A line in the sand


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employee-blinders-copyIn 168 BC the Greek ruler, Antiochus led an attack on Egypt. Before reaching Alexandria, his path was blocked by a Roman envoy who delivered a message from the Roman Senate directing Antiochus to withdraw his armies from Egypt and Cyprus or consider themselves in a state of war with the Roman Republic.

Antiochus said he would discuss it with his council, whereupon the Roman ambassador instructed a soldier to draw a line in the sand around Antiochus. “Before you cross this circle,” said the ambassador, “I want you to give me a reply for the Roman Senate” (implying that Rome would declare war if the Greek ruler stepped out of the circle without committing to leave Egypt immediately). Weighing his options, Antiochus wisely chose to withdraw.

The above story recounts the origin of the “line in the sand” metaphor depicting confrontation, adversarialism, and ultimatum. And, while this conflict took place more than 2,000 years ago, similar showdowns between service providers and customers occur daily in a variety of forms such as: refusal to make exceptions, admonishment of customers for not knowing “the rules” (company policies, procedures, terms and conditions, etc.), and employee defensiveness or indifference toward critical customer feedback.

Here are three examples from my own experience (though, sadly, I could provide 33 examples if we had more time):

1.) As I approached the counter at an airport deli, I heard the customer ahead of me ask if the bread for his sandwich could be sliced thinner than those visible slices that had been pre-sliced. (The pre-sliced bread was quite thick and, as I learned, the customer had recently been diagnosed with TMJ syndrome – chronic pain that restricts how wide he can comfortably open his mouth.) The employee responded that the bread had been pre-sliced and could not be sliced thinner. The customer moved down toward the register, content to simply order a drink and a bag of chips. About that time, I noticed the open kitchen to the left where there were dozens of loaves of bread being stored on racks. I asked the employee if one of those loaves could be used to accommodate the customer who required thinner bread slices. At first she said no because, as she explained, the automated bread slicer used produced slices of standard thickness. Then I asked her if she had a bread knife behind the counter. At this point, she appeared to connect the dots and suggested that she may be able to honor the customer’s request after all. How many customers do you think will request thinner slices of bread at that airport deli today? Two? Three? Four? I’m not sure, but I can say this with certainty: these requests will be infrequent; they will be exceptions; and exceptions create opportunities to provide exceptional customer service.

2.) Last March, the branch manager at my neighborhood bank offered to print my last two months of statements for me (as we were refinancing our home through another lender). The following day, while reviewing transactions, I noticed a “statement printing fee” on my account in the amount of $6 (although there was no mention of a fee while I was at the bank). After taking to Twitter, the fee was promptly removed. A week or so later, the branch manager called me to apologize but actually made things worse by (subtly) admonishing me, saying three times during our call, “I’m just sorry that you felt as though you couldn’t come directly to me based on our relationship.” (Never mind that our “relationship” was based on a single encounter at the bank.) What she was really saying was, “Why did you broadcast my sneaky fee on social media?” Customers should feel free to use their preferred channel, Twitter or otherwise, when communicating with an organization. And customers should never be surprised by fees or terms and conditions they were not expressly made aware of in advance.

3.) Over spring break this year, my family stayed at a resort at the base of Peak 7 in Breckenridge. On the day of our departure, we checked-out at 1pm, leaving the condo as the cleaning attendant arrived to prepare the unit for the next guests. We spent the next two hours in town shopping before leaving for home at 3pm. By 5:30pm we had arrived back at our house and were unpacking the car. It was then that my wife noticed that we were missing a bag. I called the resort and the employee at the desk said, “Yes, Mr. Curtin. Your bag’s sitting right here. Housekeeping found it in the unit and turned it over to the front desk.” When I asked her what time the bag was turned over, she said, “I’m not sure, but it’s been here since I arrived at 2 o’clock.” When I asked her why no one thought to call me (they have a record of my contact information, including cell phone and email address) during the previous four and a half hours, she claimed ignorance saying, “I don’t know. But if you have a FedEx account number, we can ship it to you – but not today, because they already picked up at 3:30pm.” So, four days and $65 later, we were reunited with the bag. This ordeal could have been avoided if someone at the resort had simply taken the initiative to notify me that I’d forgotten a bag before 3pm when I left Breckenridge for home.

Instead of jousting with customers over exceptions, not knowing “the rules”, or sharing critical feedback, employees should be trained to listen to them and (gasp!) empathize with customers by making the effort to connect with their unique circumstances, expectations, and perspectives. The next time you detect a line in the sand between you and your customers, consider inviting them across. That way, you can both be on the same side.

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Illustration by Aaron McKissen.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Steve Curtin
Steve Curtin is the author of Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary. He wrote the book to address the following observation: While employees consistently execute mandatory job functions for which they are paid, they inconsistently demonstrate voluntary customer service behaviors for which there is little or no additional cost to their employers. After a 20-year career with Marriott International, Steve now devotes his time to speaking, consulting, and writing on the topic of extraordinary customer service.


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