October 17, 2007

Understandably, there’s a lot being said about customer experience these days. It seems as though everywhere I turn I come across an article describing one or an advertisement touting one. What gets lost at times is the fact that it takes people – typically the employees of an organization – to create the events that are unique and memorable to customers. Which leads to Nashville.

Gathering in Nashville for an annual event called thinkAbout (hosted by Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore, authors of The Experience Economy), over 100 individuals from a wide-range of professions came together to discuss meaningful ways to enhance the customer experience in our respective industries. The two days were jam-packed with learning provocations and, of course, hands-on experiences. As powerfully instructive as this event is, it was something that happened after-hours that may have provided the best learning of all. Which leads to the Waffle House.

The plan called for all thinkAbout participants wanting to go on the “freakWalk” – a post-event happening birthed at the 2005 thinkAbout when a speech by Tom Peters heralded the value of freaks in any organization – to meet in the hotel lobby at 10 pm. I had heard about this event, where last year over a dozen participants took a midnight stroll from the Baltimore hotel to visit Edgar Allen Poe’s grave. Freaky, indeed. This year’s event appeared at first to be rather modest, with eighteen of us setting off for the nearest Waffle House, about a mile away from the Gaylord Opryland Hotel where we were staying. Which leads to the luggage cart.

The group freakishly borrowed a hotel luggage cart to ride on the way! As we set off through the parking lot, when most of the women in the group hopped aboard, someone shouted out, “Four out of five women prefer to go to Waffle House riding on a luggage rack!”

After pushing the cart down an access road and across a four-lane street to the sidewalk, and then over a highway, we arrived at the Waffle House. Its four employees went from serving not even a handful of customers to having to serve twenty-two, each hungering for waffles, grits, and their famous hash browns (“scattered smothered and covered”). Which leads to Shawn.

We noticed a gal sitting at the counter near one of our tables. We naturally assumed that she was one of the few customers but as we began placing our orders, Shawn sprang into action, getting drinks and place settings for our entire group. Curious, we asked her if she worked there, because she wasn’t in the Waffle House uniform. Without missing a beat, she told us that she had been a long-time employee and had come in to find a quiet place to study for an upcoming biology test.

But when we came in, she told us she had to help. “In fact,” she said in a most-spirited way, pointing her finger at us, “if you are an employee of Waffle House and are off work, and the place gets busy, you have a duty to help out fellow employees.” It’s just part of the Waffle House employee culture, she explained. And it doesn’t matter which Waffle House you’re in at the time; if needed, you get up and help.

Impromptu singing (the heavily tattooed Waffle House cook sang “Your Cheatin’ Heart” to us a cappella) and a magic trick (from a thinkAbouter named Giovanni Livera) rounded out the night before the return walk home (with luggage cart in tow, returned safely back to the hotel). We were tired yet amazed at how the seemingly ordinary became the truly extraordinary.

Shawn made a big impression on our group, and her off-duty behavior begs the question: Do you and your fellow employees go out of your way to help out one another? This fundamental, unselfish act is part and parcel to the staging of memorable customer experiences. Does your corporate culture (a term that applies to all organizations, regardless of size) encourage employees to support one another, even in the most mundane of tasks?

Finally, it was a great lesson to me in recognizing that learning opportunities can’t be confined to a classroom, lecture or intricately planned event. Some of the best learning comes when you least expect it, whether at work with colleagues, at home with kids, or out for the legendary freakWalk!


Shareef Mahdavi
President, SM2 Consulting

Download the full blog