Is Your Customer Service a Gift Without Worth?
I was born and raised in south Georgia. People from north Georgia simply say they are from Georgia; people from the geography south of Macon always add the proud qualifier “South.” When I was young I thought South Georgia might be a separate state from Georgia, like South Carolina or South Dakota. In some ways I guess it was, and probably still is.
During my youth, most south Georgia farmers raised cattle. And most of them secured their cows in pastures surrounded by wire fences topped by a single strand of barbed wire. My dad was one such farmer. Cows generally escaped their incarceration when an elderly tree expired and fell across the fence. For some reason our cows always ventured north to Mr. Hightower’s front lawn; his cows loitered south along the highway beside our pasture to visit our cows.
Mr. Hightower was not a nice man. His cold countenance was so tight it appeared even a faint smile would shatter his face. I recall reading a bedtime story to my kid brother and he asked, “What’s a troll?” When I told him a troll was a very short Mr. Hightower, he immediately understood the imagery. If our family went to town on Saturday for groceries and supplies, a sidewalk encounter with Mr. Hightower was more frightening than having to walk home alone on a dark night from grandmother’s house.
The manner my dad handled a Hightower cow invasion and how Mr. Hightower handled the exact same scenario was a powerful lesson in the ethics of service. Mr. Hightower called up at first light with a demanding: “Ray, a bunch of your #%@ cows are out again! Get your boys up right now and come get ‘em out of my front yard. They’ve probably eaten my squash.” Mr. Hightower always forgot cows eat grass, not vegetables.
When my dad spotted Mr. Hightower’s cows on an adventure, he never called. He calmly got us up to go with him to return the cows to their proper domicile. But, he went one step further. He found the site of their prison break and repaired it. He waited until he saw Mr. Hightower on Saturday uptown to provide a cordial briefing of the incident.
Mr. Hightower never expressed gratitude and always seemed puzzled. But, it never mattered to my dad. He knew he had done a good deed, helped retain civility between neighbors, and taught his two boys the power of service with a conscience.
What is the Act of Service, Really?
We associate it with assistance or help, doing a good deed that benefits another. However, for such a benefit to be positively memorable, it must fall outside of the realm of routine. When we get our car repaired we bring with our vehicle certain expectations. We expect the work to be done accurately and with limited wait. We expect the mechanic to “clean up after himself,” no grease on our car seat. We also expect when we retrieve our repaired vehicle to have to get out our checkbook or credit card. We only recall such a standard encounter if the experience exceeds or fails to meet our expectations.
Enhancing the worth of the server-to-customer exchange, value-added or value-unique, comes from the spirit of caring and generosity. Bill Marriott called it “the nobility of service.” If the auto mechanic takes the time to explain the repair in a way that helps prevent a future occurrence; if the service writer leaves an ice-cold bottle of water in the vehicle cup holder; or if the repair bill notes another problem was corrected without charge, we would describe that repair-for-money exchange as “great service.”
We tell our neighbors and tweet our friends. My dad gave Mr. Hightower a gift. He could have left Mr. Hightower’s cows along the road at risk of being hit by a passing truck. Instead, he generously made a sacrifice of time to return the cows plus repair the fence.
Service is Not Conditional
Service laced with generosity is not conditional gift giving. It is service emanating from the inner joy of service. It is not a tit-for-tat tactical decision. It is service as a force, not service as a magnet. And it has a magical aspect to it. It works only when there is no expectation or requirement of a response in kind.
Yet, it evokes a loyalty and bond from the recipient that typically yields a response in kind. Reciprocity is the effect or result when reciprocity is not the intent or objective. My dad rescued Hightower’s cows and repaired the fence because that is just the way my dad was.
More than Generosity
However, service is more than sacrifice borne out of generosity. As much as service is about giving, it is also about safeguarding. My dad knew if he took Mr. Hightower’s approach to cow invasion, the two would be on the path to a south Georgia version of the Hatfields and McCoys. His service was more than an act of generosity and sacrifice; it was also an act of stewardship. He was giving; he was also protecting.
Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company authorizes employees, including housekeepers, to spend up to $2000 to make sure a hotel guest leaves satisfied. But, if you examine that authorization closer, you learn that prior to empowerment came special training in how to handle situations in a way that minimized the need for such a costly gesture. Associates were taught to think like owners and “take care of the organization” as they were “taking care of the customer.” When customers witness acts of generosity that go beyond what they consider appropriate, they worry about the long-term viability of the enterprise. All of Ritz’s associates are as focused on rev par (revenue per available room) as they are on their GSI (guest satisfaction index).
Ethical service is also about hospitality. The auto mechanic who does all the right things to add value to the exchange but does it with a negative attitude can cancel out all the benefit. A generous act without a generous manner looks to the customer like a ploy or ruse. Generosity only has power when it is delivered with authenticity and enthusiasm. Mr. Hightower’s cold countenance never changed. But, that never stopped my dad from treating him like a valued neighbor. The lesson we got was that we had complete control over our attitudes. Since positive feels better than negative, we could choose to be happy despite the Mr. Hightower’s we encountered in life.
Service works when it enriches the exchanges. Customers feel valued when the service provider delivers something special to the encounter. But generous must be coupled with conscientiousness or it turns contentment into caution. And, a generous heart without an enthusiastic spirit risks leaving customers believing they have received a gesture without importance and a gift without worth.