Demand Better Service Than You Deliver?
It happened for me just a few weeks before Christmas. The days were getting shorter and weather was cold and menacing. The crowds of holiday shoppers and travelers were swelling. In other words, it was just about the time each year when those of us who make our living in the service of others take center stage. It is our collective time to shine.
Unfortunately, for far too many in service sector positions, this time of year triggers grousing and complaining about long holiday hours that must be worked and aggravating customers that must be served. Such attitudes are certain to eventually surface publicly and become depressingly obvious to even the most casual observers.
It’s in such a dismal service landscape that some service professionals choose to rise to the top and shine brightly. They are the ones you and I notice immediately and remember for a long, long time. They are the ones we determine to be exceptional.
As usual, on this morning I was in a big hurry. While backing my vehicle into my chosen parking spot, I spied the airport shuttle bus fast approaching…quickly. I exited my vehicle and rushed to gather my bags. I knew if I missed this bus, I would be waiting another ten or fifteen minutes in the frosty cold before the next bus appeared. Luckily, I made it just in time to join other hurried and harried travelers for the 15-minute loop through the economy parking lot on our way to the terminal. To be honest, I didn’t even notice our driver. He (or she, I honestly don’t know which) just sat in the seat and drove.
Upon exiting the bus at the terminal, I soon joined others travelers in the airport ticketing line. Once in line I reached for my tickets and cell phone. The tickets were there. The cell phone wasn’t. I knew immediately what had happened. In my haste to catch the shuttle bus, I had left the cell phone in the console of my truck. Now I was faced with the prospect of either a week without cell phone service or a retracing of my steps in a rushed effort to retrieve the phone. Though time was short, I decided I needed that phone.
Immediately after checking my bags, empty-handed I raced down the escalator and back outside to catch the next available bus to the economy parking lot. This early in the morning, I was pleased to find I was the only person waiting. Thankfully, in just a few anxious minutes I saw the next bus approaching. The instant the bus pulled to a stop and the doors swung open, I was on board.
“Good morning,” I said breathlessly.
“Good morning,” the driver replied.
“Well, I’ve already made my first big mistake of the day. I left my cell phone in my car a few minutes ago and now I hope I can get it without missing my flight,” I explained, hoping he would take the hint, empathize with my plight and voluntarily wait for me as I retrieved my phone. I knew if he was unwilling to wait, I would be standing in breezy 25 degree weather for another 10-15 minutes waiting for the next shuttle bus in the loop.
“Don’t worry, it happens all the time,” he reassured me. “I’ll be happy to wait.”
And wait he did. When we arrived at my designated stop–the first stop on his multi-stop route–the bus had barely stopped rolling when I bolted from the bus and ran the hundred yards or so to my truck. I snatched my phone from its resting place in the truck’s console and was soon jogging back to the bus.
Once back on board, I thanked the driver profusely. His simple response to my gushing thanks was perfect. “No problem. I’m sure you would have done the same thing for me.” I really believe I would have, but both he and I knew he didn’t have to wait for me and that many other drivers simply would have chosen not to.
For the next 10 minutes I rode in silence as we continued his assigned route, all the while I watched this gentleman as he performed his service duties. At stop after stop, he didn’t just stop the bus and wait; he repeatedly exited his seat to help passengers load their luggage. While driving, I watched as he scanned the lot on all sides, looking for passengers, instead of staring straight ahead in an effort not to make eye contact with those he might easily have driven by, leaving them to wait for the next bus.
As the bus began to fill, he greeted and spoke to each of us individually. During various brief, but rich conversations he had with different passengers, among other things, I learned this driver had a son in medical school who he was looking forward to seeing during the Christmas
Finally, the pickup loop had been completed and the driver maneuvered the bus toward the parking lot exit and on to the terminal. I knew what to expect next. I had been conditioned to expect to hear the scripted and lackluster announcement–the same one I had heard dozens and dozens of times before:
Welcome to Nashville International Airport…Up ahead I will be making two stops…I will make the appropriate airline announcements at each of these stops…Upon your return, take the economy, not the long-term bus to retrieve your car…When exiting the bus, watch your step.
Both efficient and comprehensive, admittedly, the announcement covered the necessary bases. Though I had never spent much time analyzing it, I had often thought this mechanical announcement was lacking some necessary ingredient. Was it humor, was it spontaneity, was it soul? Honestly, I didn’t know what it was lacking, but for me it was lacking something. That is until this morning. For this morning at least, the staid old announcement was out. This time I heard something very
different. This time I heard the following:
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for choosing Nashville International Airport and thank you for parking your car in the economy lot and for being on my bus. If you weren’t here, pretty soon I wouldn’t be here either. Because of you I have a job and for that I am thankful. Please let me know if you have any questions or need any special assistance once we arrive at the terminal. I will do all I can to help you. If you wish, once we come to a stop, just step off the bus and don’t worry about wrestling your bags. I will be happy to retrieve your bags for you. There’s no sense in hurting yourself unnecessarily.”
