Customer service on the freeway: the devil in the detail

Mariannhill Toll plaza 3A trip to Durban on a cold drizzly morning led to a minor irritation on the freeway. At the Mariannhill Toll Plaza I did what we all do on approaching a toll booth. I slowed down and began to open my window, timing the opening to coincide with my coming to a stop at the window. I didn’t want to be subjected to the cold and wet any longer than necessary.

Unfortunately, the cashier had the same idea for herself. She waited until I had stopped and had my arm out with the money before beginning to open her window. Keeping herself warm took precedence over customer service and traffic flow. The additional delay was no more than a couple of seconds; not long enough to complain about or to get one’s blood pressure up but long enough for my sleeve to get wet and for my wife and I to comment to each other.

Without blowing the incident out of proportion (I don’t altogether blame the young lady) it was a reminder of the importance of little things in customer service and in customer relations management.

It is tempting to focus on what our business can supply, but our product or service is secondary. Of primary importance is what our customers want. Staff who deal directly with customers (including internal customers) must continually ask what their customers consider important.

In traffic, frustration is measured in milliseconds – just ask the driver behind you at the traffic lights with his hand on the hooter. And the slightest delay at a tollbooth, multiplied by thousands of vehicles, frustrates both individual drivers and the objective of free and fast traffic flow.

The big things are, of course, essential. In his book, In the Driving Seat: Lessons Learned in Leadership, Brand Pretorius writes, ‘should the quality of the product not be good, the business will not even get out of the starting blocks.’ But we have focus groups and management discussions and executive decisions all geared towards getting the right product onto the right shelves at the right time. We have a phalanx of well-trained sales people to deal with the most demanding of customers. What trips us up is that no one thought to train the security guard who opens (or fails to open) the door or the receptionist who is the customers’ first port of call.

Speed of service, whether on the freeway or in a shop, is important for most customers (except perhaps during a back massage at a local Spa), but ease of access, helpful assistants and website links that work are equally important, depending on the nature of the enterprise. To quote Brand Pretorius again,

‘… attention to so-called small things tend to make a huge difference to the strength of relationships. People’s faces light up when their names are remembered. Their smiles become even broader when personal detail is remembered and referred to. They beam with pleasure when praise is given where praise is due.’

What are the little things that are important for your customers, or what little things irritate you the most? Please add your comments below.

Contact Ian at Simply Communicate to train your staff in customer service or customer relations management (

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Ian Webster

From Methodist minister to Customer Relations manager in a computer bureau to HR Manager in a newspaper printing and publishing company. Now focussing on training and developing people, people-management consulting and writing and editing.

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