A slice of absolute customer service perfection

Photo Courtesy of Wolfgang Puck, Inc.

(MoneyWatch) If I gave out a "Customer Service Moment of the Year" award, I'd have my 2013 winner already, and of all places, it's an airport fast food joint.

Spending as much time as I do focusing on customer service, both in my own business and in my writing and speaking, pretty much nothing in the field -- whether horrible or exceptional -- surprises me anymore. But every once in a while I find the most extraoardinary service in places I expect it least. Such was the case a few weeks ago.

To make a very long story as short as I can, my son was traveling cross-country on his way home from summer camp. He was flying as an unaccompanied minor, with a boring four-hour layover at Chicago O'Hare (welcome to my world, son). He called to tell us he was hungry, but somehow only had a dollar in his pocket. I have no idea where all his money went, since he was in the deep back-country for 24 days. But as I say, I'm trying to keep the story short.

I told him to go to any of the sit-down restaurants and ask if his dad could give them a credit card over the phone, and they all turned my hungry camper away; none would even try to figure out a way to help. So he just planted himself on a bench and figured he'd tough it out. But as a concerned dad, I couldn't give up. Knowing O'Hare practically by heart, and being addicted to pizza, I knew that there was a Wolfgang Puck Express ("WPE" in the dialog to follow) not far from where he was killing time, and with two or three calls I was able to reach them directly. This is how the call went:

Me: "Is there any way you can take my card and charge his meal? I'll send a picture of the card, whatever you need to feel comfortable."

WPE: "Unfortunately, we have no way of taking a credit card over the phone..."

Me (assuming that was the end of the sentence): "But, there must be some..."

WPE: "..so just send your boy in here and we'll make sure he gets a good meal. My store manager and operations manager are both here, and we don't want him to be sitting around hungry. You don't have to worry about paying for it."

Me (lump in throat): "Wha... you... no, please, I really insist you find a way for me to pay for this."

WPE: "Just do something nice for someone else."

This happened, folks. Word for word, just like that.

My son called later to say the ladies treated him like doting moms, fixing him up with dinner, asking if there was anything he wanted to take with him, insisting that he at least take a bottle of water for the road.

Once I picked myself up off the floor, I posted the story to facebook, and was inundated with comments from friends and family as bowled over as I was. Two of them happened to have trips through O'Hare coming up -- both made sure to go to the restaurant while there -- and others promised to make WPE their quick food stop of choice when transiting ORD.

The next day I called back and spoke to one of the same managers. I asked her if I could call their corporate office to recognize them (I was actually worried that they might get in trouble for the freebie). She told me "we just do what's right -- your thanking us is enough." Double-wow.

I called corporate anyway, and got a prompt call back from Leslie Whitten, Vice President of Worldwide Operations, who was thrilled to hear the story and told me the restaurant staff was showing the kind of initiative that the company encourages; that sometimes people just need help and they believe they should help them.

Wolfgang Puck's company -- from the airport takeout counter employee to the executive suite -- knocked this customer service opportunity out of the park:

- They cared enough to find an answer besides the easy "no."

- They didn't worry about the cost of the food, understanding that in the long run they would do well by doing good. That little meal -- and the attitude with which it was offered -- will surely sell much more than it cost.

- They acted with empathy --  the single most important quality in serving people.

- The employees were authorized, encouraged, and recognized for treating people well.

Ms. Whitten followed up the next day with an email that said

I have sent word to the Regional Management to praise and thank their employees. I am so pleased to hear that your son was taken care of, we are delighted to hear that employees feel empowered to solve and exceed guest expectations.

Normally words like "exceed expectations" drift past my ears as tired corporate lip service, but if ever they were genuine...

Am I plugging a restaurant here? You bet I am -- stories like this should be shouted from the rooftops, and lackluster service companies should pay attention. Bravo, Wolfgang Puck, I doubt I will experience a more perfect example of humanity in service anytime soon.

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    Michael is an entrepreneur who has launched businesses including Skooba Design and Hotdog Yoga Gear travel bag brands, as well as Journeyware Travel Outfitters. Michael sold his company in 2014 and is now focused on writing, speaking and consulting. Learn more about his ventures at www.businesswithclass.com.