When the bus stopped, I filed off with the other passengers. Though I didn’t have bags to wait for and I still had a flight to catch, I found myself lingering to watch this service professional as he worked to make the last few seconds of each customer encounter uniquely special.
When each of the passengers had been accommodated and was on their way to catch their flight, I couldn’t help myself, I stepped forward to speak to the driver
one last time.
“Excuse me,” I said as I extended my hand, “my name is Phillip Van Hooser.”
The gentleman accepted my hand and shook.
“It’s nice to meet you Mr. Van Hooser, my name is Corwin Hodge.”
“Mr. Hodge, I couldn’t leave without telling you how impressed I am with the way you have gone about helping me and others on your bus this morning. You probably know that your level of attention to the customer is rare these days, even here at the airport on these buses.”
“Yes, sir, I know it is,” he admitted. “But, if I don’t make an honest effort to serve the people I come in contact with, the people who make it possible for me to work and eat, how can I, with a clear conscience, ever expect others to serve me well when it comes time for me to be the customer? Besides, it just makes the day better when you know you have helped somebody, doesn’t it?”
Indeed it does.
I left my encounter with Corwin Hodge that morning with a slightly different slant on life. At first unconsciously, later deliberately, I found myself walking a little taller, smiling more freely, greeting others genuinely, while on the lookout for someone to help. After all, how could I, with a clear conscious expect help from others if I am not first, willing to offer it freely?
What about you? Can you, with a clear conscience, say you don’t demand better service than you deliver? If so, congratulations! You have joined the unique ranks of Corwin Hodge and others. However, if you must honestly admit that the service you offer is lacking somewhat as compared to what you would hope to receive, my questions are simple. Why and what are you committed to do about remedying the situation? And are you willing to start today?
For more profiles and stories of exceptional service, check out my book, Willie’s Way: 6 Secrets for Wooing, Wowing and Winning Customers and Their Loyalty.
Back in 2005, I read an article in FORTUNE (June 25, 2005) by Geoffrey Colvin. It was entitled, “The Wisdom of Dumb Questions.” The title caught my attention. In the article, Mr. Colvin surmised that “dumb questions lead to smart decisions…” and that a dumb question can “…cut to the heart of the matter, posing a blunt challenge to someone or something–an authority, a policy, the established order. It can make people uncomfortable.”
That made sense to me and I started thinking: What dumb questions should I be asking that might lead me to smarter leadership decisions? I thought you might be interested in some of the “dumb” questions I now suggest proactive leaders consider asking with great regularity.
Dumb Questions Smart Leaders Ask
Dumb Question #1: How am I doing?
This question was made popular by former Mayor Ed Koch. During his term of service to the City of New York, Koch was renowned for stopping average New Yorkers on the street and asking them this, his favorite dumb question. Why would he do such a thing? I think he realized how easy it is for leaders to become isolated, even insulated from the very people they are entrusted to lead. If he didn’t ask the regular “Joes” and “Janes,” his only other alternative would be to trust the opinions of his advisors–most of whom were even farther removed from the man and woman on the street than he.
Dumb Question #2: What have we screwed up lately?
All of us enjoy having rose petals strewn before us. In other words, we like to hear people bragging and commenting on all the great things we have done and are doing. But what do those kinds of accolades really teach us? Not much, I’m afraid. Praise is great for ego boosting, but rather worthless when it comes to building a foundation for continual improvement. Mistakes, errors, miscalculations, screw ups–those are the things that can really teach us something. Admit it; haven’t you learned more from your mistakes over the years than you have from your successes? Well then, why not spend some focused time seeking out areas where we seem to be chronically screwing up, in order to shine a bright light on those areas as we begin to repair them.
Dumb Question #3: What should we be doing better?
Maybe you really are doing a great job and people are honestly struggling to find concrete answers to your Dumb Question #2. Congratulations! You must be doing something right as a leader. Keep it up. But never forget that some wise person once said that “good is the enemy of great.” And it is. There’s always room for improvement and improvement should be our never-ending quest–to be great at what we do and how we lead. Therefore go out and ask your constituencies — the employees, customers, colleagues, partners that make up your professional existence — what they would like to see done at a better, higher, more sophisticated level. Their answers may prove to shake the comfort zones you have allowed to form around you. But their answers may also serve as the catalysts and motivation to jumpstart heightened levels of performance.
Dumb Question #4: What would you like for me to do about that?
