Customer Service & Running 100 Miles. How "Failure is Success in Progress"
Updated: Feb 8, 2022
Exceptional customer service is all about delivering the right solution to the right person at the right time in the right way. To build customer loyalty it is about overcoming adversity, creating satisfied customers, learning from mistakes and being a better person for it. It is about turning adversity into advantage.
It was a July morning in 2017 at 3:55 AM, five minutes before the start of the Vermont 100 mile ultramarathon. I was excited, scared, and wide awake, even though I had only slept for 3 hours! Nervousness had gotten the better of me and kept me awake, but I was ready and prepared to run for 24 hours plus on hilly Vermont trails and dirt roads. My power phrase was "NO REGRETS", written on my hands to motivate me when the going got tough. After a hot cup of coffee, a bagel, and a hug from my wife Lori, I lined up with the other runners at the start line. Typically, the start of an ultramarathon is filled with excitement, anticipation, and celebration. Unlike shorter races, most runners start slowly, and try to maintain an even pace throughout the race. My plan was to enjoy myself for the first few hours of running since the pain unfolds slowly over the first 35 miles. That is, until my headlamp failed. It’s pitch dark and not even 10 yards into the race, on a rocky trail, I’m facing adversity. So much for my plan!
To be successful running ultramarathons requires a well thought out strategy, intense training, thorough preparation, determination, mental fortitude, teamwork, and a healthy dose of craziness! Most importantly it takes nearly flawless execution and an ability to adapt to changing conditions and unforeseen challenges, like having your headlamp fail first thing! Failing is part of ultramarathoning. The key take-away from failing is that it is not a failure if you learn from it. Customer service is the same way. To be successful in customer service and ultramarathoning requires passion. In customer service it is a passion for delighting the customer. In ultramarathoning it is a passion for running and racing.
“To be successful in customer service and ultramarathoning requires passion. In customer service it is a passion for delighting the customer. In ultramarathoning it is a passion for running and racing.”
Teamwork and comradery are what saved me at the start of the Vermont 100. A few of the runners aware of my predicament surrounded me, with their headlamps focused on the rocky trail, so that I could see. Humbled and embarrassed, this went on for an hour, until sunrise. Without those trail warriors I likely would have stumbled multiple times and covered much less distance during that first hour. Despite their intense competitive spirit, empathy for my situation inspired them to put their own race at risk (tripping, falling, and getting injured) to help me. This is a part of the trail running culture. Everyone looks out for the safety and well-being of each other.
Assembling the right team and leader is critical to being successful. Customer service depends on shipping, logistics, manufacturing, quality assurance, supply chain, finance, and sales to deliver the right service to the right place at the right time. Departments cannot work in informational silos and expect their customers will be served in a way that fosters customer satisfaction and loyalty. In a July 2021 article written by Jay Fuchs and published by HubSpot, Fuchs writes “An organization's success is the sum of all its departments' efforts. The best sales org can only take a business so far if its marketing, customer service, or customer success is lackluster — and vice versa.” Breaking down company silos is critical to delivering exceptional customer service experiences.
To run ultramarathons (for mere mortals like myself) requires teamwork. Effective communication between the crew chief, the support crew, the race officials, volunteers, and the runner are the life blood required to be successful. This is especially true in a 100-mile race when the runner is competing for up to 30 hours, running through the night, sometimes in adverse conditions, fatigued, in calorie, carbohydrate, fluid and electrolyte deficit, sleep deprived, cycling between elation and agony. The runner’s crew must know what their runner needs at any given moment in the way of food, hydration, electrolytes, first aid, gear and most importantly, emotional support and encouragement. They also need to know when it is not safe to let their runner continue.
When customer service is aligned with all the functional teams within an organization, the customer benefits. For a customer service experience to be exceptional, there needs to be a leader organizing the response to the customer’s issue. More times than not, customer service is that leader. They are the crew chief of the company team. A customer’s lasting impression of your brand is hinged on your company’s response to their issues and inquiries. It is an evolving relationship with the customer. Empathy is a quality in customer service that can make a significant difference in your customer’s attitude and perception of your company. Building communication skills within your team is crucial to success. When customer service is delivered in a convenient, efficient, empathetic, and customer-centric way, it is a competitive advantage.
“...failing need not be a failure if we learn from it. Failing is how we grow, how we get better.”
Teamwork is what makes the difference between a good effort and a successful outcome. The interdependencies are epic. Choosing the right crew chief for a 100-mile race is a crucial ingredient to success. In my case I chose my brother-in-law Dan Hamel. I worked with Dan on the race logistics, my goals, objectives, and race plan. Dan picked and organized my crew to make sure that the right people were at the right place, at the right time with the right supplies and support so that I had what I needed to continue moving forward. The experience for me was seamless. I had no idea of what it took for each member of the crew to be at the aid stations, with the right supplies and support when I needed them. They just were. It was the ultimate customer experience for me! Without my crew’s selfless support and Dan’s exceptional leadership, I would not have made it as far as I did.
As every customer service professional knows, sometimes, even with the best effort, we fail to satisfy our customer. But failing need not be a failure if we learn from it. Failing is how we grow, how we get better. Failing is how we ultimately succeed by continuously improving the customer service experience. As Confucius famously said, "Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time we fail."
I failed to finish the Vermont 100 Mile Ultramarathon. Despite my best effort and the extraordinary support from my crew, other runners and race volunteers, my race ended at mile 68, on a dark, lonely, Vermont trail at 10:00 PM. I strained my lower back. Every step was agony. There was no recovering. It was too late for that. The damage was done. “Throwing in the towel” at the next aid station was the hardest decision I have made in 40 years of running races. My crew knew that this wasn’t the time to try to encourage me to continue, but instead a time to console me. I learned much from that race in the Vermont hills about myself, people, teamwork, comradery, empathy, mental toughness, determination, and mindfulness. I also learned about failing, about letting myself and other people down, and how much that can hurt.
I went on to run the Pine Creek Challenge 100K race (62 miles) 14 months later in September 2018, my first ultramarathon since the Vermont 100 mile. I incorporated everything I learned from failing and then some. I improved my core strengthening, training, tactics, planning and fueling strategies. It was the best finish I have had in my 7 ultramarathons, placing 4th overall. Failing at the Vermont 100 was part of the process of succeeding at the Pine Creek Challenge.
So don’t be afraid of failing. Instead, be afraid of not trying hard enough to succeed.
"Failure is success in progress." ― Albert Einstein
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 www.bassharborgroup.com.
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.