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Genuine Communication and the Memorable Experience

I’m in the final weeks of my part-time MA and am spending a lot of time writing and drinking coffee at the library. So much writing. So much coffee. I’ve found a place that makes a decent cup and that’s become part of my day. I’m starting to recognize the staff but, so far, the most memorable part of the experience has been that the coffee is drinkable and the price is okay.

From a business perspective that’s not much of a defensible differentiator, right? You wouldn’t rest easily on that distinction.

This past Sunday morning I was on my way to study and it wasn’t early, after 10am at least. When I got to my coffee place there was only one carafe available and it was the dark roasted stuff which I tend to avoid because roasting kills the caffeine. It’s the caffeine I want. I felt thwarted.

The place was obviously opening late. The barista was racing around behind the counter trying to recover her opening and hadn’t noticed me. I didn’t recognize her; I would have remembered her bright blue hair.

I called out a “good morning! How are you?” Without looking she replied “I’m tired and I don’t want to be here and I hope you’re not the Secret Shopper.”

I howled with laughter.

We chatted a bit while she bustled and I poured myself a dark roast and left with a smile on my face and thoroughly enjoyed my beverage.

How was this anything but a failed interaction? I didn’t get my preferred cuppa. The shop wasn’t prepared for me. The employee was so far off the proper script for customer greeting she’d have needed astronaut qualifications to get back to something acceptable. But I couldn’t be happier. I’ve recommended that place to people since and I’ll be going back myself.

“Service recovery” has long been recognized as an opportunity to take a shopping-trip-gone-bad and turn it into customer loyalty, but that doesn’t fully explain what happened that morning. I got a barely acceptable ‘consolation prize, no one apologized to me, told me I was a valued customer, or appreciated my saintly forbearance. There was not one iota of pander. I think what she did was simpler, certainly cheaper for the company, and has accomplished basically the same outcome.

She was genuine.

The service-script was dead; that was obvious. Instead, she spoke right to me, one person to another. She was having a terrible day but she held onto her wry sense of humour about it. That connected. I’ve logged hundreds of work-hours like that. Her response was perfect for the situation. What I wanted from the coffee was the experience of The Ritual: the warmth, the taste, the little caffeine hit while doing research. The beverage commodity was actually quite trivial though a meaningful catalyst for the experience, the end result of which is a bit of a good feeling. But I got something better. I got my coffee, sure, we worked through that and it matters. But I also made a human connection and experienced a real moment and that made the experience distinct. That differentiated them, it made them part of my story.

I’ve written about the Experience Economy before and its importance for building customer loyalty with a personal and memorable experience. I could write more about that here. But this has got me thinking about the central importance of a genuine connection in creating something personal. She turned a recoverable customer experience into a memorable one by directly engaging me, bringing me into her confidence in our shared experience of her bad morning and my collapsing coffee ritual. I mean, there was no point in not talking about it – that was clearly what was going on.

I’m making a big deal over a cup of coffee, right?

That’s my point. Imagine our interaction was about something that really mattered. Wouldn’t making that connection be so much more important? Imagine it was about something we spend hours a day doing and was all tied up with our identity and how we feel about ourselves.

Imagine it was about our jobs.

With employee communications, we need to be at our most genuine, honest and engaging because the subjects are the completely non-trivial experience of work-life, what we’re trying to accomplish for our clients, each other, and ourselves. That topic is incredibly personal for employees and, if it’s treated with a boiler-plate tone, it’s disenchanting and disengaging. It says “there’s no one in here; you’re not talking with a human right now.”

It takes a real effort to be fully present in your job role. The wave of personality-free communications typical of many companies that collectively say “nobody here” has an implied question: “So why are you here? Why do you bother?”

As communicators, if we want to help employees bring themselves fully to their roles, with all their ingenuity, energy and integrity, we’ve got to ensure that we’re present in our communications. There’s no magic to how this happens. Our comms need to pass the test for good conversation: honest, relevant, say what you really think, use language natural to the form, address the elephant in the room, and respond when people tell you things. We have to risk that genuine connection or we distance people a bit more with every hollow word.

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