If you want to give great customer service, close enough isn’t good enough

The thing that sets great companies apart is obsessive attention to the customer experience. No matter how seriously you take it, you can likely improve

Man carefully cutting grass with scissors


Late in his life, Conrad Hilton appeared on The Tonight Show. Host Johnny Carson asked whether he had a message for the American people about what he’d learned in building his hotel empire. Hilton paused, then turned to the camera. “Please,” he said, “remember to put the shower curtain inside the tub.”

The audience laughed, but Hilton’s quip has since become a much-beloved aphorism among business profs and management gurus for the brilliant simplicity of its sentiment: Never lose sight of the details, because they are what make or break your customers’ experiences.

Twitter is a textbook example of what happens when you violate this cardinal rule. In October, dogged by stagnating revenue growth, stubborn unprofitability and a very public inability to find a buyer, the struggling social network laid off 9% of its workforce. But people aren’t souring on Twitter because they are bored or because it’s an irrelevant service, but because it’s become a platform optimized for character attacks and pile-ons. As journalist Steve Ladurantaye, himself a former Twitter employee and a steadfast fan of the network’s potential, put it (in a Tweet, no less): “It’s simple. People don’t sign up/stay cause they see the abuse. Full stop.” Growing numbers of users find Twitter to be a lousy place to hang out, and it only takes a few bad experiences to drive them away for good.

There’s a well-documented tendency among entrepreneurs to regard the work their companies do with the blinkered adoration of a new parent, seeing only idealized beauty and pure potential where others see putrid diapers. This so-called “optimism bias” can be a hell of a survival mechanism in the all-encompassing, high-stakes process of building a business, but it can also serve to downplay real problems—especially little ones that appear inconsequential and are easy to justify. “Parvati totally fits the culture, and she’s all in on our vision. She’s a little lax in responding to prospect emails, but who cares?” “Our dev team built a killer update for our website. The navigation takes some getting used to, but who cares?” “Joe shows up early every shift and never complains, even when rooms have been trashed. He always forgets to tuck in the shower curtain, but who cares?”

Who cares? Customers care. They don’t know the backstory. Their only experience is whatever they’re confronted with: the neglected email, the baffling website, the puddles on the bathroom floor. And if what they encounter is subpar, most won’t stick around for long; according to a 2014 Nielsen report, 78% of consumers feel no loyalty to any brand, something its authors attribute to “an outgrowth of fragmentation.” It is therefore incumbent on any leader to not only pay attention to the intersections where company meets customer but also to play an active role in ensuring standards never, ever slip. Put the shower curtain inside the tub. Every time.

In a recent talk to a room full of CEOs in Mississauga, Ont., renowned management thinker Tom Peters—himself a big fan of the Hilton quote—suggested that the answer lies in equipping front-line managers to maintain exceptional standards. “I know you all take this seriously,” Peters said. “But I assure you, you don’t take it seriously enough.” His preferred approach, as outlined in his 1982 bestseller, In Search of Excellence, involves lots of “management by wandering around,” but there are less conspicuous ways to monitor customer-facing staff. You can go all Undercover Boss and surreptitiously track daily goings-on. You can ask a trusted friend—someone who isn’t involved with the business—to go through a typical customer experience and give an unfiltered report. You can actually read, and take to heart, the feedback you get from clients.

The results might sting, but failing to pay close attention to user experience in 2016 is inexcusable and negligent. There’s a well-circulated adage (often erroneously attributed to Maya Angelou), that says, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Conrad Hilton understood that. It’s not clear management at Twitter does.