What Is the Spirit of Your Customer Service?
Barbaro was the 2006 Kentucky Derby winning horse. He came into the race undefeated. And, his margin of victory—six and one-half lengths—was the largest margin in over sixty years. A heavy favorite to win the Triple Crown, he shattered his right hind leg two weeks later at the Preakness after he false started, and ultimately had to be put down. One reporter described Barbaro’s style as having a “mustang-like joy of racing.”
But, there was a backstory to this memorable event—Edgar Prado, Barbaro’s proud jockey. Unlike most jockeys who generously used a whip, especially on the home stretch, Prado never touched Barbaro with his whip and never asked him to do anything more than was necessary. “If he’s running real hard, why should he be punished?” Prado once told a reporter.
What fosters a “mustang-like joy of racing?” Obviously, mustangs run free with no bridle or passenger to guide their actions. The concept is less about the absence of restrictions and more about the presence of a spirit that feels in complete control of its destiny. Barbaro certainly wore a bridle—the steering wheel that connected driver with athlete. But there was no bridle on Barbaro’s heart and spirit.
“No one gives you freedom,” wrote Stan Herman in his classic book, Authentic Management. “You are free if you are free. …I do know some signs of freedom. One is in doing what you want to do though someone tells you not to. Another is in doing what you want to do though someone tells you to.” Barbaro was doing what he wanted to do. And Prado knew that and felt no need to order or “lead” the horse to “run real hard.”
The Source of Service Unleashed
We all know what it looks like up close and personal. It is a service experience delivered by someone who seems wired to serve, eager to create a sensational memory in a customer, and able to operate as if “she or he owned the place.”
Betsy Sanders, in her book Fabled Service, tells the story of a homeless woman dressed in dirty apparel who entered the flagship Nordstrom store in downtown Seattle. No one questioned her motives as she made her way to the evening gown section of the store. Warmly greeted by the sales associate, she stated she would like to try on an evening dress. With hesitation the sales associate helped her try on several expensive dresses, commenting on how well she looked in each. After a while, the homeless woman thanked the sales associate and made her way back toward the street, a smile on her face; her head held high.
After the homeless woman had left, obviously unable to make a purchase of any type, a customer who had witnessed the whole scene approached the sales associate and inquired about her motives behind her generous actions. “You knew from the start she was not going to be able to buy an evening dress. Why did you take such time with this poor street person?”
Confidently, the salesperson responded, “This is what we are here for: to serve and be kind.”
We could do a leadership assessment of this tender moment and focus all discussion on the important elements of a clear purpose, extraordinary training, affirmation, empowerment and a strong service culture. But that only explains the Prado side of the unleashed service equation. What about the Barbaro side? What made this salesperson embrace the freedom to be a service mustang? What was the personal philosophy that guided her public practice?
Kindness: The Dirt Remover
One fun activity for most little girls is a tea party with mud pies. With three granddaughters, I have “eaten” my share of mud pies and drank imaginary tea from empty teacups. Digging dirt in the side yard one day, one of my granddaughters dug up what looked like a round rock. But, the near perfect symmetry and weight made her realize it was something other than a rock. It was coated in dirt. She brought it inside and we put it in the sink. She laboriously scrubbed away the dirt and discovered it was a metal heart the size of a quarter. It was a delightful find.
Assertive kindness is a dirt remover that shortens the distance between two people. Philosopher Rollo May wrote, “There is an energy field between all people. When we reach out in passion it is met with an answering passion and changes the relationship forever.” Most people are fans of the light. Kindness shines a beacon of light toward them and all the dirt—assumptions, bigotry, manipulation, judgment, and arrogance—are cleared away, leaving an emotional connection that is pure and valued. It is service from the heart with all the dirt removed.
Unleashed happens when we serve others without reservations. It is cut from the same cloth that leads us to give a beggar a dollar without questioning his or her motives or personal lifestyle. It comes from the reservoir from which we draw when we compliment, gift, or selflessly help another. It happens when we let go of concerns for reciprocity and optimistically trust there is a hidden pony with our name on it when we find ourselves mired in a giant pile of life’s manure. It is the cultivation of joy for the sheer pleasure it brings to all.
Humility: The Stain Remover
Back to the metal heart story. Once the object was cleaned in the sink, I realized it was more than a metal heart; it was likely sterling silver. I helped my granddaughter put the object in a pan of water with a tablespoon of baking soda and a piece of aluminum foil. I brought the water to a boil. After a few minutes my granddaughter watched as I used a set of cooking forceps to remove the object from boiling water now darkened by the tarnish. She squealed. What had been ugly and tarnished was now a bright and shiny silver heart.
We are born perfect. Growing up adds stains of insecurity, doubt and fear. We are tarnished by a concern that if people knew us as we knew ourselves we would be rejected for our foibles. No one interviewed Barbaro but those around him marveled at his obvious self-esteem. John Asher, vice president of communications at Churchill Downs, was “in awe” when he first saw Barbaro training at Churchill Downs, specifically citing Barbaro’s commanding presence, glow, and physique. He displayed to the world who he was without concern for what he did or had done.
Humility comes from letting go of what others think and embracing who we are and who we were meant to be. It is serving with conspicuous genuineness. When we find the confidence to bring our unadorned self to a service encounter, we reveal the Barbaro glow and strength that customers cherish. Unbridled service requires that we “be all there!” When all of who we are shows up we nurture trust in the relationship and inspire wholeness in those we serve.
Barbaro is the only horse in history to be buried on the grounds of Churchill Downs, the site of the 142 year-old Kentucky Derby. Steve Haskin, a blogger for bloodhorse.com wrote,
“Although Barbaro had to endure a great deal of physical and mental anguish, he also experienced the ultimate in human kindness and compassion, while being pampered like the noblest of kings. And he leaves behind a legacy that far transcends his stunning victory in the Kentucky Derby. Cervantes said, ‘The guts carry the feet, not the feet the guts.’ Barbaro’s guts carried his feet to victory after victory. But they carried his heart a lot farther.”