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Great service shines in unlikely places

Despite the fact that most people have a negative opinion about customer service overall, there are some businesses and industries in which it is still expected and typically well-executed. For example, we expect fine restaurants, upscale hotels and resorts, and high-end retailers to deliver consistently good to great service, and for the most part they do.

Still, there are many businesses with which we interact on a more regular basis, and from which we don't really anticipate stellar experiences. We're pretty much satisfied just getting through our chores and daily business without hassles -- and it's these companies that have a prime opportunity to shine and outperform their competitors.

Last year I wrote about what was, and remains, the best customer service experience I've ever had, in a place I would have never expected -- an airport fast food chain restaurant. The article triggered hundreds of emails and social media comments, almost all of them on the theme of there being "hope for humanity." It's been seven months since it ran and I still get notes, the best of them being from business owners and other leaders who say that the story inspired, or reinforced, their emphasis on simple human touches that can make such a huge difference in their businesses.

That got me thinking about all of the other times I've experienced, or heard of, great service in unexpected places; most of them very small, inexpensive (or free) gestures that go a very long way. Here are just a few examples from my own home town of Rochester, N.Y.:

The auto repair shop

Few people expect car repair places to send them home with smiles on their faces. But a there's an auto shop here -- Mac's II -- that has been managing to do just that for decades, by flawlessly executing on a service ethic that is laser-focused on making people happy at a time when that's not the default emotion.

Of course the garage does excellent mechanical work -- no amount of courtesy can substitute for that -- and it has not-uncommon touches like a nice waiting room and free coffee. But it also has employees who smile real smiles and speak with empathy and genuine kindness, without fail. When you pick up your car it is immaculate -- in some cases they even completely detail it. And finally, the shop's signature touch -- believe it or not -- is a fresh carnation on the passenger seat. You have to be a seriously grumpy person to not at least crack a little grin when you see it. Sure, you'd be happier without the expense of a car repair, but this company and its people do an amazing job of easing the sting, and it costs them very little to go that one step above.

Barber shop

For most men, a haircut is usually a fairly benign experience -- more pleasant and satisfying than an oil change, but still in the general realm of "scheduled maintenance." Granted, cheerful people and good service are not unusual in the salon biz, but again, another local business takes it to another level. The Men's Room Spa is a combination of old-school barber shop and modern-day man cave. If you're a regular, you're always greeted by name. Within seconds, someone is there to take your coat and offer you a beer, soft drink or coffee. If you have to wait at all, you do so in a big, dude-worthy chair, watching sports on a flat screen. And somewhere in all of that, you get a great haircut. You can get one for less at other places in town, but with service like this, you ask, "why would I want to?"

I should make clear that I am a loyal, long-time customer of both of these businesses, so I am both speaking from direct experience and giving them unapologetic plugs. But that's really the point: I'm loyal to them, and like to tell others about them, for a reason.

The hospital

Here's one most people would never expect: extraordinary customer service at a hospital. It's the last place anyone wants to go (well, I suppose second-to-last). Having anything like a "great customer service experience" isn't usually the first thing on a patent's mind. But Strong Memorial Hospital at the University of Rochester, our largest local hospital, is changing that notion -- recognizing that there's a big difference between treating people and treating them well.

Medicine must surely be one of the most difficult businesses in which to provide great, personal service, and it's safe to say this hospital isn't all smiles and good cheer, but it does it as well as I imagine it can be done. The staff, on balance, is about as kind and friendly as must be possible in that environment. They have "room service" menus with desirable food on them. There are roving question-answerers everywhere. They even have well-dressed representatives to help with the parking payment machine. And after a recent two-day stay, one of my family members got a hand-signed get-well/thank you note in the mail from the entire floor staff. All this from a place with which nobody ever wants to do business.

The takeaway lesson

The lesson here is that whether you own a corner store or a run a large corporation, if you're in any industry that's not traditionally thought of as setting customer service benchmarks -- and especially if your product, service or category is crowded or commoditized -- you'll do well to look for the little ways in which you can stand out. In fact, the little things are often the only way to stand out.

With fewer and fewer differentiators between businesses in any given category, there is incredible competitive advantage in "hitting 'em where they ain't."

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