What Can the Government Learn From a $100,000 Salt & Pepper Shaker?

I finally got around to reading “The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch.  If you’re not familiar with Randy’s story, read about it here or watch the video below.  I highly recommend this if you’re about to have a child,  already a parent, if you’re a teacher, or if in any way, you’re responsible for the welfare of someone else – it’s a fantastic reminder to focus on what matters.  There’s a ton of great lessons in this book, but as I was reading it, one story in particular stuck out – the $100,000 Salt & Pepper Shaker.  This story resonated with me because it not only made me think of all the companies and brands that have earned my loyalty over the years, but also of the the interactions that I have had with our government, be it at the Post Office, at the DMV, as the Social Security Administration, the IRS, etc.

Here’s the summary of Randy’s story –

When Randy was 12, he was walking around Disney World with his sister. He and his sister wanted to thank their parents for the vacation so they pooled their money together to purchase ceramic salt & pepper shakers as gifts. Unfortunately, in his excitement to be at Disney World and to give his parents the gift, young Randy drops them, shattering both. Someone saw this incident and suggested that he take them back to the store and ask for a replacement. This was a foreign concept to Randy – why would they replace them? He broke them. It was his fault.  Nevertheless, he went back to the store and explained what happened. To Randy and his sister’s surprise, the Disney store manager not only replaced the salt & pepper shakers free of charge, he apologized for not wrapping them up well enough!

Years later, Randy looks back at that day and sees the beginning of a love affair with Disney that has gone on for decades. You see, that one seemingly insignificant gesture made Randy and his parents see Disney on a whole new level, and as a result, they have enthusiastically supported the Disney brand to the tune of more than $100,000 in tickets, food, and souvenirs.

At the end of this chapter of the book, Randy tells the story of how he still serves as a consultant to Disney and at the end of his meetings, he ends by asking,

“If I sent a child into one of your stores with a broken salt and pepper shaker today, would your policies allow your workers to be kind enough to replace it?

The executives “squirm at the question” because they know the answer is “probably not.”

We all have stories like this – the mechanic you still go to because he corrected that other mechanic’s mistake for free; the barber who, upon finding out that you didn’t have enough cash to pay him after cutting your hair told you “not to worry about it because you’ll pay him next time;” the guy at Best Buy who took 20 minutes out of his day to answer every single question about plasma vs. LCD TVs that you had.

Now, can you think of a story like that involving a government institution?  If you are a civil service employee, how would you answer the question? Are your organization’s policies such that you would be able to spend ten extra minutes with a heartbroken customer to fix their problem?

If I were the head of a government agency, I would bring in the folks from Disney to talk to all of my managers and public-facing employees about the importance of customer service in government. A government agency that uses solid change management techniques to teach every employee to truly embrace principles like “the front line is the bottom line,” and “Two Ears, two eyes and one mouth, use them in that ratio” would do more to bring about “Government 2.0 than any new policy, memo, or technology platform could ever do.

We talk a lot about Government 2.0 being citizen-centric, but that’s not going to happen via some technology platform or memo. That’s going to happen when we make the citizen our customer, our bottom line and we extend that to include both online and offline interactions. There’s one phrase that Walt Disney used as the key to Disney’s customer service program – “exceed guests’ expectations.”

Where in your agency’s mission mission does it say that you will try to “exceed citizens’ expectations?

Watch the full video of Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture” below.

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About sradick

I'm Vice President, Director of Public Relations at Brunner in Pittsburgh. Find out more about me here (http://steveradick.com/about/).

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  • emmajoan

    Steve, I love this story and this idea! When I had a job working for Office of Residence Life in undergrad, we actually learned about that Disney “exceed guests' expectations” from a slightly different story, but we learned the same lesson – to treat our residents and Resident Advisers with the utmost customer service.

    Maybe I'm too old to still be nostalgic, but I really don't understand why “real world” jobs don't team build and learn from other organizations as often and as sincerely as college jobs?

  • What a beautiful story with such a great message. I'll never look the same at all those salt and peppers again.

    ps. My favorite government website is the Minnesota Governor's DD planning council. http://www.mncdd.org They do the best job I know of.

  • Sradick

    Emma – I've long wondered that same thing. There are so many things the government could learn from bringing in other organizations to find out what they do well, and vice versa. However, in my experience, this doesn't happen for two primary reasons:

    1) “I'm unique” syndrome – every government agency thinks they're unique and while they may find these types of lessons interesting, they're too often dismissed because “that could never work here – we have so many other things to consider!”

    2) ROI – it's difficult to justify the public taxpayer expense that would be required to bring in someone like this.

    That said, I think it's all a matter of framing it in terms of both immediate and long-term value it could bring. I think there's definitely a need for it though.

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  • lancetay

    Disneys customer service is second to none, for a reason!

  • Great story, Steve, thanks. It goes in the same category as the Nordstrom (or whatever department store) that accepts a customer's return even though the store never sold that item. I find two common threads in these stories: 1) the “front line” employees are given the authority to make customer-centric decision up to a certain dollar amount and 2) the employees are encouraged to put the customer first with the idea that there will be a “return on investment”. Unfortunately, both of these are voided when it comes to most government workers. They are not given any authority to make decisions and they have no profit motive (after all, what are we going to do, find another government?). It takes a high-minded individual to rise above these limitations, however, and see the value in providing exceptional service to the public.

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    Thanks Lucian!! RT @lucian: Do your policies allow you to exceed expectations? Great post by @sradick [link to post]

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    Do your policies allow you to exceed expectations? Great post by @sradick [link to post]

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  • Guest

    Government, unlike Disney is the sole source provider, they have no competition, no hope of competition and like any sole source provider, become focused on their own needs rather than those of the customers. Unlike the monopolies which have existed in America's commercial market, broken and overcome by the Government, the only remedy to a Government which is concerned only with propogating itself is a new Goverment.

  • Sradick

    So how do we fix that? Can we fix that? Should we fix that?

  • What a beautiful story with such a great message. I'll never look the same at all those salt and peppers again!!!!!!!!!
    ps:www.air-max-shox.com http://www.n5k5.com

  • Linda

    This is a good post, I stumbled across your post while looking for downloads. Thanks for sharing, I’ll be sure to come back.
    http://www.n5k5.com

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