I’m a glass-half-full person by nature, but every once in a while the pervasive bad news leaves me with a heavy heart. The past few days have had that effect, with the ongoing reports of senseless bombing in Syria, continuing famines in the Sahel region of Africa going hand in hand with the unfathomably brutal internal conflicts in Sudan, and other stories of unimaginable horrors. In our part of the world, I despair that so many people in positions of leadership find it easier to point fingers at each other than do the right thing and be part of a solution. We lead by example, and too often the examples are not providing lessons that should be emulated. Man’s inhumanity to man sometimes overwhelms me, despite many examples of improvements in the human condition. I have to keep reminding myself that we are a work in progress.
OK, enough of that. Instead, let’s consider what makes us feel good about the world around us. For most people, being treated with respect is high on their list. And if someone greets us with a smile as well as respect, it’s almost impossible not to smile in return. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” never fails. Why do we keep forgetting that?
And that brings me to how we can put this universal truth to good use in the workplace: with good customer service. Good customer service should be a no-brainer, right? Apparently it’s not. Many enterprises have that concept as part of their mission statement, but too often that sentiment does not translate into practice. Good customer service includes ensuring that employees obtain the knowledge they need to be helpful. It includes ensuring that employees appreciate the importance of respect and responsiveness, which is easier for them to buy into when they see frequent examples within the organization. It means that company policy allows for flexibility so that unusual situations can be handled proactively, with positive outcomes, rather than reactively, with lingering bad feelings.
A remarkable story from January 2011 exemplifies the concept of good customer service. A grandfather who was in Los Angeles on business was given news unimaginable to all of us – his 3-year old grandson had been murdered. He arranged to fly home to be with his daughter, in the hopes of getting there before the little boy was taken off life support. Everything seemed to be against him: slow traffic, long lines at LAX, endless security checks with nobody willing to let him go ahead. By the time he got past two hours of lines and ran to the gate, by his reckoning the plane would have left the gate 12 minutes earlier. But the Southwest Airlines pilot was waiting for him. The pilot told him, ““They can’t go anywhere without me and I wasn’t going anywhere without you. Now relax. We’ll get you there. And again, I’m so sorry.” Now that’s customer service. And in order for this to happen, somewhere along the line more than one Southwest employee had passed along the message, which implies that there was something in the Southwest culture that empowered those employees to do the right thing. That’s what can make a difference more broadly: cultivating a corporate culture of good customer service top-down as well as bottom-up.
One enterprise whose “product” personifies good customer service is Disney. They share their secrets to successful management through their Disney Institute, in which all of their lessons focus on ways in which to cultivate a culture of good customer service enterprise-wide. As I mentioned in a previous post (Bhutan and Disney World, two places where happiness matters), at Disney employees are trained to view their job as making their customers (aka guests) happy. And, as we all know, making other people happy makes us happy. It’s a win-win formula.
We can all think of places where we like do to business because the people are friendly and helpful. And we can all think of places that we’d rather avoid because the service is invariably slow, unhelpful, or rude – and sometimes all three. Sometimes our good experiences are purely by luck; the enterprise, through no expectation on their part, has hired someone who is helpful and friendly by nature. Other times, the place is a pleasure to interact with because everyone treats you well and seems to enjoy what they do.
Where I live, one example of a place with good customer service is Home Depot. I know two people whose retirement plan was to work at Home Depot because they love working with tools and they couldn’t imagine anything more fun than helping people choose the best tool for their needs. If you go to our local Home Depot it doesn’t matter what you are looking for, not only is there a knowledgeable person to help you, but a knowledgeable person to help you with enthusiasm. It is part of their culture. Another favourite example of mine is the Running Room, where employees love nothing more than helping people get kitted out to run and sharing their excitement.
We all have choices in how we approach our work, regardless of whether we are in sales, service, teaching, management, or any other function. We live in a stressful world, where we can encounter many frustrations every day, and it is easy to get angry and point fingers. But anger begets anger and this makes us all losers. If, instead, we take a deep breath, give people the benefit of the doubt, and show by example a constructive way to overcome an issue, everyone stands to benefit. The same thing applies to life outside of work. What can we do, aside from choosing to frequent places that provide good customer service? How about leading by example? People might just follow your lead!