Here’s what: service is sometimes about giving the user the tools to manage the situation themselves; sometimes it’s about making the problem just go away. IDEO has figured out that when you’re bringing people in to do creative thinking about a business problem, you’re better off making their petty problems, like parking, just go away.

Of course, part of customer service is providing feedback to improve product design so customers don’t have the problem in the first place. (Translation: build or move to a new office with a parking garage.) But hey, this is Palo Alto. A sliver of land is worth more than you’ll earn in a lifetime. And IDEO already has cool space, tailored to their needs, thank you very much.

More on the process itself next week – we’ll be back for a design workshop.