When you’re striving to grow your business through superior customer service practices, it’s helpful to consider, as a basic framework, two distinct strains of “wow” customer service you can deliver to your customer cohort. (In spite of what exists on a continuum between these poles, I find this simplified framework works best in my work as a customer service trainer and consultant.)

•  The over-the-top (sometimes even news-making) type of wow—“the wow of grand gestures” that requires a concerted and extended employee effort to pull off.

•  What I call “everyday wow,” the type that employees can learn to practice on nearly every phone call and in-person customer interaction.

The wow of grand gestures is powerful; it delights customers and powers both external word of mouth and internal legends told within a company as well. It requires creative, extended work on the part of your employees and the dedication of management to the nearly complete employee empowerment that allows it to thrive.

What I call “everyday wow” is more practical to pull off on a day-to-day, interaction-after-interaction basis.

Both strains of wow (and, certainly, those on a continuum between them as well) are powerful elements of a growing, customer-focused business. Let’s look at both.

The wow of grand gestures

Rob Siefker, the senior director of the contact center at Zappos, a company whose stated purpose is “to live and deliver WOW,” once shared with me this example: a Zappos employee who took the initiative required to create a wow moment—and build an indelible customer memory: “Not long ago, two of our customers—a newly married couple—were packing up their belongings to move to a new home, and, in the rush of the move, the husband packed his wife’s jewelry inside one of her purses and then packed the purse inside what he thought was a spare Zappos box. His wife, it turns out, was intending to return that purse to Zappos using that very box, which she then did, having no idea that inside the purse now were several thousand dollars’ worth of her jewelry.

“When the couple arrived at their new home and started to unpack, bedlam broke out as the wife figured out what had happened—and as it sunk in that her jewelry was, perhaps irretrievably, missing. The rep she reached out to at Zappos decided to reroute the box directly to his own desk and then, fearing for the safety of the valuables in transit were he to ship them, purchased a plane ticket [yes, Zappos repaid him] so he could hand-deliver the package himself.

“When he and the jewelry arrived, the grateful couple invited him in for dinner. They’re now customers for life, as you can imagine.”

Wow” Isn’t Always a Grand Production

The story of recovering the lost purse and jewelry, with the employee taking the initiative to book a flight and show up at the customers’ home, right as dinner was being served, is lovely, but not all moments of wow need to be so over the top. A wow connection can also be achieved less theatrically through the use of the right words in conversation with a customer, words that make an emotional connection that transcends the transactional.

All it takes to wow my longtime customer, Mrs. Gold [not quite her real name], is to take the time to slow down an otherwise-transactional call in order to bond over her unique affinity for cats: “Mrs. Gold, we were just thinking about you here in the office: are you holding steady at 12 cats or are you [sotto voce] thinking of increasing your menagerie to 13?”

Mrs. Gold knows she’s a character, knows she’s unusual. And the fifteen seconds it takes for us to acknowledge this (plus, by and large, a few minutes to field her response) provides her a “wow of recognition” that we can give her, via these words or similar, any time she calls in.

Either way, the essential element for wow to thrive is “breathing space”

Whether it’s showing up unannounced with a customer’s missing jewelry or simply taking the time needed to check in with a customer like Mrs. Gold over what matters to her outside of the business to be transacted,  there’s an essential, often overlooked ingredient without which “wow” is impossible to create on any kind of sustained basis: breathing space. At Zappos, you can find the kind of breathing space that’s conducive to creating wow moments reflected in the metrics of the Zappos contact center. Zappos runs at just 60 to 70 percent agent occupancy rather than following the industry norm, which is somewhere in the 80s. (Agent occupancy is the percentage of time that call center agents spend—or are predicted to spend—handling calls, as a percentage of the time they are on the clock.)

As far as dramatic moments of wow, look at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, perhaps the organization most renowned for its dedication to creating such moments. Their breathing space is famously reflected in the ability of any employee being able to spend up to $2,000 not only to correct a guest problem but also to create an exceptional moment of wow, without asking for managerial approval. Whether or not you want to go anywhere close to this in the leeway you offer your employees, you at least need to have a mindset of providing the breathing space for employees to make the creative decisions involved in grand gestures of wow.

Frontline Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company employees “have total power, and all the resources of our organization, to create these moments, these stories, on their own, without needing to ask permission, without needing to involve management or worry that they’re going too far, as Ritz-Carlton co-founder, President and COO Herve Humler, now emeritus, never tires of explaining. The time spent creating these stories isn’t time taken out of their job; this time spent is their job.” This empowerment is often manifested “as the power of our employees to break away from the routine,” continues Humler. “This requires attention focused on seeking out the moments where a break from the routine brings value to the guest: if you are a server, you listen to the customer, and if he expresses a desire for something different from what you are currently doing now, you cater to it. If you are a [maintenance] engineer and you are painting the wall or changing a light bulb and a customer says, ‘I need to get to the airplane,’ you can stop what you’re doing and say, ‘Sir, I am going to take you to the airplane.’”

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