Are You A Dog Or A Cat (when it comes to service)?

Bailey and Panda

In our professional lives we are all service providers in some way. You may have internal customers; these are co-workers or a group of employees in another department or division for example. Or, your customers may be external; those people who buy your products or services. If you don’t already, you should get to know them well because these are the people who pay your salary. You can’t get away from it – you are part of the value chain and everything you do ultimately impacts the external customer. For better or for worse…

Think about this: no matter what your job function is your job purpose is to contribute to a positive customer experience? If you don’t agree with this premise then ask yourself another question: if what you do doesn’t in some way add value to the customer experience why does your company pay you to do it? When your customer, whether internal or external, presents you with an opportunity to help do you welcome them and express eagerness to show the value you can add to their experience? Or, do you simply try to stay under the radar and avoid contact all together? This is what leads me to asking if you are a dog or a cat when it comes to service.

In my house we’ve had both a cat and a dog. One day I realized that when someone came to the front door our cat Panda would run away from the sound of the knock or doorbell. Our dog Bailey on the other hand would give out a soft woof and run to the door doing his patented “canine circle tap dance” wagging his tail in gleeful anticipation of seeing who would appear. All the time his eyes going from mine to the door as if to say, “Open it, open it! I can’t wait to see who I can greet and make feel welcome in my house.” What a contrast this was to poor Panda who shows panic in his eyes as he darts up the stairs or behind a couch. Panda briefly looks at me as if to say, “Follow me! If we’re really quiet and hide maybe whoever it is will go away.”

When the door opened Bailey always greeted our guests warmly and in his own way let them know how much he valued them and demonstrated his strong desire to please. Then there’s Panda who doesn’t reappear until well after our guest has left and is sure the coast is clear and that no more guests will intrude.

So in your job as a service provider are you a dog or a cat? When someone approaches you in your shop, cubicle, or job site do you panic and figuratively or maybe even literally, run for cover like Panda? Or like Bailey do you eagerly greet your customer and welcome the opportunity to value them and express your strong desire and commitment to help?

Customers can change our world too

In my recent post titled Jen’s World I described how we as customers should not only share responsibility for a positive customer experience but in fact take it upon ourselves to enhance the experience for the service provider. I believe that by doing so we will not only get better service but in a small way we make the world a better place. I know this sounds corny, or lofty depending on one’s perspective, but I really believe it. Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com, talks a lot about changing the world through a strong company culture. The Zappos company culture breeds happy employees who never want to leave the company. The happy employees are very happy to create great customer experiences because they love their company and take pride in their “Zappos Family” and what it stands for. The great customer experiences create customer loyalty. Customer loyalty creates profits for Zappos. Instead of spending all these profits on expensive marketing programs and slick advertising campaigns Zappos invests much of their profit right back into their employees. They do this through employee development programs, fun activities, and -like their number three core value suggests – through a “little weirdness”. This is a great cycle of success. For a full list of the ten Zappos Family Core Values go here : Zappos Core Values.

So with that in mind I think I made the world a better place today.  Here’s why.

I shopped in Jen’s world today. That big chain grocery store where, quite frankly, it’s hit or miss on the type of experience you will have. Last week when I was there I went through Sonia’s checkout line and started a conversation by asking how she liked her job. She half smiled and said it was ok while nodding her head no. I stayed with it and told her it was good to have a job, it wasn’t forever, she had bigger things in her future, etc. She opened up a bit and went on to tell me that she was in college and talked a about her major. We kept chatting while she finished up and I went on my way; thanking her by name while looking her in the eye.

Today I purposely went back to Sonia’s line. I said hello and thanked her for sending someone out last week with a bag of groceries I had forgotten. She said, “oh yeah, I remember that. You’re welcome. How are you doing today?” I’ve written about how customers don’t want to be invisible. Well neither does a service provider. It pleased Sonia that I recognized and acknowledged her at the start of our service interaction. She wasn’t invisible.

So this time Sonia initiated the conversation. She asked me if I had plans for the weekend. She probably didn’t really care if I did or what they were but because of the connection last week and acknowledgement this week she made the effort. I told her I was planning on playing golf. We went on to chat about the weather for my game tomorrow, how frustrating the game is, and so on. She said she was disappointed that she was working all weekend. I pointed out that making money is a good thing, especially for a student. She nodded yes and smiled. When Sonia smiled her whole face lit up and she seemed genuinely happy at her job at that moment in time. The bag boy Jessie contributed to the conversation and told me about the few times he had played golf.  For those few minutes the three of us aligned as customer and service providers with very similar goals.   My goal: to restock my refrigerator and pantry while having a positive customer experience. Sonia’s and Jessie’s goal: to deliver a pleasant customer experience while making some money. Mission accomplished!

