Santa Claus—Your Child’s First Customer Service Memory

Published December 12, 2011
Last modified December 12, 2011

Santa Claus is many things – bringer of presents, harbinger of Christmas, jolly fat man – but he’s also something possibly even more influential than any of those: in many cases, he’s a child’s first direct experience with “customer service.”

Only instead of being met by a chic, pretty, dressed-in-black sales clerk, the “customer” is greeted by an over-sized white-bearded senior citizen sporting a red suit and laughing maniacally, and he/she isn’t shopping for a designer dress or extravagant jewelry, but “a pony,” or the newest awesome video game.

And the stakes are potentially higher, too. A positive experience with St. Nick will likely create good memories and associations with the store for years to come, while a bad one may not only alienate the child, but also the parent.

So how does Santa, and the stores that employ him, ensure that this customer experience is optimal?

To find out, we went to some Santa experts. Tim Connaghan runs the International University of Santa Claus, which has trained some 2,000 Santas. Next we saw Dana Friedman who, believe-it-or-not, is a New York attorney who, each holiday season for the past decade, goes “the full Claus”, including growing out a bushy white beard, to donate his time playing Santa for various charities and organizations. Last but not least, there’s Macy’s, which brings Santa to Herald Square every Thanksgiving Day Parade to bring in the holiday season, and where kids of all ages (literally) line up to spend time with Kris Kringle.

And you know what? It turns out that many of the same things that work for us as adult customers are rooted in that first Santa encounter. Want proof? Check out…

Santa's Tips for Providing Great Customer Service

Be glad to see them - The first 15 seconds are crucial in determining how kids feel towards Santa. A hearty welcome and a cheery “ho-ho-ho” can work wonders in putting nervous children at ease.

Dress the part - Part of making a convincing first impression is looking the role. For Santa that means making sure that “the three B’s” - boots, belt, beard – look authentic. They’re the first three things children check out, according to Friedman, and he had a client tell him about the previous Santa who showed up wearing sneakers and the kids immediately knew he wasn’t the real Claus.

Use “Door Openers” - Santa U says that Santa asking a child about school or her hobbies both shows that Santa is interested in what they have to say, but also enables Santa to respond on a personal level to what she wants. “Tell me more,” and “Really?” are simple ways to elicit more information.

Don’'t promise more than you can deliver - Children often come in asking Santa to reunite their mother and father. The answer to that, Connaghan says, is never to say “Ok,” but rather “Santa is sorry to hear that. Let’s hope that happens,” and reassure the child that the parents love her, and Santa loves her, too. If the kid asks for something that they’re clearly not going to get, like a car or an AK-47, a good Santa responds along the lines of “Well, how about if I bring you something special?”

Have a good support team in place - Macy’s has a team of cheerful elves throughout Santaland that not only make waiting in line entertaining and reduce childrens' anxiety, they also prescreen kids and introduce the child by name so that Santa isn’t in the uncomfortable position of not knowing it.

Make waiting as painless as possible - Macy’s not only disguises the wait to see Santa by employing the well-known Disney trick of twisting and turning the line so that it never seems so long, but more importantly, by filling up Santaland with electric trains, talking trees, caroling stuffed bears, snow-capped mountains, and those aforementioned ecstatic elves.

Give them something “extra” - Because he’s asked so often for a car and a million dollars, Santa Friedman keeps a supply of matchbox cars and million dollar bills handy, ready to dispense.

Exhibit patience - Most stores’ Santa programs make money selling Santa photos to parents. Santa Friedman says he’s worked in retail stores where the photographers rushed the kids, both upsetting them and alienating the parents. “I heard the parents say they would never return to that store,” Friedman says.

Be a good listener - Some children have trouble expressing themselves, so it’s important for Santa to make direct eye contact, listen attentively, and respond specifically to the question being asked.

No “hidden” anything - While Santa may be the only adult left who can get away with sitting a strange child on his lap and asking whether “you’ve been naughty or nice,” Friedman says that it’s important for both of Santa’s hands to be visible when photos are taken with the child.

Stay positive - Some parents use Santa as a bludgeon, threatening that Santa won’t bring their kid anything unless he/she shapes up and behaves. A good Santa tries to change the dynamic, focusing on the benefits of being nice, not the penalties that come with being naughty.

Leave them with a good feeling - Ok, it’s true that at most retail stores, this “good feeling” may set the parents back $40-$50 for a photo of the kids with Santa, but the child leaves with a memorable impression that will last a long time.

If you’re a retailer or otherwise involved in customer service, and want to keep customers happy, take another tip from Santa: make a list (of these tips) and check it twice. Because when you get down to it, it’s all about treating your customer not naughty, but nice.