Sales Culture

Saying Yes When They Expect No

Six (Mercedes-Level) Ways to Hardwire Your Culture to Surprise and Delight Customers

The customer’s default setting is (sad to say) cynicism. They are resigned to hearing no. If you can infuse your culture with the desire and the know-how to consistently surprise the customer with yes, you’ll be way ahead of the game. Consultant Joseph Michelli, who worked with Mercedes-Benz USA to transform its customer experience, has a few insights.

New York, NY (January 2016)—Imagine you’ve taken your car to the dealership to be serviced. When you pick it up, you realize the fur earmuffs you left in the back seat are gone, so you ask the dealership if it’s possible they fell out.

You really don’t expect anything to come of your inquiry, and, mentally, you’ve already written off the $50 you spent on the earmuffs. So naturally you’re shocked—and delighted!—when you receive a check in the mail from the dealership covering the cost of your lost item.

Joseph Michelli includes this (true) story in his new book, Driven to Delight: Delivering World-Class Customer Experience the Mercedes-Benz Way. And while it happened at a Mercedes dealership, the consultant and best-selling author says any organization can condition itself to respond this way to their own customers’ “Oh, by the way…” requests.

“Frankly, when customers approach you with these kinds of over-and-beyond, spur-of-the-moment requests, they don’t expect to hear a yes,” says Michelli. “They’ve gotten used to hearing no, and whether from cynicism or resignation, that’s what they’ll expect from your organization too. If you can surprise them—pleasantly—you’ll delight them, build loyalty, and stand out from your competitors.”

Michelli, who worked with Mercedes-Benz USA to positively and radically transform MBUSA’s customer experience, knows just how tough it is for any company to hardwire a knee-jerk yes response into its culture. It requires not just a sincere desire to serve the customer, but an obsession to do so. Yet such a customer obsession can be instilled—even in organizations whose many “partners” are not directly affiliated with them (like MBUSA).

Indeed, Driven to Delight describes how MBUSA elevated sales, service, and customer loyalty. In the space of two years, it moved customer sales satisfaction from an unenviable #6 spot to the #1 position on the J.D. Power SSI survey. Michelli offers readers the tools they need to effect similar change in their organizations.

Here, he shares tactics business leaders can use to delight customers with that unexpected—and highly appreciated—yes:

First, get clear on where you are in terms of customer experience

You probably think you understand what customers experience at your organization. But it’s likely that customers themselves have a different perception…and that leaders, internal staff, and frontline employees have different ones still. As a result, a lot of well-intentioned efforts to improve customer service might currently be going to waste.

MBUSA leadership honestly assessed the current state of its organization to clearly envision the future state it desired and to then create an action plan to help people understand how the chasm would be bridged. Visual mapping and the sharing of the map repeatedly and broadly helped everyone truly see the journey they were about to undertake. Plus, dealer principals, leaders, frontline staff members, and employees throughout the nationwide dealership community completed a “What’s Holding You Back?” form, which allowed them to actively challenge both personal and organizational barriers to delivering consistent customer delight.

“It’s important to hear directly from all of these stakeholders what their ‘points of pain’ are,” says Michelli. “Before you can make changes that will surprise and delight customers, you—and everyone else in your organization—need to get a 360-degree picture of resource misalignments, efforts and initiatives that do not hit the mark, and actions that aren’t valued by the customer.”

Set your sights really, really high

Thanks to e-commerce and the competitive global economy, today’s customers demand world-class service (and they will get it somewhere, whether that’s from you or a competitor). That’s why, when MBUSA set out to transform its culture, CEO Steve Cannon and his team didn’t want to merely be the best customer experience provider across all car manufacturers. They wanted to become (in Cannon’s words) “the global leader across all brands in customer service and in customer experience.”

“MBUSA wanted to rival other businesses about which I’ve had the good fortune of writing—companies like The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, Zappos, and Starbucks,” says Michelli. “They wanted to set a new global standard for customer experience excellence and even crafted a mantra, ‘driven to delight,’ that was repeated over and over again.”

Don’t confuse communication with buy-in

It’s not enough to cascade your vision and action plan throughout your organization. You must ensure that in addition to understanding the what and how of improving the customer experience, everyone at every level of your organization’s hierarchy understands and buys into the why. (“This is the difference between employees who go through the motions and employees who enthusiastically look for opportunities say, ‘Yes, I can help!'” notes Michelli.)