So, yes I proudly take credit for the experience. Well half of it; one-third when you include Jessie. I’m pretty sure the three of us didn’t actually change the world today but maybe we gave it a slight nudge in the right direction. Not a Zappos-sized nudge, but a nudge none-the-less. As I left the store I realized I had a big smile on my face and I felt happy. Happy for the experience. It was too late by that time to look back over my shoulder to see Sonia and Jessie because I was outside of the store by then. But I’m pretty sure they were smiling too. Yes, I’m certain they were.

Jen’s World

My friend Jen is a checker at a big chain grocery store. She recently expressed frustration about customers who come through her line that are in bad moods, cranky, or are just plain rude. Jen cites that the store rules are that she has to be reasonably welcoming and positive.  She points out that she is often the customer’s whipping post and scapegoat for all that is wrong with their day, the world, their life, etc.  She often leaves work feeling beat up, drained, and in a poor mood.  Listening to her my first thought was to say, Jen, in your line of work you have to expect this and let it roll off your back.  Then I realized that Jen’s perspective and frustration is valid.  As customers we should assume a fair share of responsibility for a pleasant service interaction.  In fact as customers we should take responsibility for enhancing the service provider’s experience.

This realization has given me a heightened sense of awareness of my own actions as a customer during face to face service interactions.  As a customer I expect a pleasant greeting and relatively cheery demeanor.  When I don’t receive it I am critical of the clerk and even of the business for poor hiring practices or inadequate training programs.  I have very high expectations from the merchants I do business with.  I know this about myself.  Everyone that knows me knows this about me.  What I didn’t realize until my conversation with Jen was that I’m not always as engaged in the interaction as I should be.  I expect the clerk to engage with me but I haven’t assumed my fair share of responsibility to reciprocate.  When asked how I am doing I respond “fine” but I don’t respond with a “how are you?”  The clerk asks how I am doing, usually, not because they really care or because they buy into the proposition that consistently good customer experiences translate into customer loyalty.  They ask because they’ve been trained to ask and who knows, I could be a secret shopper that will bust them for not following the employee guidelines.  So they cite the empty words and my rote and unemotional answer of “fine” only reinforces the fact that they have wasted their breath on another customer who adds no value to their life.

So as customers is it our responsibility to add value to the lives of those that serve us?   I believe it is; for two reasons: one philosophical and one pragmatic.

The philosophical reason is that those that serve us are not our servants.  They’re people that live in our neighborhoods and surrounding communities.  It would be a better place to live if we occasionally reached out and brightened someone’s day simply because, regardless of our perceptions or their outward appearances, they are very much like us:  fellow time travelers trying to make ends meet.  And guess what?  It’s free to do.

The pragmatic reason is that fundamentally we receive better service from someone who likes their job than someone who doesn’t.  When you enter a store that you frequent regularly do you want the clerks and managers to cringe at the sight of a cranky customer who takes out their crappy life on my friend Jen?  Or do you want them to think “hey that’s the customer who always has a smile and something nice to say at the check out line”.  I guarantee the cranky customer will not have as good an experience as the pleasant customer until Mr. Cranky realizes this and begins taking responsibility for adding a little value to the lives of those that serve him.

So I’ve taken my own advice and I’ve begun to ask the clerks and managers I meet when I’m shopping how they are doing?  My goal is to get the person to smile or just open up a little.  I’ll go on to ask them how their day has been; how’s business; how long have they worked here; do they like their job; and so on. It’s been fun, and enlightening, to see the reactions.  These reactions fall into three distinct categories.

There are the suspicious workers who have their guards up, don’t make eye contact and probably think I’m a secret shopper.  Or maybe I’m their boss’s uncle spying for him right before performance review time. They find me way too talkative and probably just wish that I would shut up and let them do their miserable job so that they can stay under the radar until the miserable shift is over and they can leave the miserable premises.  With these workers I’m careful not come across to strong or intrusive.  I do try to express in some way that I genuinely care about how they feel, that I appreciate the good service they’re providing (if in fact they are), and I thank them by name as I leave.

There are the honest workers (usually from Generation Y) who, with their body language or responses, let me know that they don’t like the work hours or conditions, wish they were anywhere but here, or were making more money. With younger workers it seems to be fashionably hip to complain about your job; even with customers.  With this group I am usually empathetic but point out that now is a good time to have a job.  They almost always agree and it seems to be a good ice breaker that leads to a more open chat about a variety of topics.

And there are the sincere workers who it turns out when they asked how you were doing did so because they really do care. Really, they do.  They care about creating a positive customer experience and they care about creating customer loyalty.  They care about these things because they understand that they are part of the commercial ecosystem, they need a job, and they assume responsibility for their share of the customer experience.  They get it. These workers willingly open up and share a part of their life when asked how they are doing.  With these workers I will often hand them a figurative business card (in some cases an actual business card) and tell them to call me if they are ever looking for a job in my industry.  And it is the sincere workers I seek out with a cartfull of groceries even if their line is the longest.

So, the next time you are at the grocery or department store, give “Jen” a break and take some ownership over the experience, smile and ask her how she is doing. But before the words come out of your mouth, think about what’s at stake, and then say it with feeling.