Recently I was flying on United Airlines on my way home to Vegas. I was in the second row. In front of me was a man who boarded when they called for military personnel. I overheard him say to his seat mate that he had recently retired.
After take off, the flight attendant named Terri served drinks and meals. At one point, she leaned close to this man and whispered, “I wanted to say a special thank you for your service.” If I hadn’t been right behind him, I would not have overheard. Her eyes glistened a little bit as she offered her sincere appreciation. He quietly thanked her.
A little while later, as Terri took away his tray, the man asked if there were going to be warm cookies for desert. Terri looked crestfallen: She apologized but they hadn’t replenished enough cookies in time for take-off. She did offer to find one from the last flight, but the man demurred. Terri walked back to the galley.
A few minutes later, the cabin filled with the smell of warm cookies. Terri reappeared with a plate with three warm cookies and a glass of milk. She whispered to him, “I don’t have enough for everyone, but I’d really like you to have these.” The soldier looked at her with a huge smile.
Terri straightened up and caught my eye. She understood I’d overheard the conversation. We shared a wink and a nod. I was proud to have seen her everyday act of kindness.
When we were deplaning, I stepped aside next to her at the door.
“I saw what you did,” I said. “You did the right thing, a good thing, even when you couldn’t do it for everyone. You didn’t know anybody was watching, but I was. Thank you. I didn’t get a cookie, but I got to witness something much more special.”
She looked at me, tears in her eyes, and said, “It was only a cookie.”
We both knew it was so much more. You see, in my mind, Terri had done something far beyond what she was supposed to do, what she was trained to do, what she was paid to do.
Terri had become epic.
As a person, a professional, a part of her company. She had recognized the person she was serving beyond their profile as a “customer.” She discarded the terminology of prospect, lead, client, revenue and engaged them at the level of who they were not just what they had paid for.
Becoming epic is about conducting yourself beyond the positional concerns of branding, selling, marketing and even compensation. It’s about turning the few precious moments we get with customers into deeply valuable experiences. To go beyond just delivering good or even great service.
It’s about challenging ourselves to deliver epic experiences. Moments that can’t be described in the usual terms of competition or systems or technology.
When I think of all the ways we’re asked to compete on value to customers, and the truisms we fall back on, like saving time, spending less or getting more, I am reminded of this flight attendant’s simple gesture of a few warm cookies. For a brief moment, she abandoned the usual facade of customer service and went to the one place few will ever be wiling to go:
To the epic-center of personal connection.
What if we all could commit to doing the same for our contribution – at home, at work, in your community. To deliver beyond the usual script, when nobody is looking. Especially when nobody is looking. It doesn’t matter what job, or how much money we make or spend. Each of us has a daily moment when we can add something that cannot be copied, reduce-priced or devalued by a competitor or disruptor or technology.
When I think of all the money we waste, trying to attract clients or talent or leads or referrals, so much seems like a race to the bottom. We’ve got a surplus of stuff, but so does everyone. As the price of this stuff races to the bottom, it leaves fewer ways to deliver delight. What we often think of as better-than-good now risks becoming trivial: like free wifi or free consultations or peanuts.
That stuff hardly leaves a mark. At least, not one that lasts.
I have flown the same route many times since that moment with the old soldier. I always look for Terri, but haven’t seen her since. I hope she’s still with the company, if not on my flight but others, creating warm moments with other travelers.
I’ll keep booking that flight, too, even if faster or cheaper ones come along. Why? Just for a chance to fly with Terri again. Her career and her company should get the benefit of her heroic hospitality. It’s something very few will ever strive to offer; and can’t substitute for with price.
And something more: To have witnessed her deliver personal value beyond her duty left an after-mark. It challenges me to aspire every day…
…to try to become epic, too.