Serving in the Dark


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How do you create a partner-like relationship with customers whose faces you never see? There have always been a host of service providers whose only service signature was the quality of the work they left for the customer––the hotel housekeeper, the auto repair person on the other side of the “customers not allowed beyond this point” sign, and the night nurse who checks your medical stats after major surgery when you are too drugged to communicate. But what do “serve in the dark” providers do to create a solid interpersonal relationship with customers?

The route to creating a positive service relationship with customers receiving service with no direct contact is to simulate the quality of a partnership. As with service in general, the effective management of service details can turn an “at arm’s length” encounter into a responsive kinship experience. It means first making the relationship matter and then seeking subtle but powerful actions to communicate care, trust, and authenticity.

Rely on the power of sights, signals, and symbols. Do signs or website banners sound like warm instructions to valuable partners or like tough laws for greedy criminals? Like the library that changed “overdue fines” to “extended-use fees,” the tone can communicate a lot to your customers. “Don’t leave trash on the floor” can be altered to read “Thank you for helping us keep your Laundromat as clean as you want your clothes to be.”

Always provide a back door. Customers enjoy the convenience of print-at-home tickets, online shopping or online reservations. Customers also want to be able to connect quickly and easily with a human being to bring fast resolution to their problem. There are great web-based companies that practically scream “We would love to talk with you if you need us!” “Serving in the dark” means creating an experience that feels as if there is always a guardian of the transaction watching over the encounter, eager and able to help if there is a hint of consternation by the customer.

Trust your customers. Airport concession stores sometimes put the morning newspaper purchase on the honor system. Instead of standing in line just to buy a USA Today, customers pick up a copy as they put a dollar through the slot in the money container above the papers. When store operators are asked about the end-of-the-day shrinkage, they will tell you that, while they may lose a paper are two, it is more often due to customers’ accidently picking up two copies instead of one. The trust practice benefits the in-a-hurry customer trying to catch a flight and helps the store manage efficient traffic flow with customers buying either more items or items less common than a newspaper.

“Serving in the dark” does not have to be silent service, stoically given without customer rapport. The superior service provider finds ways to build a partnership with self-service customers even if that relationship must be more like one with a dedicated pen pal than a friendly neighbor. As customers require service delivered more quickly, more independently, and with greater convenience than ever before, “serving in the dark” will become, to paraphrase the ad line, “the next best thing to being there.”

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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