I pulled into the parking lot of a nearby Home Depot and what to my wondering eyes should appear?  The sign you see above.  Two special parking spots reserved for “Veteran Parking Only—Thank You for Your Service.”  Since I am a proud veteran, I pulled my SUV into the parking space and smiled. But, here is the best part.  My wife, who is not a veteran, commented, “Sure makes me want to come back!”

Gandhi said, “The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”  Obviously, customers are not animals!  But, the sentiment is relevant for all in the world of service to others.  Customers judge service providers by how they treat customers who are unique or have special needs.  We all “get” the reasons passengers in wheel chairs or with infants in strollers board first.  But, greatness comes, not in accommodation but in celebration.  I felt celebrated by Home Depot.

Ritz-Carlton Hotels has a “Ritz Kids” program for the children of its guests.  Not only are kids provided special mahogany steps that enable them to “check-in” at the front desk right beside their parents, there are special times for supervised games, crafts and fun activities.  Disney World hotel housekeepers move stuffed toys around in guests’ rooms to make children believe the toys “come alive and play” while their owners are away in the theme park.  Miller Brothers men’s clothing in Atlanta placed a giant colorful gumball machine in the reception area with a bowl of shiny pennies right beside it!

But, giving children a free balloon or a pet a doggy bone at the bank drive-in window is only one “special segment.”  A mid-seventies age customer of Umpqua Bank stopped by the branch to request a stop payment on a check he had written to a fire wood supplier.  The supplier had promised to deliver a load of firewood and split it.  The firewood was delivered but the supplier claimed he didn’t have time to split it!  “Go get an ax!” was the solution the supplier offered when the elderly man asked how he was to get the wood split.  The bank retail service manager had to inform the customer that, unfortunately, his check to the supplier had already been deposited.

For most banks that would have been the end of the story.  But, that’s not how the “World’s Greatest Bank” does customer service!  With two other associates, axes in hand, the retail service manager drove eighty miles to the customer’s home.  They split and stacked the wood and swept the garage clean!  You can imagine the emotional impact on the elderly customer whose only source of heating was his fireplace.

Specialized treatment can clearly have a dark side.  Customer service should be egalitarian, inclusive, and fair.  Service providers do not fare well in the eyes of their marketplace when they allow customers with a $20 bill in the palm of their hands to get preferential treatment or they permit the owner’s son to get to go to the front of queue.  Yet, taking time to acknowledge those who are special can signal to all other customers an organization’s sense of compassion and caring.