Comic Relief: Time for Random Acts of Service


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“I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep,” wrote Norm Cousins in his best-selling book, The Anatomy of an Illness. Comic relief, concluded Cousins, could actually help patients get well.

We have a challenging economy and customers are reacting with despair. What would Dr. Cousins recommend today? He would likely suggest that the features of customer service follow the same principles that make humor work. Let’s example the construction of these simple jokes:

From comedian Joe Weinstein: “My dog is worried about the economy because Alpo is up to 99 cents a can. That’s about $7.00 in dog money!”

From comedian Larry the Cable Guy: “Light travels faster than sound. That’s why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.”

From the late comedian George Carlin: “When cheese gets its picture taken, what does it say?”

What makes these lines funny? The comedian creates a mental pattern and unexpectedly breaks that pattern in the last one or two words. Second, the construction of the humor is simple and easy to get. Finally, the lines have a “tongue-in-check” levity that is joyful. What if customer service could be unexpected, simple and joyful? It could bring comic relief to gloomy customers.

Create an Unexpected Experience

Customer service with an unexpected twist can take customers breath away. Magic tricks, rainbows, or a hot air balloon on the horizon have the same effect. What are ways to take an everyday service pattern and turn it on its ear for the unexpected enjoyment of customers?

Imaginative service is service delivered differently. Take a familiar process and consider ways it can be done differently. What if the serving line went down both sides of the table? What if hospital check-in happened after a patient arrived in their pre-assigned room? What if forms were all in color or decorated? What if the service person had a signature song or cheerful saying each time he or she served a customer? What if the service person wore a funny or colorful hat?

Imaginative service is an experience with something new added. A major hospital asked their patients to identify their favorite flower? The hospital worked out an arrangement with a florist to have a single stem of the patient’s favorite flower in a bud vase placed on that patient’s hospital bed stand. A bank made certain all its drive-in tellers were well-stocked with doggy treats and candy kisses.

Imaginative service capitalizes on a feature of service in a new way. Hotel Monaco asks guests if they would like a goldfish to stay with them in their room. The gold fish is delivered in a colorful basketball-sized glass bowl and under the care of the housekeeping staff. Guests also find a leopard-skin bathrobe in the closet, not the traditional boring white robes. The mint-on-the-pillow has been replaced with something completely unexpected—a flower, foreign coin, lottery ticket, etc.

Keep it Simple

It was not the colorful box or tasty caramelized popcorn that made Cracker Jack a snack food hit for over a hundred years. It was the practically worthless free prize inside. You know you have hit a service homerun with customers when you hear them warmly say, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Simplicity trumps complicated.

Imaginative service is simple if it is worry-free. Stay away from service gestures that can be perceived as pricey or adding to the cost passed on to customers. We all like service with a cherry on top. But, symbolically going overboard with champagne, a red carpet, or a hover craft can be a recipe for customer anxiety. Prevent a very cool idea from backfiring by insuring it is completely stripped of all flattery, self-importance, or manipulation.

Imaginative service is simple if it makes sense. If your customers have to scratch their heads to try and figure out the service gesture, it is likely ill-timed or ill-designed. Jokes don’t work if the listener, on hearing the punch line, remarks, “I don’t get it.” It is exactly the same with customers. If a customer thinks “Why me,” it is a signal the extra effort missed its intended mark.

Imaginative service is simple if it is hassle-free. Remember those service guarantees with such laborious return procedures you angrily keep what you purchased. If you had to find the original receipt, the sku from the box, plus get a note from your mother, it was not worth the aggravation to get the refund? If customers are made to work for their surprise, it is not really a surprise. Likewise, if front line employees have to jump through hoops to deliver the pleasant gesture, it is defeating the purpose.

Make it Joyful

Joyful service can convince customers to expand their service horizons. Under the influence of joyful service, customers will try the unique entrée they otherwise might have avoided, or embrace a product color, style or version they might have formerly thought outside the boundaries of their taste. Persuaded by the confidence that comes from joyful service, customers are jolted out of their routines in ways that renew their spirits and build their loyalty.

Imaginative service is joyful if it is grin-qualified. This means the value-unique service experience is very likely to make customers smile. There will always be a few professional sour pusses that would never reveal their pleasure no matter how lively the deed. Don’t let these “hearts of darkness” undermine the resolve to make the other 99.9% enjoy a service surprise. Today’s customers are gloomier than ever. They deserve your commitment to deliver your creative best.

Imaginative service is joyful if it fits. The Ritz-Carlton hotel in Orlando added an unexpected touch to check-in–mahogany steps enabling children of hotel guests to “check-in” beside their parents. The children’s steps, appropriate to the hotel property near Disneyworld, might not have the same effect as a hotel property in New York or Naples.

A few years ago the pop phrase was “random acts of kindness”—unexpected, self-less gestures for no reason other than to make people smile. People were paying the toll for the driver behind them or putting coins in someone’s expired parking meter to prevent them from getting a parking fine. Imaginative service can serve the same goal. And, just like a joke makes us giggle because the punch line is unexpected, simple and joyful, imaginative service can not only take customers breath away, it can help take their troubles away.

Chip Bell
Chip R. Bell is the founder of the Chip Bell Group ( and a renowned keynote speaker and customer loyalty consultant. Dr. Bell has authored several best-selling books including The 9 1/2 Principles of Innovative Service and, with John Patterson, Take Their Breath Away. His newest book, Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experiences Through Innovative Service, will be released in February.


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