A number of years ago, back in the day when large customer databases were still expensive to install and time-consuming to implement, a senior marketing executive at a large hotel chain told me a story that perfectly illustrates why a purposeful employee culture at a company can often overcome the drawbacks of insufficient technologies, inadequate processes, or even misaligned incentives.
The story involved an initiative he had asked his IT department to undertake. This particular hotel chain had several hundred properties around the U.S., catering primarily to a business clientele. The executive was the head of marketing and customer service at the firm, and he wanted to ensure a friendlier, more personal check-in experience. So he told me he had wanted to see if his hotel chain couldn't put in place a computer system that would allow the desk clerk at one of his company's hotels to know, whenever a guest was checking in, whether that particular guest had stayed at that particular hotel before.
If he could make this happen, he thought, then the clerk could say something more personally welcoming to the arriving guest. Something like "welcome back, sir," or "good to have you with us again, ma'am." Just a little touch to make the customer feel like he or she was remembered.
The executive said his technology people went off to try to design that kind of a database capability, and they came back to him (after a few weeks) with the prognosis that it would cost about a million dollars, and they would be able to have it in place within eight months. But he was quite disappointed with the amount of time and money they said would be required just to deliver this very simple information, so he asked them to revisit it and maybe come back with a simpler solution.
As it happened, the executive left for a business trip that very evening, planning to check in at one of his chain's hotels near Chicago that night. It was a hotel he had visited a few years previously, but they were one of the first to implement a lobby redesign the company was now rolling out, and he wanted to check it out, see how things were going.
To his amazement, as he stepped up to the check-in desk the young clerk looked him in the eye and said "Welcome back, sir! Glad to have you with us again!"
Astounded, the executive demanded to find out how the clerk could possibly have known this, since the company's very own IT folks had just told him this kind of a system was going to require a million dollars and eight months to implement.
But the clerk just smiled and reminded him that when the bellman had grabbed his luggage from the trunk of the taxi, he had asked him whether he'd ever stayed at this hotel before.
And you must have said "yes," the desk clerk told him, because when the bellman put your luggage down he looked at me and then he tugged on his ear like this, which is our signal that you've stayed here before. So I said "Welcome back."
If ever there were a more powerful illustration of just how important it is for your employees to want to satisfy and delight your customers, I haven't seen it.
As Peter Drucker famously said, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast."
Of course, you can't do everything just with culture and worker motivation; tools and technologies will always be required.
But when you start with a good culture, and if your workers are engaged and motivated, then sometimes you can still do many of the little things even without the technology tools, and the little things are often all it will take to turn an ordinary customer experience into something warmer and more memorable.