Incenting Imaginative Service


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The service tech at an auto dealership programs in new car customers’ radio stations from their trade-in and lets them discover it. A Hertz courtesy van driver gets renters to shout in unison “I love Hertz” on their way to the airport after car turn-in. A front desk manager at a hotel in Orlando installed steps in front of the check-in counter so children could “check in” beside their parents. Value-unique service trumps value-added service in challenging economic times.

Value-added has been the hallmark service solution. Take what customers expect and add a little more. And, there is nothing inherently wrong with a Baker’s dozen approach. But, value-added has gotten a lot more expensive. That free snack on a flight is now eight dollars. Besides, what do employees think when told to “wow” customers in the morning and informed of staff cutbacks and expense reductions in the afternoon?

Tough economic times call for value-unique, not value-added—service with imagination, not just generosity. Ask customers what actions would be value added and they focus on taking the expected experience to a higher-level…”they gave me more than I anticipated.” But imaginative service is not about addition, it is about creation. Ask service people to give more, they will think, “I’m already doing the best I can.” But, if asked to pleasantly surprise more customers, they feel less like worker bees and more like fireflies. And, when employees get to create, not just perform, they feel prized.

Service innovation not only means service providers rewarding a different type of behavior, it means making the new reward match the new requirement. Service with imagination requires rewarding with imagination. Below are five principles of innovative incentive.

1. Match the Tone of Service

Imaginative service at a hospital looks-sounds-feels very different than the same service delivered at a theme park or a funeral home. The incentive needs to fit the tone and ambiance of the context in which it is delivered. Recognition at DisneyWorld always contains a bit of pixie dust—Mickey’s magic. Recognition at the classy Sewell Lexus dealership in Dallas happens at a black tie dinner at a five-star hotel complete with overnight accommodations for the award recipients and their spouse or partner. Netflix uses their Friday potluck lunches to recognize, reinforcing the informal, and friendliness of their service experience.

2. Recognize Individual and Team

Imaginative service often requires great teamwork. Marriott’s Gold Coin program focuses on involving the customer in identifying a “front of the house” associate who delivered remarkable service. But, the program has special twist. A guest is given a gold coin at check-in with instructions to give the coin to anyone who delivers great service. The gold coin recipient then identifies a “back-of-the-house” associate who helped them deliver great service; both get recognized.

3. Link to the Customer

A major hotel used a creative approach to service that made guests feel they witnessed magic. When a guest arrived the doorman asked the customer if they were a returning guest. If the guest said “yes,” as the doorman brought the customer’s luggage to the front desk he or she sent an “ear pull” signal to the front desk clerk who greeted the customer with “welcome back.” The “ear pull” signal was then passed to the bellman who escorted the guest to their room. The result? The hotel started the chain link award. People in the “ear pull” chain who got acknowledgement from the guest on a comment card were given a chain link with their name engraved to be placed on a chain that got longer each quarter a link was awarded.

4. Affirms Responsible Freedom

Imaginative service typically involves breaking patterns and abandoning “the way we’ve always done it.” To get innovation it is important to affirm appropriate risk taking–not foolhardy recklessness but employees who coupled service with stewardship—taking care of the customer while taking care of the organization. One high tech company gives its annual “green weenie” award to the individual who, while clearly pursuing excellence, made a mistake that produced the greatest organizational learning and improvement.

5. Values Outcome, Not Just the Experience

A happy-go-lucky nurse won the hearts of her patients by bringing them flowers grown in her garden and cookies baked in her oven. They raved to managers about her sunny disposition and special generosity. She was the recipient of a special recognition at the annual awards banquet to the sharp displeasure of her co-workers. While all acknowledged her special way with patients, they were quick to point out her sloppy paperwork, inconsistent hand washing and unwillingness to pull her weight on tasks they all shared. All those poor practices adversely impacted the health care outcome, but were out-of-sight of her adoring fans. Effective recognition practices require performance on “the basics” to be at least at expected levels. We all enjoy friendly flight attendants, but the plane must still land in the right city!

Imaginative service is a hand-made original surprise tailored to the receiver. Its power to attract and retain customers lies in its capacity to make customers feel they have been bestowed a value-unique expression that honors the very nobility of service. Its originality and imagination telegraph an innate commitment to excellence. Imaginative service requires incentives with a creative twist. However, the goal is not an incentive that simply affirms, it is one that channels energy and directs practices that result in customer loyalty.

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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