You probably think you understand what customers experience at your organization. But it's likely that customers themselves have a different perception...and that leaders, internal staff, and frontline employees have different ones still

To create this buy-in, Mercedes truly listened to stakeholder groups (dealer principals, leaders, frontline staff members, and employees throughout the nationwide dealership community) to make sure the vision resonated and that each stakeholder understood how the change agenda would affect them. (The aforementioned “What’s Holding You Back?” queries were part of this effort.) Participants were asked to sign a written commitment card pledging that they would go beyond satisfying customers and instead would be driven to delight those they served.

Tie customer experience to leader paychecks

Customer-driven compensation is a growing trend in many industries. (Even the U.S government has gotten in on the act by linking a percentage of reimbursement to how well a healthcare organization scores on a standardized patient survey.) MBUSA shifted a portion of the dealer’s guaranteed fixed margins (paid to those who met quarterly performance criteria) to being contingent on the dealer’s performance in key elements of MBUSA’s customer experience initiative. Ultimately, $44 million in leadership bonuses were paid to the top-performing 70 percent of dealerships based on customer feedback.

“People need a strong, compelling vision to buy into the change, but the ‘money’ piece is what solidifies their commitment and encourages them to say yes,” confirms Michelli. “The idea is to create true partnerships with your employees, to share risks and rewards in a very concrete way—and it’s hard to get more concrete than the numbers on your bonus check.”

You can’t just train people on what saying yes looks like

You have to immerse them in it. Even with employee buy-in, you’ll get limited results from customer experience training that consists of reading a manual, sitting through a generic presentation, or providing rules and a script. Instead, strive to help employees understand what it’s like to “be” the customer—including reading their unspoken needs—and let them practice delighting that customer in real-world scenarios. (This is more of an art than a science.)

“MBUSA set up a mandatory multi-day Brand Immersion Experience in which employees tour the auto manufacturing plant, test-drive vehicles, and attend a number of interactive seminars,” Michelli shares. “Focus is placed on helping attendees understand the brand’s transformation from vehicle-centric to customer-obsessed. Specific modules provide training on listening and empathizing, and also offer tools to help employees go one step beyond what is expected.”

Collect and share visceral examples of customer delight

Stories are powerful. They have the ability to illustrate concepts and evoke emotions in a way that even the best training can’t. That’s why it’s so important to widely share examples of real employees delighting real customers.

MBUSA leaders collect stories of customer delight and translate them to video format. One such story involves a customer who brought a car in for service and said, “If you find an earring on the floor, please let me know.” The service technician went the extra mile and took the seats out of the car—and did indeed find the earring, which had been a special gift from the customer’s husband. When the earring was presented to the customer, she burst into tears.

“Stories like these inspire everyone who represents the brand to create that type of customer experience because it touches their hearts, not just their minds,” Michelli comments. “When we see what happens when we delight customers, we’re truly motivated to say yes.”

There will always be the “good egg” here and there who naturally goes the extra mile to delight the customer without prompting. The trick is to make sure all stakeholders affiliated with your brand are good eggs, all the time, with every customer—and that requires an aggressive, strategic, top-down revolution.

“We’re talking about dismantling your old culture and creating a new one centered on getting employees to seek out opportunities—both small and heroic—to delight the customer,” notes Michelli. “Making a few pep talks or slapping up a few posters won’t do it. These are big, fundamental changes. Every initiative you green-light, every dollar you spend, and every decision you make must support and nourish customer obsession.”




About the Author:
Joseph A. Michelli, PhD, CSP, is an internationally sought-after speaker, organizational consultant, and New York Times number-one best-selling author. He is a globally recognized thought leader in customer experience design. For more information, please visit
About the Book:
Driven to Delight: Delivering World-Class Customer Experience the Mercedes-Benz Way (McGraw-Hill; December 2015; ISBN: 978-0-07-180630-5; $27.00) is available at bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers.



One response to “Saying Yes When They Expect No”

  1. Donna Pompeo says:

    Those were my earmuffs that were missing. Thoroughly pleased by the service I received from Prestige Mercedes-Benz.