Exceptional Service from Amtrak. Wait, What?

This blog is part 1 of a 3 part series on client service.

I recently had an experience that I just have to share with you. It made such an impact on me that I’ve been thinking about what it means to Paragon’s business and our clients.

I’ve been commuting from Boston to New York for decades, so it’s safe to say I’ve learned the MOST efficient ways to travel. Each mode of transportation – air, train, car, bus, limo and even yellow taxi – has its role, but I find the train more often than not is my preferred way to go.

On a recent afternoon, I arrived to park and found that both parking lots were full. This was the first time in the last decade that there were zero spots.

I was pissed. I would miss my train, and consequently an important meeting in New York. Not wanting to compound this mess by losing the value of my full fare train ticket, I parked in a temporary space and headed to the ticket window.

When I got there, I saw a familiar face. Having ridden Amtrak every week – sometimes twice a week – for the last dozen years or so, I’ve known this particular clerk to always provide friendly and efficient service – a real professional. I was confident she could cancel my ticket in the 3 minutes before the train arrived. Phew!

I explained my problem, and in a flash, she said, “Stay right there, Mr. Ross. Let me make a phone call.” Sixty seconds later she tells me I can leave my car where it is in the temporary space, and to simply tell her my license plate number… Well, I had just traded in my car and, of course, could not remember the plate number. With the train pulling into the station, she tells me to hop on the train and she will go out front and record the plate number for me.

I was floored. In moments, I went from hoping to hedge my losses to a window seat bustling toward New York. This event changed the whole trajectory of my day and week. I was so, SO grateful!

I have told this story dozens of times in the last couple of weeks, and will continue telling it as an example of some of the best service I’ve EVER received on the road. It was so unexpected, especially from Amtrak, a government agency.

This episode got me thinking. What exactly is exceptional service?

It seems like an easy question, but as I dug deeper with rural Rhode Island whizzing by, I was struggling to identify why this episode was so different.

Was my reaction due to her professionalism? No, not really. I had known her and many others to provide knowledgeable assistance quickly and politely. While I truly appreciate professionalism, and admit there is a lot less of it out there than I’d like, that wasn’t it.

Was it because she somehow predicted my needs before I even knew I had them? While it’s true that anticipating clients’ needs builds loyalty and demonstrates great service, this wasn’t at work here. She reacted to my situation.

Was it that the service was perfect? No. There was no parking space available for me when I got there, so she was remedying a flaw in the system. That surely can’t be a perfect experience.

What was different???

Aha! I was not expecting it. Because I was “only” expecting the professionalism I had experienced time and again, when I ended up on my train and arrived in time for a successful meeting, it was beyond what I had expected.

How can we surprise our clients?

Let’s not kid ourselves. When we “try to exceed expectations,” this often involves managing expectations at the outset, to “over-deliver” on the promise. While this works, it’s still mediocre.

It’s understandable how we got here. We’ve had “gazillions” of layoffs over the years, while the speed of business is doubling at the same rate of Moore’s Law. Price-points and margins are under pressure, so we need to do more with less. This leads to a lot of fire-fighting. And that sucks.

I say it is time for a change.

Keep an eye out for my next blog during the first week of October. I’ll outline how I think service culture should change.

This post was written for Paragon by Mike Ross.

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