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7 Customer Service Lessons That Every Marathon and Business Leader Should Learn!

A group of runners running a race on a city street.

When you make a living from customer service, you notice things. Seems like no matter where I go I’m rating customer service. I can’t help myself and it drives my wife nuts! Dinner at a restaurant goes like this. I’m noting how long the wait is if I have a reservation. Is the waiter professional, friendly, personable? Do I feel like I’m being rushed or ignored? When I’m ready to leave, is the waiter around to bring me the bill or do I have to send someone to find them. You get the idea.

When I sign up for a marathon, I apply the same standard. Easy registration process. Clear, accurate and concise athlete, course, and logistics information. These are the basics, never mind exceeding expectations.

If you’re going to measure something, you need a benchmark that represents excellence. For a marathon it is unquestionably the Boston Marathon, my best customer experience ever! Considering there are 30,000+ runners, it is amazing how each runner is made to feel special and cared for.

This past March I ran a marathon, my first one in four years. Now for me that is a long time considering I’m used to running two or more marathons a year. I was so happy to be back I figured nothing service related would have phased me. I figured wrong.

With only 133 runners I would have thought the customer service experience would be really good. Not so much. While the race director was polite and uber responsive, and the volunteers at the water stations along the course were nice and helpful, the race fell down in so many other ways!

Here are seven customer service take-aways that could apply to any marathon or business delivering customer service.

1. Know your customers

2. Response time is important

3. Good communications are vital

4. Be clear and concise

5. Show enthusiasm!

6. Don’t over-promise and under-deliver

7. Your brand is measured by the sum of its parts

1. Know your customers.

This seems like it would be a no-brainer, and yet brands keep getting it wrong. They believe they know what customers want without actually asking them. Unless you are Steve Jobs, “if you build it, they will come”, is not a good strategy!

In the case of a marathon you need to know what runners want and expect, and the best way to get this information is to ask them. Event planning is a dynamic environment, especially when it involves hundreds or thousands of people, outdoors, dressed in a minimalist way, running 26.2 miles in weather that isn’t always ideal. Details matter. If you are at the finish line on a cold, rainy, windy day, make sure the first thing the runners get is a space blanket and not a bag of goodies and a bottle of water. Knowing what your customers will want and need at all touchpoints of their customer journey is the difference between an awesome experience and a miserable one…especially on a cold, rainy day!

2. Response time is important.

When a customer has a question or concern about a product or service, they expect a reasonable response time. How do you define reasonable? Reasonable is decided by the customer’s urgency level, not by yours. You may ask yourself, “how do I know what the customer’s urgency level is?” Good question, but that is the reality. It is your business to know your customers.

The best way to deal with a customer’s urgency level is to assume that all their inquiries are urgent, unless told otherwise. Designing customer service to attain the highest level of responsiveness is a vital component in creating satisfied and loyal customers. This is not to say that high levels of responsiveness are all the same. In customer service, levels of responsiveness can be excellent differentiators and revenue generators. Think bronze, silver, gold and platinum service level agreements (SLA). Service level agreements are an excellent way to set customer expectations of the kind of service they’ll receive. Response time is a significant component of this. The customer expects that your company will meet the SLA for responsiveness in their service agreement. That is reasonable. If the customer asks that you exceed it, they are asking as a favor and not as an expectation.

The response time I received from the race director of the marathon I ran was extraordinary! When I had a question (communicated via email), the response back was in minutes. I had questions that stretched out over weeks, including on race morning. The race director responded to all of them quickly.

So why did I have so many questions? This leads to the third customer service take-way…

3. Good communications are vital.

When communicating information to a customer, it should be consistent, accurate and complete regardless of the portal customers are using to get the information. Whether it is via their website, chat, bot, text or telephone, it should always be the same. The customer experience should be the same regardless of how they communicate with you. Now, I’m sure you can relate to the customer service nightmare where you are trying to get information or solve an issue and you are put through a gauntlet of service communication channels trying to get help. Automated attendants with endless menu choices, except how to get to a live person! Endless on-hold where you’re informed that the average wait time is 15 minutes. Bots that can only answer the most basic questions, but not yours. Chat wait times. The absolute worst is when you get to a live person and they ask all the same questions that you already keyed in from your phone. Then there is the hand-off where sometimes you must tell your story all over again to a different person! Good communications are seamless. Good communications are easy. Good communications provide the same information regardless of the channel.

