Why it's time for retailers to serve customers some 'vacation cereal'

| by Chip Bell
Why it's time for retailers to serve customers some 'vacation cereal'


Early morning flights can be tough, especially when you live two hours from the airport. So, the night before a "crack of dawn" flight, my wife and I elected to stay at the Renaissance Concourse hotel right beside the Atlanta airport. We requested a room on a high floor on the runway side of the property. I am a Marriott platinum guest which means I frequent their properties a lot.

"Oh, trust me, you will absolutely love this room," said the friendly desk clerk when my wife reminded her of our special requests. She was right. The top floor room was a huge corner suite complete with full kitchen, expansive living room, and two baths. I called the front desk clerk to thank her for the luxurious upgrade. "Oh, we do this occasionally to surprise special guests like you."

It was vacation cereal.

"Vacation cereal" is the label my daughter-in-law, Lisa, uses to characterize expanded boundaries and irregular exceptions aimed at making vacations unique. Sugary cereal at the beach is a stark contrast with the healthy fare that dons the year-round table. It goes with sleeping late, no homework and very few chores. It signals unique, exceptional, and out-of-the-ordinary. And, it makes children, grandchildren, and customers feel valued.

There is an obvious dark side to the customer version of "vacation cereal." No responsible leader would challenge employees to "bring me lavish bills for unplanned, unbudgeted red carpet treatment for our customers!" Yet, could extravagant service have a return on investment large enough to warrant it?

In this era when waste reduction and expense control have become bread and butter for all organizations, can you cost justify encounters that are by definition extravagant? While a steady diet of "vacation cereal" can lead to an unhealthy bottom line, here are ways to make it work.

"Vacation Cereal" releases employee power

Celebrating service heroics and occasional exceptions encourages employees to "push the edge of the envelope." When boldness is matched by affirmation, they learn to take risks in other areas. The goal is not to set employees up to get hurt but rather to encourage them to experience the limits. Going a bit too far can be met with leader support and coaching rather than punishment and rebuke. Empowerment begins with error; and error begins with risks. Employees take responsible risk when they believe failure will spark growth, not censure.

"Vacation Cereal" keeps innovative service top of mind

The challenge every organization faces in sustaining an innovation culture is finding ways to keep the "shiny from wearing off." Innovation-driven organization celebrate risk taking service excellence. Effective celebrations begin with "see." And, since stories fuel innovative, the telling of "vacation cereal" service stories provides a graphic picture of what innovative service looks like for that organization. Tell the story along with the philosophy or attitude it demonstrated. People will be reminded of the importance of occasional extraordinary service, not the fact that the way to get the big award next year is to send a customer home in an unbudgeted limousine because "we screwed up her account."

Start "Vacation Cereal" as a planned addition

Effective leaders provide guidance before unleashing freedom. Think of it as a "solution space"— prearranged boundaries from which a "vacation cereal" gesture might come. Plan discussions about what might constitute "vacation cereal" and when it might be used to help employees learn to think like owners.  Ritz-Carlton Hotel's decision to give housekeepers the authority to spend up to $2000 to ensure a guest left happy did not start with an emailed announcement; it followed guidance and coaching. As employees learn to responsibly manage "vacation cereal" they gain greater latitude to be spontaneously creative.

Frame "Vacation Cereal" as an exception not standard fare   

"Vacation cereal" must be positioned as unique. Otherwise, the customer will come to view it as routine good service. The Renaissance hotel front desk clerk did not say"come back again and we'll upgrade you to that same suite." She carefully left the "this is an exception" label on our experience: "We do this occasionally to surprise special guests like you." Wise leaders help employees remember that extravagance is extraordinary.  And, they work to let them learn the principles behind the peculiar.

So, what do you do with your own organization's versions of the Tom Peters' Nordstrom story of the clerk who refunded a customer $200 for the tires he claimed he purchased at the department store? Trust that your employees are no more interested in giving away the bottom line than you are. Again, if they go a bit too far, turn it into a coaching experience, not a censuring experience.

Give them elbow room for occasional "vacation cereal" and they will have exciting standards for excellence that can energize them to deliver service performances your customers will remember as uniquely valued.





Topics: Consumer Behavior, Customer Experience, Customer Service, Loyalty Programs, Marketing, Merchandising, Retail - General

Chip Bell

Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker and author of several best-selling books including Take Their Breath Away, Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experiences through Innovative Service and Kaleidoscope: Delivering Innovative Service That Sparkles. He can be reached at

wwwView Chip Bell's profile on LinkedIn

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