Interview and customer service stories with Michael Heppell


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Steinbeck on storytelling

Today, as part of the interview series, it is my pleasure to welcome Michael Heppell to the blog. When I spoke with Michael we talked at length about all sorts of things and most of the best bits were in the stories that Michael told. As such, I have organised most of the interview in the form of a series of stories. I hope you like it.


Michael is the International Best Selling Author of ‘How to Be Brilliant’, ‘Five Star Service – One Star Budget’, ‘Brilliant Life’ and ‘Flip It’ – the No. 1 Best Selling Personal Development title in the UK of 2010. You can check all of his books and CDs at and you check out his website at

When he is not writing or recording more audio programmes, he works with Vauxhall, Scottish Power, Britvic, Asda, Association of Colleges, HM Prison Service, Microsoft, Virgin Atlantic, Pearson, HSBC, EDF Energy, NHS Scotland, Metropolitan Police, Argos and O2 as well as business leaders, top athletes, TV personalities and film makers to help them raise their game.

Personally, he has a goal to positively influence 1 million lives through powerful live presentations, exciting business programmes, personal coaching, books and audio programmes.

I have met Michael a couple of times and have attended a couple of his workshops over the last couple of years and I must say that he is a hugely entertaining and interesting presenter that packs his workshops and materials with tons of practical and easy to implement tips and strategies.


To kick off the interview, I asked Michael to tell us a bit about his books:

  • How to be Brilliant – he says is built on a premise is that it’s no longer enough to be good enough and this book shows you how to go from being good enough to being ‘brilliant’
  • Five star service – 1 star budget – is all about how to deliver exceptional customer service and that the best customer service ideas cost very little.
  • Brilliant life – is all about how to get a brilliant balance in your life.
  • Flip it! – is full of strategies and tips to help you get the best out of everything.
  • Five star service (Revised edition) – goes into greater depth about it takes to deliver exceptional service.

Michael’s last book was a revised edition of Five Star Service and was published in May of last year. I asked why the book was updated and if Michael thought that customer service was a rising agenda item.

Michael replied that many executives say it is but if you ask customers and they will often tell you a different story. He believes that, generally, we’re good at putting things right but what we forget is that when things go wrong that it may then be too late for their customers to forgive them. What really great customer service companies do is that do great things for their customers continuously such that they put what Michael calls ‘deposits’ in their emotional bank accounts. What this means is that when these businesses do make mistakes, and they will, we, as customers, forgive them. Also, if you build a business that delivers this type of service that you create customers who are so loyal to them that even when they do get something wrong their customers are keen to help them put it right as they want them to continue to be great. They have a vested interested in them doing well.

At the end of that question, he posed a really interesting question and something for us all to think about:

Why would you want to get something wrong and then have to give, or send, someone something for free to apologise as that is likely to cost you a fortune?

Why not get it right first and then let your customers help you get even better?


Discussing this some more, I found out that Michael believes that great customer service companies take a very mature approach to building relationships with their customers, where great relationships work when they are a two way relationship. The challenge here is that there are many great marketing companies out there that are very good at delivering a message but are not good at listening, a fundamental building block of a great two-way relationship.

Michael cited an restaurant example to explain this in greater detail. For example, in a restaurant what would be your stimulus response when asked the question: ‘How was your meal?’

The standard response is normally:

‘Fine, thanks’,

especially if it is asked at the end of the meal right before you are about to go home, have a taxi waiting and you don’t really have the time, energy or inclination to let the restaurant manager,waiter or waitress what you liked and didn’t like.

How does that help you as a business owner or manager?

What about if it went something like this:

Your waiter or waitress comes over halfway during you meal:

Waiter/Waitress: ‘How is your meal?’

You: ‘Fine, thanks.’

Waiter/Waitress: That’s great. If there was one thing that we could be doing better what would it be?

You make a suggestion

Waiter/Waitress: Thanks for that. That’s brilliant.

Waiter/Waitress then goes and tells the appropriate person. Let’s say it’s a food issue.

Then, if it is a food issue, the next step would be that the chef would come out and thank the customers for their feedback and honesty, as it helps them all to get better and provide an even better service for their customers.

Following such an exchange, how would you then feel as a customer?

