Have you heard the saying, “Don’t sweat the small stuff?” I don’t know who the original author was, but I’d be willing to bet you two things:
As with many absolutely valid aphorisms, this one makes perfect sense in one context and yet is completely wrong in another. "Don’t sweat the small stuff" is usually followed by... “how to keep your cool in stressful situations,” or “how to focus on the really important things in life”—like family and relationships, goals and priorities. I agree. I’m a believer. I mumble these words to myself all the time. I often find myself getting caught up in what my dad often called the “thick of thin things.” So, find out what’s important in your life and let the rest go. Great advice.
However, in the context of the service provider experience, it is actually the “small stuff” that separates the winners from the losers. It is mistakes with the small stuff that the customer uses to make future purchasing decisions. If my towels aren’t fresh-smelling, or the fish is greasy, or the remote control battery for my TV is dead... I don’t really care how great your hotel’s branding is, how impactful your advertising appears, or how attractive your décor may be.
Little mistakes can have large consequences. For example, one of the more notorious typos supposedly found in Bible printing over the years is a prominent error from a 1631 King James edition that reads simply, “Thou shalt commit adultery.” (Little typo, big mistake!) I am amazed at the little things that people have said in job interviews that have kept them from being hired. And it is really sad to see so many marriages begin to fall apart over small things.
In fact, I would argue that it is in the “boring everyday” that really great service brands are born. You may have heard the old marketing adage, “Don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle.” I don’t buy that. Sure, there is the occasional branding success, where “marketing sizzle” creates the opening for “operations steak.” But in 99% of cases, it’s the other way around; the steak comes before the sizzle. The service you provide must be darn close to perfect, or I won’t believe any of the hype you shovel me about it.
Jan Carlzon, the former president of Scandinavian Airlines wrote a fabulous book called Moments of Truth. (I’m told the term was borrowed from the momento de verdad in the Spanish bullring when the matador and the bull face each other.) Carlzon described a “moment of truth” as any time that a customer comes into contact with any aspect of a business. Speaking of Scandinavian Airlines, he said,
In effect, what Carlzon said with his understanding of moments of truth, is that the details make or break successful companies. Here are a couple examples:
EXAMPLE 1: I walked up to a pizza store once at 9:59 p.m.—closing time. Guess what happened? The young lady working raced me to the door from inside. She got to the door first, turned the lock, and then flipped over the “Closed” sign. We were literally six inches apart, except for the glass door! She mouthed the words, “I have a date.” There was no, “Sorry for the inconvenience.” There was no recognition that I am the money-paying reason that she is even employed. There wasn’t even a smile! I’ve never been back.
EXAMPLE 2: My wife and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary in Italy. We stayed at a remarkable hotel, located right in the heart of Florence, for several days. The stay was fabulous—the rooftop terrace was incredible—the service impeccable—the food was outstanding. I mean, this was really a strong performance by this service team. My strongest memory, however, will be the 110 mosquito bites I woke up with one morning. I pleasantly showed them to the front desk clerk, who without batting an eye said, “Yes, they’re terrible in that room.” That was it—all he said. Wow! Maybe demand is so high for that hotel that they won’t even notice that I’ll never return, nor recommend it to anyone, including the three couples who have already asked me where to stay in Florence.
Back in the ’90s, Marriott began focusing on the acronym EIWO, which stood for "Everything in Working Order.” There is an entire execution strategy contained in those words. It means light bulbs that work, sinks that drain quickly, Internet that works, dresser drawers that slide easily, and so on. It is the epitome of the point I am trying to make here.
I’ve given a lot of thought to why so many service providers fall short on executing the details, and I’m sure there are multiple reasons—so many moving parts, fire drills all around, real-time nature of service, etc. They all play a part, I’m sure. But I’m convinced that, far and away, the number-one reason for the service lapse on details is that focusing on them is just not as interesting as working on new ideas, new strategies, etc. (For example, which words are more attractive and interesting to you—“new and dynamic” or “repetition and consistency”?)
After 25 years of listening to service industry customers on this subject, here’s my take: With the exception of a few, specialized boutique brands, the majority of consumers are looking for consistency and dependability from their service brands. Most don’t want the sizzle, they just want the performance. The sizzle may work once, but it’s the steak that keeps them coming back. I’ve always loved what Baron Rothschild said upon opening his new hotel in Paris:
Listen, I’m not making this stuff up. It’s about work, dependability, and consistency. But some companies “get it,” and many don’t. This kind of thinking has been around since the dawn of time...
Self-help author Robert Collier may have put it best, when he said,
It’s all in the daily execution of the details! But then, if we all executed consistently and were truly “sweating the small stuff,” I wouldn’t be writing columns like this, would I?
This is how I see it.