My book on Differentiating Instruction in the classroom came out this week.   While this is clearly aimed at teachers trying to reach every kid in their classroom, the concept of tailoring your treatment or requirements of others based on external factors or perception of value occurs in every day life as well.  Businesses offer different levels of service to their customers frequently based on their perceived loyalty and value- for example, I have “preferred status” with Staples, so someone calls my house about once a month, asks if I need anything special, lets me know about special promotions and discounts, etc.  While I think this means I spend way too much on toner and pens, and my husband jokes that I’m the only person he knows with gold card status for office suppliesI do like being treated well, I can’t deny it.

Many businesses reward their best and higher purchasing customers.  that’s what all the reward and loyalty programs are all about- trying to get you hooked in as a customer, coming back in hopes to save up points/rewards/etc. for trinkets, free services and the like over time.  It works, too.  We took our family to Europe on frequent flyer miles this summer, and I love my Think Geek points, where I can cash in my purchase points for cool things like Bucky balls or a Tauntaun sleeping bag. (The Bag of Holding was my favorite bonus I’ve gotten to date. Best travel geek bag ever.)  I think of these programs as sort of passive reward programs- I rack up points based on my every day behavior, and get a prize down the road, rather like the old green stamps at grocery stores program that died out in the seventies- I don’t remember what you could earn, but I do remember  my Mom making me lick those stamps and put them in the books (ick).

Then there’s the “finer things in life” programs, where if you travel enough, credit cards, hotels and airlines begin to treat you better and more like royalty over time.  Lounges that are exclusive to the frequent traveler, free upgrades, better rooms- you name it.  This is a “join our roving country club” sort of thing, and it says “money talks, and the rest of you, well, enjoy coach.”  It’s a status symbol, like a nice watch or fine jewelry that people notice and assume certain things about you as a result.  Julien wrote about this recently, when talking about ways people “earn” the right to skip the line, ignore the social rules, and simply get what they want when they want it.  Heck, even EZ Pass on I-95 acts this way, and I always feel like I get to skip the line, just for giving them my credit card  and having a transponder in my car- I don’t have to slow down like the rest of those folks, and can simply drive away, leaving them in my wake.

People are willing to do things and pay for these conveniences and upgrades, often to the point where I begin to question the value of the extras. For example, we got a solicitation recently for a “black card”- where the invitation assures me this invitation is only issued to 1% of US Residents and we will receive the highest caliber of personal service, including a concierge assistant, exclusive rewards program, and luxury gifts from some of the world’s top brands, all for the annual fee of $495 and $199 for any additional cards for family members.  (For a almost $500 annual fee, it should come with a free iPad.)  While many folks I’m sure would use this as a vanity plate, I have a hard time seeing why I need to spend $500 when I have no fee, low interest cards already that work just the same.  Clearly, I do not travel in such rarified circles where producing a black card will be noticed and commented on, nor do I think I need $500 worth of special service from my credit cards every year, so I think we’re going to pass.  Hanging with the plebes works just fine, thanks.

But then there are businesses that don’t distinguish between their customers based on perceived net value.  Certainly fast food businesses treat everyone the same, but so does Disney.  Whenever I go to a Disney hotel, event or property, the customer services from the cleaning staff to the concierge staff are helpful, pleasant and friendly.  Each person is willing to stop and help solve a problem, big or small.   We have plenty of stories ranging from kids getting sick at a dinner table to finding out our dog died while we were at a park and having the guy sweeping up wrappers stop and ask us what was wrong and try to make our day better by offering us some VIP treatment.  Everyone we’ve encountered at Disney makes us feel special and valued, by just offering great service.

In fact, we joined the Vacation Club because of this, and have been really pleased with it.  This is where even Disney begins to differentiate customers.  While customer service is excellent at every level, at every hotel, Vacation Club members get perks.  On our recent cruise, it was a bag, hats, and special lanyards.  And a pin a day later.  And a lovely wooden box for keepsakes.  And a print.  And luggage tags at the end of the cruise.  Small stuff- largely trinkets, but it makes us feel valued on an ongoing basis to be part of the club and a recognized customer.

Then there’s the Castaway Club.  Once you’ve taken one Disney Cruise, you are automatically enrolled as a member.  When we took our second cruise this summer in Europe, we got special lanyards announcing we were Silver members; and they put a bag in our state room, handy for excursions, containing two water bottles, a pen, keychain, a fruit bowl and some snacks.  We felt recognized and special.  It was a lovely gift, and the thoughtfulness and appreciation for our returning status was terrific.  They have different levels of membership depending on how many cruises you’ve done with them, and I’m sure the gifts vary, but we were very happy and surprised by this.

Disney gets customer service and gets the best of both worlds.  It treats every customer like family and tries to make vacations as relaxing and hassle free as possible for everyone, encouraging return business.  For its best customers, it offers a little more, and some small gifts and acknowledgements to make you feel special and appreciated as return visitors.  It starts out by treating all customers equally well, and some others, just a bit more special, helping to encourage you to come back again.  And it works like a charm.

What if more businesses started out treating every customer as a VIP from the start?  What would happen if you made all your customers feel valued and not triaged by level of importance or perceived loyalty?  Passive programs like Geek Points feel like bonuses and surprises.  But if I got crappy service from Think Geek, it probably wouldn’t matter, and I wouldn’t buy more from there.  But combine programs with great customer service, and you can figure out why you might just be getting plush bacon or Geek Wisdom from me for Christmas.  You never know.

Disney gets it right.  Start out treating everyone well.  Acknowledge your best customers with extras that make them feel special, and everyone wins.  Now time to apply this to my own business, best I can.