Friendlytown, USA

Gary Tetz

There’s a danger in being called the best of something. Because once it happens, you actually have to live up to it. My town, the lovely, wine-soaked hamlet of Walla Walla, Wash., was recently dubbed the friendliest small town in America by

USA Today. The news was greeted with euphoria by local residents, and we now feel compelled to bring it up in every marketing piece, sales pitch or casual conversation.

Visiting stranger: “Pardon me, do you have the time?”

Walla Walla resident: “It’s 9:23 a.m. here in the friendliest small town in America. Now give me a hug and accept my firstborn child as a token of our hospitality. Also, would you like one of my kidneys?”

I don’t know how or why we were chosen for this honor. I hope it wasn’t a scientific process, because I don’t trust those “scientists,” with all their “facts” that lead to ridiculous “theories” like global warming, gravity and death. The important thing is that we deserved it, and are rightfully proud of our friendly, congenial selves.

But now that a little time has passed and we’ve finished high-fiving each other and firing Civil War cannons in the park, I feel reality setting in. The good news is, we’re the friendliest small town in America. The bad news is that, yikes, now we have to act that way. All the time. To everyone. Or else.

You know how people are. They’re going to start using this accolade as a weapon against us. Every time something doesn’t quite go their way, they’ll sniff and say with disdain, “And they call this the friendliest town in America. Eventually, the blessing will become a curse. Thanks a lot, USA Today.

Case in point. A few weeks ago I developed a powerful thirst while doing meaningless yard work, so I wandered inside for a refreshing glass of water. I turned on the kitchen tap, but got nothing. So I tried another sink, which was also bone dry. The neighbors had water galore, so I finally called the city utility office to get to the bottom of it.

Boring story short, they’d shut off my water over a $50 misunderstanding, and the reconnect fee was almost that much. Technically, they were right and I was wrong. But since the billing professional on the phone seemed to have understanding and empathy for how such a mistake could have been made, I thought the time was perfect to ask for just a little mercy and benevolence.

I’d pay the outstanding bill right here and now, I told her, but could she possibly just waive the penalty? She thought about it for at least 1.7 nanoseconds before answering. Nope. Absolutely not. She couldn’t possibly. Wasn’t authorized. So I asked to tell my sad story to her boss, an equally helpful person who also said nope. Absolutely not. She couldn’t possibly. Such a thing had never, ever been done in the entire recorded history of the city, and this was certainly no time to start. Or something like that.

That’s when I felt truly aggrieved and righteously indignant, when the ironic gap between USA Today perception and local government reality finally got the best of me. And yes, that’s when I said, “Really? And they call this the friendliest small town in America.” It was a cheap shot, admittedly, and I shouldn’t have said it. Especially since it didn’t work.

In the world of customer service, I’ve long believed in the power of the well-timed exception. Obviously, my friendly local utility people don’t have to care about my perception or loyalty because I pretty much have to have the water. But in business, and especially long-term care, we don’t have that luxury.

That’s why within reason and legality, I think we should watch our policies for any opportunity to strategically break them. I’m pretty sure I could return a pair of broken snow skies to Nordstrom for a full refund, and my cable company will give me six months free HBO if I complain about the horrible writing in the new Charlie’s Angels. There’s a reason for that and it’s not because they’re the friendliest companies in America. They just know that nothing fosters brand loyalty like breaking a rule on a customer’s behalf.

Furthermore, as we run our businesses and buildings in this Twitterized world, we’re really only left with two options. We can stand firm on policy and let an unhappy customer rant on their blog, vent in a national LTC magazine or distribute a scathing account of a bad experience to their 789 Facebook friends-and then to their friends and the friends of their friends. Or we can make an exception, turn a negative to a positive and get a loyal customer for life. Seems like an easy choice to me.

I don’t know if your facility is known as the friendliest. But whatever the “____est” you’ve earned in community perception, it’s far easier to lose than it was to gain. So spare no exertion to jealously and zealously preserve it, even when it means getting a little creative outside your policy comfort zone.

Don’t let your stellar reputation become a weapon when something goes wrong. Instead, the next time you’re stopped in the dining room by a disgruntled family member who says, “You’re the highest-rated nursing home in the state, but you call this meatloaf?” use the only correct response:

“Thanks for sharing. Here’s your free dessert. Now how about a hug?”

Gary Tetz is a long-term care commentator based in Walla Walla, Wash. Long-Term Living 2011 December;60(12):14

Topics: Articles