No, the answer is not the punchline to an off-color joke.
Rather, each of these three people have done something in the past week that has rewarded them and their businesses with my business - and with the kind of advertising that those of us in the public relations industry kill for: word of mouth from a happy customer.
Let's start with the orthodontist, simply because he was first.
Boo has a cross-bite (as does Betty), so we're in the process of dealing with spacers and palate expanders and all kinds of other partially-covered by insurance crap that I thought was several years in our future. We've had several visits to the orthodontist in the past month, which have gone very well, considering that Boo has Asperger's, and a heightened degree of anxiety about such situations like ... well, having silver rings placed around one's teeth during regularly-scheduled summer camp hours. The meltdowns that have accompanied these appointments when he's told he might miss a whole half hour of camp have been off the Richter scale of intensity.
But, he's been a trooper during these appointments and much more calm then I ever expected. Part of this is because of the staff, who suggested that, given his autism, he might be less anxious if he had the same hygienist each time. The very fact that they thought of this earned them mega-points right off the bat.
Then, the day after Boo's latest appointment, a postcard arrived in the mail. Addressed to Boo. Handwritten. Congratulating him on a great appointment and thanking him for being such a great patient. He was, needless to say, thrilled.
That's an example of a nice PR touch from a business. What kid gets mail these days? Mine certainly don't. For whatever a postcard stamp costs and the few minutes it took someone to write out the card, the orthodontist's office will be rewarded with me remembering that story (and others) the next time someone asks me who my kids' orthodontist is. (As a matter of fact, it was a personal referral at a birthday party that sold me on this doctor.)
We don't go out to eat often as a family (or otherwise). When we do, it is usually a Big Deal. Such was the case on Sunday. Needing an escape from the heat and an activity, we headed for the mall. Around 3:00, we were hungry and I checked in with The Cheesecake Factory to see about their wait time. (We never go to The Cheesecake Factory. This would be A Very Big Deal.)
"Thirty minutes," the hostess replied. Excellent. The four of us then enjoyed a very nice dinner, until a snafu at the end.
I'd ordered the kid-size hot fudge sundae for the kids, but did so in what I admit was a confusing way. "And for them, the kid-size hot fudge sundae," I said, pointing my index finger back and forth between my two cherubs.
One sundae arrived and was placed in front of Betty. "Where's mine?" Boo said, starting to lose it.
"It's coming," I replied.
But, no ... it wasn't, because the waitress thought I'd meant for the two kids to share one sundae. Within a few minutes, another sundae was brought out. By this point, however, I'd already paid the bill ... without the Snafu Sundae included.
Now, this could have gone a different way. I fully expected the waitress to take our bill back, explain that she needed to charge us for the sundae, we'd have to dig our credit card out again, re-sign the slip, etc. But all those machinations were avoided when she placed the sundae down and chirped, "On us!"
Her tip reflected that. The Cheesecake Factory could easily have eaten the cost of my son's sundae, which they did. We would have left disgruntled, and they would have survived the potential loss of our business. But for the cost of a kid-size sundae, we were made to feel like we'd won the lottery. You can be sure if we're at the mall again and need someplace to eat, we'll consider heading for The Cheesecake Factory over less expensive options.
And finally, The Exterminator.
There's a wasp nest imbedded in the side of our house, stuck up in a piece of siding. This is not, in my world, a DIY job. Some things are best left to a professional, and in our world, the removal of things like wasps are high on that list. My friend Niksmom suggested her exterminator, who arrived this morning, fully-suited up to do battle with the wasps.
Once the nest was gone, we settled the bill. "I need to charge you for a full visit," he explained, somewhat apologetically, even though I was fully expecting the cost he mentioned.
"That's fine," I replied.
"I feel bad about that," he continued. "Since I'm here already, I'm happy to add an exterior house spraying for no additional cost. It's what would be included in a visit."
Sure, sounds great. He then explained their monthly service and what's all included. We had a pest control service in our previous home but just never got around to signing up with one here. We also weren't pleased with the previous big establishment pest control service, which seemed to nickel and dime us for every ant that crossed our path.
"You can think about it," our new exterminator said.
"I'll be giving you a call soon to set something up," I answered.
So, what do The Orthodontist, the Waitress, and the Exterminator all have in common? They all know one essential element of doing business in this new post-recessionary economy. It isn't that the customer is right.
It's that the customer wants to be surprised - in a good way.
The customer wants you to look beyond the couple bucks and see the 8 year old kid who feels like he isn't going to get a sundae.
The customer wants to feel special, as if you have some semblance of a relationship and that you know her kid's name - the one who you're forking over hundreds of dollars in orthodontia bills for.
The customer wants to feel like she got something a little extra, something unexpected, a deal that only took a few minutes.
I think that successful businesses, like these, know this - and I think that they know this intrinsically. In the case of the Waitress and the Exterminator, there was no consulting with upper-management before giving us the sundae or the exterior spraying gratis. There was no hemming or hawing. They just did it, knowing that it made good business sense to do so, and probably knowing that this good experience would be repeated and rewarded.
These are lessons that more businesses can - and should - learn. Because the way we play in this new economy is different. We're all trying to make do with less, we're all trying to get ahead. The way we're treated is more important than ever.
Maybe the key to good PR - and ultimate survival - is simply a unexpected surprise.
copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.