As a customer, assuming that everything went well, you’re likely to feel pretty great about the business, talk positively about them and are, probably, very likely to go back again.

As a business, would that type of exchange help you build better relationships with your customers and garner more honest, open, constructive and positive feedback about your business?


Another example Michael shared with me was a retail one when the standard greeting and question when entering mosts shop is ‘Can I help you?’, which is invariably answered with ‘No thanks, I’m just looking’.

However, he believes that if we changed that to something that was more engaging, something more interesting that it would automatically make that retail experience stand out in the mind of the customer and increase the likelihood that they will buy something.

This might sound very simple and straightforward and Michael agrees that it is. Asked once in a seminar by an audience member about why this happens, he said:

‘Who cares! If it leads to more sales then why are we bothered? Just do it.”

What Makes Great Service in a Hotel?

Currently, Michael is working with leading hotel chain, Red Carnation Hotels, who have Milestone hotel in Kensington, London, in their group. This hotel won No. 1 in the World for Service in Travel and Leisure Magazine in June 2008. This was the first time that a UK hotel has ever won that award.

He believes that they are the No. 1 for service because they are completely dissatisfied with the service they provide and because they know that there is still so much to do.

So much so that every day, every member of staff is involved, as part of their daily routine, with how they improve the customer experience. This applies to everyone in the organisation right down to the cleaners, who have budget and flexibility to go out and do or get things if they believe that it will improve the overall customer experience. They are empowered to use their time and creativity in any way to improve the guest experience.

Corporate Resistance

Recently, he was asked to do a keynote on customer service at the annual conference of the top executives of a large corporate. When he had finished his keynote speech and had taken a seat, the CEO of the business started to tell him why it was so much more difficult for them to implement new customer service initiatives and a service based culture.

Michael believes that this is not really true and that the real challenge is that it’s just not on their agenda of priorities and doesn’t figure in the same mix as cost cutting, growth via acquisition in new markets or new branding initiatives. However, if they put the same amount of effort into improving the customer experience driven from the bottom up as they do into these other efforts then, he believes, they would see dramatic results in their customer retention and bottom line.

United Airlines and Capt Denny Flannigan

The final story that Michael told was one that features in his book, Five Star Service, where he tells a story about Captain Denny Flannigan, a pilot on United Airlines. who does things that other people just don’t do in his industry. These include:

  • He gets to airport early and does all pre flight safety checks early
  • He then goes to the departure gate to meet as many passengers as possible
  • He then greets everyone and helps them with their bags as they get on the plane because he knows if he does that then his cabin crew will do that too
  • Once the flight is up and on auto pilot, whilst other pilots might be taking a snooze, he writes hand-written notes to everyone in 1st and business class to thank them for their custom. Why does he do this? Well, he knows this is where 80-90% of the profit for United Airlines comes from and having great relations with these customers ensures the future of the business.
  • On Mondays and Fridays, as these are the two busiest days for flights with business people on them and most of them book into window and aisle seats, he writes a hand written note to every sole traveller that is sat in the middle seat of a row squashed between two frequent travelers. Why? Well, when these lone travelers get these notes, Capt Denny says two things happen:
  1. Emotionally their seat gets bigger and
  2. Physically their seat does get bigger as both people either side of them turn to see why they of all people have received a note from the Capt.!
  • Capt. Denny also does other things like when people are traveling with pets. What he understands is that many of them will be concerned about their pets being and if it is warm enough or is there enough oxygen in the hold. So, what he does is he goes down to the hold and takes a picture of the pet and goes and finds the passenger and shows them the picture as confirmation that their pet is ok.

And in the end what happens? People tell stories. People love telling stories.

The Secret of Customer Service

And here’s a secret behind all of this:

When someone tells a customer service story (good or bad) they exaggerate it!

So, the question has to be what do you want people to be exaggerating about your business: good or bad stories?

Your choice.

Look out for Michael’s new book (out in April/May) ‘How to Save an Hour a Day‘. You can pre-order it on Amazon here.

You can also check out Michael on Twiiter @MichaelHeppell

I hope you liked some of Michael’s stories. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Thanks to Jill Clardy for the image.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Adrian Swinscoe
Adrian Swinscoe brings over 25 years experience to focusing on helping companies large and small develop and implement customer focused, sustainable growth strategies.


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