My colleague, Pete Andersen, has a real knack for finding joy in even the smallest occurrences. When he shared this one with me, I knew it would be a great post. Et voilà! Here’s Pete on the importance of treating customers like human beings. His point: Watch for these things and make the most of them. My point: Do these things to delight customers and create a more devoted base. This piece is taken from Pete’s upcoming book, Damn Good Things.

F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Windshield Wipers

“It was only a sunny smile, and little it cost in the giving, but like morning light it scattered the night and made the day worth living.”

– F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night

When I bought new windshield wiper blades for my car the other day, I had no idea the transaction would be worthy of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I don’t remember Jay Gatsby buying wiper blades, Dick Diver replacing his spark plugs, or Myrtle Wilson adjusting her timing belt. And yet, there it was – a simple act of kindness by someone I’ll never meet elevated a purchase of windshield wiper blades to an unexpected level, turned the whole thing personal, and like the man said, “made the day worth living.”

The act in question was an email from Wiper Blades USA that included the following passage:  

We ship USPS out of rainy Portland Oregon. So it usually takes 3-4 days (or less) to get to your door. If you live in Chicago or NJ add 2 days (sorry I don't know why).

Those last five words made me laugh out loud!

“Sorry I don’t know why.”

Five words graced an otherwise mundane transaction with an unexpected touch of humanity.

Not just humanity, but humanity at its best, offering the wiper blade customer honesty (“I don’t know why”), humility (“I’m a little embarrassed to tell you that I don’t know why”), and empathy (“I understand you want to know why, and I do too, but this is one of those times we’re just not going to get what we want”).

What could have been a boilerplate email about the shipping of windshield wiper blades wound up with a human touch. Instead of being about one big company stating relatively obvious information about the United States Post Office, suddenly it was about one person, sitting there in a shipping room, doing the best they can, which is all any of us are trying to do. It made me laugh, and it made me like their company, and it reminded me once again of the importance of treating people like people, and remembering that we’re all human, because in the end that’s what it’s all about.

Create empathy and connection

I’ve had other similar experiences, all in what should have been mundane situations. In fact, it almost seems like the more mundane the activity, the greater the chance for that personal touch to bubble up to the surface. The big events in our lives are far too choreographed to permit much personal closeness. We march through graduations, weddings, and driving exams with a reliable familiarity, and that’s a good thing. It helps us feel safe during transition.

But in the little moments we can lighten up. A few years ago I called a rug cleaning company to come clean our rugs. The guy answered the phone, announced the name of the company, then his own name, then asked how I was this morning.

“Fine,” I replied. “How are you?”

“Festive and charming!” came the response.

And with those three words, this guy too “made the day worth living.” It was so wonderfully unexpected that it’s stayed with me ever since. I even use that line myself sometimes, but whether or not I say it, I always think it when someone asks me how I’m doing. What a gift he gave me!

In my early days at Microsoft, I found myself working late one night preparing for a meeting with one of the company’s top executives. It was a big deal and I was nervous. As I worked away at my desk, an email popped up in my Inbox from the executive’s administrative assistant. The admins, as they were called then, were known to be a fierce bunch – they were the gatekeepers, and had to run interference night and day, keeping the throngs at bay and allowing the C-suite to conquer the world. If anyone in the corporate world was more intimidating than an executive, it was their admin.

I opened the email – she wanted to know if we could move the meeting by a few hours. I emailed back right away and said yes. And then as I sat there, wondering if I’d made a typo or inadvertently said the wrong thing, her response came back: “Thanks a bazillion.”

Something clicked when I read that. Somehow, I knew my career was going to be okay – it was – and I knew my meeting was going to go well – it did.

Granted, that moment wasn’t mundane like the wiper blades or rug cleaning. It was a big deal. But when that admin said, “Thanks a bazillion,” she took a small part of that big deal and made it less intimidating. And by doing that, she made the big deal less intimidating too.

Look for (and create) unexpected moments

Sometimes we stumble across humanity when we least expect it. The shipper of wiper blades doesn’t have all the answers and admits it. The rug cleaning guy is unexpectedly festive and charming. The fierce gatekeeper thanked me a bazillion.

Unexpected moments of brightness make it easier to navigate a bad day, just as sure as new wiper blades make it easier to navigate bad weather. When we put them to use, the whole world looks different. You can see where you’re going. You can stay on the road, avoid obstacles, and move ahead safely. You have hope, and faith, and in my case, wiper blades.

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