Service businesses spend tons of money these days putting their employees through "smile training," which teaches them to maintain sunny attitudes and put the best face on bad situations. Unfortunately, smile training often corresponds to the service equivalent of getting better at rework while ignoring root causes.
Although there is some evidence to suggest that smile training goes back to at least the 1860s ("But aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?"), I had a more recent exposure to its effects when checking into a hotel in Indianapolis a couple of months ago.
"You'll be in room 1028, Mr. Guaspari!" enthused Danny, the overly chipper desk clerk who almost certainly had made valedictorian of his smile training class.
At first, 1028 seemed like an innocuous room number. Had Danny given me 1313 or 666, I might have paused. But I had no reason to see the room as anything unusual or undesirable -- certainly nothing I would eventually come to refer to as "The Dread Room 1028."
Just minutes after I arrived in my room, however, the phone rang.
"Hello," I said.
"Yeah," came the reply. "I'd like to get an AT&T operator."
I was puzzled. "You've called another room," I revealed.
"Oh, sorry," responded the caller before hanging up.
I didn't think anything of it until about half an hour later, when the phone rang again.
"Could you connect me with an AT&T operator?" a different voice inquired.
"No, I can't. I'm just a guest. You've called another room."
Now I was a bit perplexed, a condition heightened by two more calls within the next hour. Different callers, same request: "I'd like an AT&T operator."
What the six sigma's going on? I thought, as, for the fourth time, I hung up after setting a caller straight.
I stared at the phone. I stared at the keypad. And then it hit me. As Cliff Robertson has told us for years, if you're not on the AT&T network and you want to get on it, what number do you dial? 10-ATT-0. Or, written numerically, 1-0-2-8-8-0. So when hotel guests picked up their phones and did as Cliff instructed, the hotel's phone system, recognizing the first four digits as a valid room number, sent the calls straight to The Dread Room 1028.
Quite pleased with myself for having cracked the code, I picked up the phone to give the hotel the benefit of my insight.
"Front desk!" came Danny's ever-chipper reply.
"Yes, this is Mr. Guaspari in room 1028 -- "
"And you've been getting calls for an AT&T operator!" came Danny's smile-trained response.
"Then you're aware of the problem?"
"Oh, yes, sir! It's been happening ever since we opened!"
"And how long has that been?"
"Four years now!" His tone pegged the chipper meter.
"You've had guests dealing with this for four years?"
"No problem, sir! When you get those calls, just have them call down here to the front desk, and old Danny will take care of them!"
"Well, it seems to me that that will take care of their problem, but it won't do much about mine!"
"I understand what you're saying, sir, and we certainly don't want this to be a problem during your stay with us. Would you like me to put you in another room?"
"There's no other solution? There's nothing you can do about routing the calls?"
"No, sir. I'm afraid not." Danny oozed sympathy.
"Well, then, I guess I have no alternative, assuming I'd like to get an hour or two of sleep tonight. After all, AT&T has paid Cliff Robertson a lot of money to train people to call my room." (I am nothing if not a pragmatist.)
"No problem, Mr. Guaspari! Let's see … room 1057 is open, right on the same floor! I'll send a bellman up with a key, and he can move your bags for you as well!"
"OK, fine," I said without enthusiasm.
"We're sorry for the inconvenience," concluded Danny.
I mumbled an insincere, "That's OK," and hung up.
Normally, I would have chided Danny for being chipper in the face of a problem rather than getting to the root cause and solving it. I didn't in this case because I was distracted, staring at the telephone keypad … trying to figure out if the numbers 1057 spelled anything that might cause people to want to call me.
About the author
John Guaspari is a senior associate of the Lexington, Massachusetts-based management consulting firm Rath & Strong. The books he has written include I Know It When I See It and The Customer Connection.
Copyright 1998 by John Guaspari.