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What NORAD Santa Can Teach You About Customer Experience

Dec 12, 2013

What NORAD Santa Can Teach You About Customer Experience

At this time of year, it’s appropriate to remind ourselves of the very best customer experience story of all time.

It was the height of the Cold War, and the "hotline" phone on the desk of Col. Harry Shoup, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) in Colorado Springs, began to ring. He picked it up, and braced himself for what he might hear on the other end.

"Is this Santa?" a small voice asked.

The tradition began in 1955, when a Colorado Springs-based Sears Roebuck & Co. store ran an advertisement, suggesting children call Santa – but misprinted the telephone number. As the NORAD Santa website explains, "Instead of reaching Santa, the phone number put kids through to the CONAD Commander-in-Chief's operations ‘hotline.’ The Director of Operations at the time, Colonel Harry Shoup, had his staff check radar for indications of Santa making his way south from the North Pole. Children who called were given updates on his location, and a tradition was born."

Shoup must have had a fantastic sense of humor for a military man during the Cold War. The call actually came in on the red phone. Admittedly, he didn’t rise to the occasion immediately. At first, he barked, “Who is this?” into the phone, making the little boy cry and causing him to weep plaintively, “Is this one of Santa’s elves, then?” But as the phones continued to ring, Shoup soon seized the moment, ordering an airman, “Answer the phone. Pretend you’re Santa.”

CONAD was replaced by NORAD in 1958, and the tradition continued, with the organization using state-of-the-art technology to track Santa each year. Currently, NORAD says it uses four high-tech systems to track Santa -- radar, satellites (using the infrared signature from Rudolph's nose, which is apparently similar to that of a missile), Santa Cams, and fighter jets. NORAD Santa also uses Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and numerous other modern-day methods to follow Santa. Numerous volunteers -- including, at times, First Lady Michelle Obama -- also answer telephone calls from kids who haven’t gotten their own tablet yet.

Google worked with NORAD for several years on the project, and last year, Microsoft took over the official partnership (though Google continues to track Santa as well, including via a Google Glass app). The whole site now has 54 corporate sponsors, which pays for the entire cost of the project.

At this point, NORAD Santa has become a thing, as much a tradition for Christmas geeks and their kids as Rudolph or “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Historian Garry Bowler, a history professor at the University of Manitoba and the author of Santa Claus: A Biography, told NBC in 2010 that NORAD Santa was one of the few modern enhancements to the original Santa legend that had stuck, partly because it didn’t try to kidnap Santa for commercial purposes. "It brought Santa into the 20th century," he told NBC. And it does a lot to put a warm and fuzzy face on an organization that, not to put too fine a point on it, isn’t usually thought of in a warm and fuzzy context.

But it all started with a guy who rose to the challenge of an unexpected phone call.

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