When Ray Brook’s flight landed at Portland International Airport on Monday morning, he headed straight for National Car Rental where he had a reservation. He had a meeting with a customer in 30 minutes and a full schedule of visits to warehouses and distribution centers for the next four days.
But when he tried to pay for his car, the computer rejected his card. After a minute of research, the agent told him there was a problem with his profile, and asked to see his driver’s license. Studying his license, she said,
“Did you know your driver’s license expired last week on your birthday?”
“No, I had no idea!” Ray said in genuine surprise.
Then she offered with a smile, “Happy birthday, Mr. Brook.” This kind gesture certainly helped diffuse a little of the building tension but couldn’t overcome what she had to say next. “I’m sorry, Mr. Brook, but we can’t rent you a car because you don’t have a valid driver’s license.”
Ray was shocked and dismayed. He explained his very tight agenda for the next two days. He simply must have a car. The agent quickly called over the manager. The manager explained the problem. “In the unlikely event you’re in an accident, Mr. Brook, and are injured or injure someone else, National would be liable for renting a car to a person with an expired license. I’m sorry, but we simply cannot rent you a car.”
What the manager said next, however, shocked Ray even more.
“We can, however, drive you wherever it is you’d like to go.”
What? Did he hear that correctly?
Ray explained that he had meetings scheduled at multiple places around Portland for two days. He then planned to fly to Sacramento, California, for another two days of meeting hopping, where he would again need a rental car. It was a very generous offer. But Ray didn’t want a guest along with him for four days, any more than the manager wanted to be without an agent for that long.
After listening to Ray’s agenda, the manager offered this creative solution. He noticed Ray’s driver’s license was from Washington State, which bordered Oregon to the north of Portland—just on the other side of the Columbia River from the airport. So despite the fact that Ray was almost 200 miles from home, the nearest Washington State Department of Motor Vehicles office was just a few miles away.
The manager offered to drive Ray to his first appointment about 20 minutes away. Then he would come back for him at the end of the appointment and drive him to the DMV to get his license renewed. There was just enough time in between appointments to make it. Then Ray could officially rent the car for the rest of the trip.
“Brilliant!” Ray thought. And it was agreed. The manager had one of the agents drive him to his first appointment and then later to the DMV. But it was there that Ray got his third shock of that still very early day. When they arrived at the DMV, they discovered that in Washington, DMV offices are closed on Mondays.
Now what? The agent drove an increasingly frustrated Ray Brook back to the rental car office at the airport to figure out what to do next. There, Ray and the manager concocted plan B. Here’s what they did. A National agent drove Ray to his hotel to check in but didn’t charge Ray anything for the day since he hadn’t technically rented a car yet. With that money saved, Ray paid taxi fares to get him to the remaining calls that day. Tuesday morning, another National agent picked Ray up at his hotel and took him to his final appointment in Portland, then waited outside for him. An hour and a half later, the agent drove him to the DMV, which was now open.
The agent patiently waited again for an hour as Ray slowly moved through the line and got his license renewed. They drove back to the airport just in time for Ray to catch his flight to Sacramento. Ray thanked the manager for the extraordinary customer service. But before he left, the manager personally updated Ray’s profile with the new driver’s license date, so he wouldn’t have any trouble renting a car in Sacramento.
That was 25 years ago. Ray Brook has been a loyal National Car Rental customer ever since. More importantly, National’s executives used Ray’s story to define customer service excellence in dozens of speeches to thousands of National employees and board members over the following years. It’s impossible to train employees for every possible scenario. They’re infinite. But through stories like these, they can learn on a more intuitive level what great customer service looks like.
Now, perhaps that’s not the kind of thing National would want to be doing at every location every day. But if it meant making (or keeping) a loyal customer for life, it might be worth it in the rare instances it was really necessary, and when they had the staffing to make happen.
So, how did National end up using that story so productively?
- First, because someone wrote it down. And that someone was Ray Brook. He was so impressed with the customer service that he wrote a detailed letter of commendation for the manager and agents at the Portland office and sent it to National’s CEO directly. But the other reason is that the CEO recognized the value in the story and used it. And that doesn’t happen everywhere. In my experience, most of the best stories in most organizations go to waste because nobody recognized them as the valuable company asset they could have been.
- But the other reason is that the CEO recognized the value in the story and used it. And that doesn’t happen everywhere. In my experience as a storytelling consultant with companies all over the world, most of the best stories in most organizations go to waste because nobody recognized them as the valuable company asset they could have been.
If you want to inspire similar devotion from your customers that National has with Ray Brook, ask yourself:
- How creative are your employees when it comes to customer service?
- How creative do you want them to be?
- How empowered are they to do the kind of things the National Manager did for Ray Brook?
- What could they do if you gave them more leeway?
- Most importantly, if you heard a world-class customer service story at your company, would you recognize the value in it and use it, like National did? Or would it just go to waste like they do at most companies, including this national pizza chain?
For ideas on how to find the best customer service stories in your company that you don’t already know about, see this article: A World-Class Customer Service Story and 6 Ways to Find One in Your Company.
Source: Lead with a Story: How to Craft Business Narratives that Captivate, Convince, and Inspire, by Paul Smith.
Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story, Parenting with a Story, and Sell with a Story.
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