I recently kidded with manager groups that one small positive from the present economy is that it has turned "customer appreciation" from a catch phrase into an honest-to-goodness fact for many businesses.

In my business trips over the past few months, I observed improved customer service from places that are not always known for providing it. I noticed an especially increased level of engagement from folks who rely on tips and gratuities to supplement their incomes.

A recent shuttle ride from the airport to my hotel was a good example. You would have sworn the driver worked for an upscale limo service. He was upbeat, friendly and chatty. During our five-minute ride, I felt like I was catching up with an old acquaintance.

Toward the end of our short chat, I asked him if there had been a drop in his hotel's occupancy rate. He admitted that things were a bit slower than usual.

I definitely got the impression that driving me to his hotel was not a chore. He seemed genuinely pleased to have a customer. And I found myself tipping him more than what I would normally give a shuttle driver.

The best folks in these types of jobs have always realized there is a correlation between the level of service they provide and how much money they take home at the end of the day.

The truly astute ones also know making a "connection" with a customer can be as important as the quality of the service they provide.

Obviously, our teams are not supplementing their income with tips, but the value of making personal connections with customers shows up in higher levels of engagement and retention.

Customers may or may not always notice competent service, but they do tend to notice when they are being treated and spoken to as a valued customer.

Conversely, I have observed the normal levels of inattentive and surly "service" from Transportation Security Administration agents in airports recently. In one slow-moving line, we were subjected to a uniformed 20-something-year-old barking at us like a prison guard. An older gentleman behind me quipped, "Do you get the feeling that they're bothered by the fact that we're here?"

I laughed and suggested to him that they get paid whether we show up or not. We are what stands between them and a fun afternoon, and they obviously are not being paid according to the speed of their lines or how "satisfied" we are with our experience.

And really, what are we going to do about it? They can treat you like a customer, or they can treat you like cattle. If you're going to fly commercial, you are going to have to be their "customer," like it or not.

The difference between that mind-set and that of the folks working in the restaurants and gift shops in those airports, as well as the businesses in the surrounding areas that rely on travelers, has never been more noticeable. When a steady stream of customers cannot be taken for granted, smart businesses and individuals show that they do not.

I could tell last weekend that a waiter we encountered understood this concept. He cheerfully referred to our sons as "my friends" whenever he checked on our table. Most waiters do not bother interacting directly with young kids at all; instead, they speak over the kids' heads to the older folks at the table with the credit cards.

My kids noticed and liked being treated like grown-ups. He connected with them and thereby with us. When we were departing, he thanked us sincerely and said he hoped to see his friends again soon.

We will be much more likely to choose our new friend's restaurant over the scores of other options we will have next week. In banker-speak, his personal gestures helped "retain our business."

Is "customer appreciation" simply a catch phrase, or is it an observable set of behaviors for your team?

It's easy to overestimate how effective we are in conveying appreciation to customers. Sure, we may, in fact, absolutely appreciate them. But we then focus 99% of our efforts and resources on attracting new customers — or trying to sell our current ones more things.

I am not suggesting that stuff is not important. Obviously, it is, but our focus can easily become skewed.

Take a minute today to evaluate how you and your team stack up. How promptly and warmly is a customer welcomed in one of your branches? How likely is a customer to be greeted by a manager? What is the last impression customers get from you and your facility as they depart? How quickly and reliably do you respond to clients' e-mail and phone calls?

Most folks you will interact with today, whether in a branch, on the telephone or electronically, are paying closer attention to where they bring their business these days. And it is human nature to favor people and places that make us feel like we are important.

Your customers will do business with many service providers this week.

Make it a point to show those that you have contact with today that no other business appreciates them more.

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