In getting prepared for my marathon, I had some basic questions. What time does the race start? Where does it start from? What is being served at the water stations? (in addition to water) How are fluids being served? Cups or bottles? What size? Self-serve or by volunteers? Are sports drink, energy gels, orange slices etc. being served? The information I was getting from the website under race day information for the runners, FAQs, and directly from the race director were all different! If I hadn’t emailed them, I would not have been properly prepared on race morning. Even after I made the race director aware of the information gaps and discrepancies weeks before the race, no changes were made to the website information. No mention of these discrepancies was in the pre-race emails from the director. In the 2 weeks prior to race day, the runners were supposed to receive three of these emails. I only received one.

4. Be clear and concise.

When communicating with your customers, be clear and concise. Whether it is via telephone, email, text, social media, or in person, it is important to make sure that the information you are communicating is accurate, understandable and to the point. Respect your customer’s time and be empathetic to their needs. Information delivered that is not clear and concise can lead to misunderstandings, mistakes, ill feelings, frustration and sometimes anger.


“A little enthusiasm goes a long way with customers and it’s free!”


5. Show Enthusiasm!

There is nothing more contagious than raw enthusiasm! Believe me, when you show enthusiasm about the product you’re selling, the service you’re delivering, or the marathon you’re putting on, a little enthusiasm goes a long way. A lot of enthusiasm goes even further! When a customer chooses your brand, they want to be happy and excited about their choice, especially when it involves money, time, and effort on their part. Enthusiasm is free, yet it is a currency that customers eagerly covet. It is an emotion that reinforces to the customer that they made the right decision by choosing your brand. It also helps to build a relationship with that customer. I mean, who doesn’t like to work with enthusiastic people? Okay, I guess there are some out there that don’t, but not many!

There was little enthusiasm shown about the marathon or the runners by the race director or the race volunteers. It was all very “ho hum”. It was the most uninspiring start of a race that I’ve ever been a part of. Finishing the race was a little better, but not much. Race medals and age group awards were handed out like leaflets on a crowded city street. There was no ceremony at all! No “congratulations”, no applause, no ”good job”, no nothing! I won second place for my age group and I was told I could pick up my award at the registration table. When I did, the race person at the table just handed it to me without a word. Typically, there is an award ceremony at races, and they make a big deal about handing out age group awards, even having pictures taken at some of them. Not here. I suppose that should not have made a difference, because I did take second place after all, and there was great satisfaction in doing that. But it does make a difference. It takes something away from the customer experience of winning. A little enthusiasm goes a long way with customers and it’s free!

6. Don’t over-promise and under-deliver.

Good advice. Every business needs to set expectations for their customer experience. If you plan to stay in business, your customer experience needs to meet or exceed the expectations that are set, otherwise you are over-promising and under-delivering. This is a problem that is hard to recover from in customer service. When a customer has an issue and you respond with an overly optimistic commitment, you are destroying your credibility with that customer if that commitment isn’t kept. Many times this is done with the best of intentions because customer service representatives who care do not want to disappoint customers, so they may lean towards an answer that might happen rather than an answer that will happen. Customers have a business to run so they need clear and accurate information from you so they can determine the downstream effect of your answer on their business. So instead of giving the customer the best, but lower probability solution to their issue, go with the higher probability solution and make sure it happens. If it turns out that the lower probability, better solution happens, then great, you have exceeded their expectations!


“Do what you say you're going to do. And try to do it a little better than you said you would.” - Jimmy Dean


The marathon race director set high customer experience expectations that did not materialize. The name of the race describes it as a festival. The definition of a festival in the Merriam Webster Dictionary is “a time of celebration marked by special observances”. As I described earlier, at the start and finish of the race there was neither celebration nor special observances. The advertised post-race sandwiches for the runners were more like finger food than sandwiches. When you finish running 26.2 miles, you’re hungry! To be fair, some marathons don’t offer post-race food, but the expectation with the customer had been set. Don’t advertise sandwiches and serve finger food! This marathon was guilty of over-promising and under-delivering.

7. Your brand is measured by the sum of its parts.

At the end of the day your brand is not measured solely by customer service, advertising, product functionality, quality, return policy, multichannel accessibility, or social responsibility. It is about the entire experience the customer has with your brand. It is measured by the sum of its parts.

Whether you are running a fortune 500 company or running a small marathon, customer touchpoints matter…all of them. Aim to exceed expectations at these touchpoints and you will create loyal customers you can count on.

To learn more about how to deliver exceptional customer service experiences that drive customer satisfaction, loyalty, revenue and profit, please visit Bass Harbor Group’s website at


Patrick Sandefur is the Founder and Managing Director of Bass Harbor Group / Customer Experience Solutions. His 30+ year career in Customer Service, Sales, Marketing, Product Management and Business Development has given him a unique perspective of what customers want and expect when interacting with a brand.

Read more from Patrick Sandefur by clicking on recent posts below


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