Chris and the Coffee Mug

Tom Peters

Divinity student Kelly Bulkley arrived in Moscow for an academic conference just as the August coup struck. After it was over, shaken, he visited the memorial that had spontaneously arisen to those killed by Soviet tanks while guarding Boris Yeltsin’s “White House.”

Moved and wanting to add something of value to the commemorative pile of flowers and other personal mementos, he finally decided to leave behind an inexpensive, green plastic ball-point pen. With it was a silent promise to the martyrs that he would write about their and his experience—which he did in the December issue of Stanford magazine.

I was taken by Bulkley’s tale of the little green pen. Such innocent gestures often mean so much more than large grants of money or other lavish tributes to this or that.

The story also reminded me of a symbolic gesture in the commercial realm, a recent service incident courtesy of Federal Express. It’s the saga of Chris and the coffee mug.

Bet you’ve put something fragile on the roof of a car, then driven off without remembering it—only to return to a broken cup or shattered pair of glasses. The other morning, I left a favorite coffee mug on top of my Pathfinder. Spying it in the middle of the day, alarms went off. I intended to go fetch it but I forgot.

Late in the afternoon, having been up the hill performing farm chores, I returned to the house. On the porch bench was the daily Federal Express box from my California office. Sitting on top of it was my mug.

A little thing? Hardly. I live in deep, rural Vermont. FedEx is a lifeline for many of us urban refugees. Our homes are often as not squirreled away at the end of muddy—or icy—mile-long drives. In other words, a FedEx delivery route is no picnic.

On a typical day, then, FedEx courier Chris Goddard is harried. Yet he took the time to grab my mug and bring it in. No, it wasn’t “time.” Hey, how long can it take to pick up a cup that’s in your path to the front door? The care is the thing.

Soon afterwards, I recalled the event to an audience of 800 executives in Toronto. I asked them if they were surprised. “No” was the nearly unanimous reply. Then I asked if they imagined that a UPS driver would have done the same thing. We shared a good laugh at the thought of that.

Don’t get me wrong, UPS is a stellar, sophisticated, lean, and hungry outfit. I admire them. But while I “admire” UPS, I love FedEx. (Research shows that affection, not admiration, is the key to repeat business!) Both firms are good. But attitude makes all the difference. I trust FedEx. I don’t trust UPS. It’s mostly irrational. But who cares? I’m the customer, and, to me, the retrieved cup symbolizes a yawning gap between the two firms.

Another case in point: My wife and I recently stopped at a self-serve Shell station in Palo Alto. While I was filling the tank, the attendant walked up to Kate’s rolled-up window, looked in, pointed, and lipped “trash.” It took her a second to figure out what he was getting at. She was grasping a handful of trash from a deli stop, and he wanted her to hand it to him so he could dispose of it. Back to Shell we’ll go!

Both the Fed Ex courier and the Shell attendant cases:

– Underscore the potency of such “little” acts in coloring—and cementing—customer relationships.

– Make me wonder how corporate leaders can induce such spontaneous behavior from invariably hassled front-line people.

I’ve said all I can about the power of the minuscule act to significantly alter perception. When it comes to leaders causing such small acts to routinely occur, I think the direction is clear:

– If you care, they will care. If busy leaders consistently demonstrate, via “coffee-cup acts” of their own, that they care about employees, then the odds of employees’ caring about customers goes up dramatically. It’s as simple as that, though it takes a lifetime of dedication and awareness to pull off. Sure, I’ve said it before. But it needs repeating, and repeating, and repeating again.

– Make personalization of service a priority. UPS achieved some of its hard-earned distinction by inculcating paramilitary discipline. That has a payoff and a price. FedEx, notwithstanding founder Fred Smith’s Marine Corps background, is humane to the core. The work is demanding, but FedEx puts the personal touch (for employees and customers) a notch above slavish devotion to close-order drill.

Instilling these notions of leadership and personalized service is far more complex than this two-paragraph rendition. Nonetheless, from time to time it’s useful to strip the problem to its bare bones. Consultants and gurus routinely offer seven-step methods for achieving this and that—e.g., a customer-first culture—at seven-figure prices. But they ignore the main issue, which is care, concern, and the small human gesture. Perhaps the holiday season is an especially good time to remind ourselves of the obvious, which often gets lost amidst the hubbub of our days.

(C) 1991 TPG Communications.

All rights reserved.