Shep Hyken's Customer Service Blog

The Ship Is Sinking, Yet the Band Plays On

Common sense must always prevail – especially when it comes to customer service. That said, sometimes companies create strict rules and policies or have a “system” that makes it impossible for an employee to deliver the customer service the company actually wants them to deliver.

Recently, I was sitting next to someone on an airplane who was on his way for a vacation on a cruise ship. We got into a discussion about how some people are so set in their ways that they can’t be creative about solving a customer’s problems. These people are so tied to their process and the way they have always done things that they jeopardize the relationship with their customer, even when common sense should prevail.

My fellow passenger has been on many cruises – and as good the customer service is on most cruises, he said there are always a few of the ship’s employees that are more focused on the system or process than on their customer. He then shared a few stories from his past trip about how some crew members lacked common sense. For some reason, it reminded me of the Titanic and how the eight-member band continued to play, even after the ship started sinking.

I thought that the story of the band playing while the ship was going down might be fictitious, so I did a little research to see if were true. Well, as the story actually goes, the reason for the band continuing to play was that Wallace Hartley, the band’s leader, had asked the band to keep playing because he thought it would help calm the chaos that was ensuing around them.

Maybe that was true, but I’d like to take some creative license and bend this story a bit to create a customer service lesson. My made-up version of the story has nothing to do with keeping the passengers calm. My version is that Mr. Hartley said, “Keep playing. We still have two hours to go in our set.” The passengers had all left to save themselves, but the band played on … as they went down with the ship.

The point is that Mr. Hartley’s band should have stopped playing immediately and tried to save themselves. Common sense should have prevailed. The band should have headed for the life rafts. But, sometimes people just do what they think they are supposed to be doing, without regard for common sense.

So, what does this have to do with customer service? The best companies hire people who are smart, problem-solving, customer-focused people who look for ways to work around having to say NO and come up with ways to say YES. They don’t get stuck on company policy. They work within the rules, but also understand flexibility. They will do what’s right for both the company and the customer. In short, they use common sense, especially when the ship is going down – or a customer is angry.

Shep Hyken is a customer service expert, keynote speaker and New York Times bestselling business author. For information contact or www.hyken.com. For information on The Customer Focus™ customer service training programs go to www.thecustomerfocus.com. Follow on Twitter: @Hyken

(Copyright © MMXVII, Shep Hyken)

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  1. David Antonoff says:

    Mr. Hyken, I’ve been reading your column for several years now, and while I am often inspired by your anecdotes, this time I feel like you missed the mark. And while I understand the point you’re trying to make, I think your creative license does the Titanic band’s memory a huge disservice, and makes your message harder, for me at least, to accept. The message should be more along the lines of, “displaying tremendous courage can sometimes trump common sense.”

    If you’re at all interested in the inspiring and uplifting story of that group of musicians, I highly recommend this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pptVn_lWmI0 I won’t say it changed my life, but It gave me a new appreciation for what it means to be courageous under the most difficult circumstances. Perhaps you can write a future column on how this may relate to outstanding customer service?

    • Hi David – Thanks for your comment. I appreciate your thoughts and did not mean to diminish the history and story of the Titanic’s orchestra. Right or wrong, common sense or not, this group of musicians did what they thought was right. Yes, they were brave and proud. I changed the story to make a point, knowing that some people would recognize the original story and relate to it. So, hang in there with my column. Next week’s article won’t be as dramatic as this one, but will still make a good point. Thank you again, David.

      • Great analogy, Shep! I can certainly see where David is coming from too. When something goes wrong in the contact center, sometimes customer service pros are called on to be upbeat and helpful when customer after customer calls fearing the ship is going down. That doesn’t diminish the value of your point at all, though.

        • Good point, Jeremy. It does help to be upbeat and helpful, and the best CSR’s do that. Even when the ship is going down, they maintain their composure and work to salvage what they can out of the relationship. Sometimes it’s not easy, but that’s what they do. They also recognize when they can’t do anything else (when the ship has finally sunk), and they move on.

  2. David Antonoff says:

    Thank you for the reply. I reread the column, and while I still think it was a bit disparaging, it may be because I attach my own baggage to the words, “common sense.” My takeaway now is that Wallace Hartley probably would have made a great a service desk manager. 🙂

    • Thanks David – Love it! Wallace Hartley might have made a great service desk manager – and he would have piped “calming music” throughout the contact center! Really appreciate you sharing your thoughts. Thank you again!

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