Great Customer Experience = Bending the Rules

Every once in a while, you come across a customer experience that just stands out for being so good. That happened to me as a consumer this summer and I wanted to share it with you.

Santillana bent the rules to go beyond expectations.

My 14-year-old daughter is in her first year of high school in an IB (international baccalaureate) program. Her summer work included brushing up on her Spanish. We ordered the suggested textbook and companion listening exercises workbook from a third-party book reseller. When it arrived, it was missing the audio CDs. (Pretty important for building listening comprehension 😉

So, we wrote to the vendor and asked for a replacement. He wrote back and couldn’t offer us a version with the CDs because of the rules. He’s not a distributor, but he offered us a full refund—if we returned the book. That option didn’t get us closer to the goal of improving her Spanish, so I asked if he could just help us locate the CDs. Unfortunately, he couldn’t.

Before returning the book for a refund, I visited the publisher, Santillana, on-line. There, I learned that they only sell to distributors and school systems; there were those rules again. The minimum order is 10 copies and that’s just too much, so I called them to see if someone might point me in the right direction. An automated attendant answered the phone and I thought to myself “Here we go again…”. To my pleasant surprise, just one click later, I was speaking with a real human being. I explained that I needed help sourcing the Audio CDs and explained what happened to me with the bookseller. She asked me to wait just a moment, then I was speaking with the customer service director, Ray.

Ray was a good listener. He was already briefed on my situation by the first person I spoke with. He asked a couple of questions to make sure he knew which of their many products my daughter needed. I told him. Then, he asked me for our mailing address. I was kind of shocked. I was expecting to get more questions and ordering info—not shipping info. I gave it to him and he told me they had the audio CDs in stock and that he was happy to ship them to me. “Wow, one call,” I thought to myself and I felt quite happy.

But, it was about to get better. I asked Ray how much it would cost to get the CDs without the workbook and how much the shipping would cost. He said, “Don’t worry about it.” I asked, “Are you sure?” He said, “It’s our pleasure. We’re so glad your daughter is studying Spanish and using our products to do it.” I felt very grateful and told Ray that I appreciated the way he was taking care of us and how he didn’t treat us in a rules-first way, even though we weren’t his regular customers.

But, it got even better. Just a few days later, the package came in. I first thought was that the order was incorrect because inside the shipping envelope we found not only the audio CDs for my daughter’s class but a couple of other multimedia study aids (at just the right grade level) as a bonus.

How would you feel if you got that kind of service! Pretty amazing, I’ll bet.

The customer experience consultant in me started to kick in. “Was this a fluke?” I asked myself. “Could they treat everyone like this?” So, I called Santillana and set up a quick interview with Ray and his boss, Kathy, to find out. I had a few questions I wanted answers to.

The answers they shared gave me some real insight into how Santillana thinks about service and how they have designed themselves from the inside out to create more value for their customers. Here’s what Kathy and Ray had to say (paraphrased to shorten your reading time):

Who exactly is your customer?

Well, the people who pay us are school systems and distributors. However, we consider our customer to also be the teachers who use our products and the students who learn from them. We spend lots of time and effort getting information about how teachers and students learn together so that we can constantly improve our products. So, your daughter is our customer to even though we don’t know her individually.

Do you treat everybody like this?

Yes. Admittedly, you are one of the very few parents who have contacted us directly. It’s great that you’re so involved in your child’s education (that made me swell with price, I have to admit 😉 We just think it’s the right thing to do and we’re happy to do it.

Is the attention we got because of a routine process or did Ray just have the latitude to offer this kind of response?

We have a very small customer service team, and we don’t have too many cut-and-dry processes here. Ray just did what he thought was right.

How can you afford to give stuff away for free?

Nobody can afford to do that and we don’t give away pallets full of products to anyone who asks. But, we do care about students learning Spanish and teachers teaching Spanish, so we’re happy to smooth out any bumps in the road when we can. We try to keep our customers’ outcomes in mind when we make decisions like this one. When you bought the listening comprehension workbook, you wanted your daughter to succeed at learning Spanish. We recognize that and just wanted to make it easier for you.

Is it okay for me to write about this (after all, lots of other people might find out what you did for me and take advantage of it)?

Of course. It’s good PR, isn’t it?


santillano 2


I felt like I was dealing with the One Minute Manager (reference from the Ken Blanchard book starring a leader who has his operations so finely tuned he always has time to speak with his team members…it’s quite a compliment). There are so many ways to deliver a customer experience that’s different, better, and memorable. Here are the take-aways from my behind-the-scenes look at Santillana:

  • Keep your clients’ (and their end customers’) outcomes in mind. Always.
  • Make learning part of your everyday activity (and strategy).
  • Give your front line enough leeway to make your brand look great (they should feel like they are empowered to do the right thing).
  • Think about your customers more than you think about the rules (unless it’s about safety).
  • Think about value creation and cost at the same time. (You can’t manage one without an effect on the other.)


Sources: personal experience and a phone interview with Santillana representatives in the summer of 2016.

Services: StoryMiners offers many enabling services. Check out Journey Maps, and Rattlesnake Hunt for some ideas on how to improve your existing experience. Or, check out Experience Design, Human Prototyping, and Second Opinion if your desire is to innovate.

By | 2018-08-27T20:37:30-04:00 August 30th, 2016|Great Experiences, Reviews|0 Comments

About the Author:

Mike founded StoryMiners in 2002 as one of the world's first story and customer experience design firms. 750+ project later, the firms know how to help leaders get their stories straight. And, express them as experiences their customers rave about. A certified consultant, speaker, and experience designer, Mike has helped his clients earn nearly $2 billion from improvements in sales, operations, service design, and brand management. Mike is a graduate of Arizona State/Thunderbird (MBA) and the University of Florida (BA). He has also spent two years overseas, learning Portuguese, Spanish, and Russian along the way. #experience design #story #storymining #speaker #strategy #facilitator #keynotespeaker #designthinking #custexp #travel #woodworking