This may be the dumbest question of all and yet the smartest one you can ask. Everyone has an opinion. And even the lowliest of employee is known to openly and freely share opinions with fellow workers, family members, neighbors, even innocent bystanders waiting patiently in the grocery store checkout line–everyone, that is, but you, their leader. Possibly the smartest thing a leader can do is to actively seek out the personal, specific opinions of others. Don’t be afraid to ask them Dumb Question #4, then shut up and listen. It’s nothing short of amazing what they might tell you–in startling detail. The chances are stacked in your favor that you will learn something from the conversation. And don’t worry; I know you’re thinking–what about the worst case scenario? What if they share suggestions that are unrealistic, unworkable and impossible? What then? My advice is to tell them so. In an honest, open manner, tell them what won’t work AND why. Most of the people we work with are reasonable people. If it truly is unworkable, based on your complete explanation, they will understand. And for those who just refuse to understand, at least they can never say you didn’t make the effort to explain things to them.
Here’s How It’s Done
Now that we’ve covered four dumb questions any leader can ask, maybe I should tell you how it’s done best.
1. Don’t label your question as a dumb one before you ask it. The fact that you have the courage to ask the obvious questions may actually make you look brilliant in the eyes of others. It worked for Socrates: after all “What is virtue?”
2. Don’t apologize for asking the question. Don’t dilly-dally. Don’t tip-toe around the question until it has lost its power, its uumph. Just step up and ask it. And ask it with sincerity and an open mind.
3. Don’t worry about what the answer to the question might be. You can’t predict nor control the future–the answer will be what it is. You can begin to deal with it once it has shown itself.
4. Don’t be intimidated if people don’t immediately offer a response to your question. Be patient. Let them process the question appropriately. After all, this may be the very first time their leader ever asked a dumb question–on purpose, at least.
For more great leadership tips, get the Leaders Journal now.
So what does a long term customer look like? Can you spot one from afar? Is it possible that you could even walk past one?
I’m traveling through my hometown of Princeton, Kentucky today reminiscing about stories and situations that I remember from my childhood. One of those situations occurred at Farmers Bank and Trust Company here in Princeton. I was a recent college graduate with a freshly minted degree in hand. But I had a dream. And my dream was to be a professional baseball umpire. Now, I know that that wasn’t the traditional approach that recent college graduates would take, but that’s what I wanted to do. The only problem was I didn’t have any money. And I certainly wasn’t going to ask my mom and dad for money to go to umpire school when I had just finished college.
So I walked down to Farmers Bank and Trust Company. And with the boldness that comes with inexperience, I walked up to a loan officer — a guy by the name of Bob Hayes. I sat down and I asked this question. “Mr. Hayes, can I borrow some money?”
Well, like any loan officer in any situation in a bank, this conversation ensued, “What do you want the money for? How are you going to use it? How much money do you need?” And I started to tell Bob Hayes my story.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that Mr. Hayes took a great interest in young people. He took a great interest in me. He took a great interest in my dream to be a professional baseball umpire.
As the conversation continued, he asked me, “How much money do you need, Phil?”
I said, “Eight hundred dollars.”
Now, I’ll be honest with you. Eight hundred dollars was a princely sum for me back in the late ’70s, but that’s what I needed. He looked at me and he said, “Phil, absolutely. I’d be happy to loan you eight hundred dollars to go to this professional umpiring school.”
I was thrilled! But then he added, “All you need to do is get your dad or mom to come in and sign for you.”
Well, as far as I was concerned, that was a deal breaker. You see, I wasn’t going to ask my mom and dad for the money. Whether they had it or not, I don’t know, but I wasn’t going to ask. And I certainly wasn’t going to ask them to sign for me. I looked at Mr. Hayes, and I said, “Mr. Hayes, if my college degree and the potential that it represents for the future isn’t worth eight hundred dollars, then I don’t really believe that we have a business relationship at all.”
Bob Hayes looked at me and smiled and said, “You’re right.” And he loaned me eight hundred dollars on my signature — without a job, without any collateral, without anybody signing or co-signing for me. He gave me the money. I went off to be a professional baseball umpire.
But it didn’t work out quite that way. I didn’t make it to the professional umpiring ranks. However, I did come back and I pay off that loan in a few months. And I never forgot that particular situation. In fact, twenty years later, when I moved back to my hometown, any idea where I chose to do my banking? That’s right. I went straight to Farmers Bank and Trust Company.
Why did I do that? I did that because I remembered someone who believed in me and believed in my dreams. Today, I serve as a director for Farmers Bank and Trust Company. Why? Because I believe that dreams can still come true and we can establish a relationship with customers that will last a lifetime.
So what about you? Are there potential customers out there that doesn’t look so profitable to you at first glance? Have you discounted or disregarded their potential because their goals don’t sound so traditional? Have you mentally given up on them inspite of their total package of preparation, ingenuity and imagination?
Customers come in all shapes and sizes and they may not look too profitable in the early stages, but if we are willing to invest in those relationships over time, you never know what the potential might be. It’s something worth considering — something that people like you and me ought to know.