Being Capable Is Not Enough


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Last fall I traveled to Philadelphia to meet up with several colleagues at a downtown hotel. At check-in, I received a room key emblazoned with the image of a specialty cocktail. After pocketing the key, I grabbed my bag, and headed toward the elevators. In the elevator lobby I noticed signage featuring the same cocktail. Upon entering the elevator, yet another promotional image of the cocktail greeted me.

Later that evening after the final flight landed and the entire group was situated at the hotel, we met in the lobby and made our way to the hotel restaurant. Having been enticed by all the images of the specialty cocktail, I was looking forward to ordering one. So you can imagine my disappointment when our server told me it was no longer on the menu. When I displayed my room key containing an image of the drink and mentioned the disconnect between my expectations and reality, I was given this explanation:

“Our specialty cocktails are usually seasonal since our bartenders tend to use fresh ingredients that aren’t available all year round. Unfortunately, sometimes our printers can’t keep up.”

I was a bit surprised by the response and couldn’t decide if I was being admonished for failing to appreciate the bespoke nature of their seasonal cocktail offerings or if the printers were to blame. Either way, besides a complete lack of empathy and a failure to accept responsibility for being unable to offer the specialty drink showcased, the glaring omission in the response was the lack of initiative, interest, and creativity to explore possibilities in hopes of discovering a comparable substitute.

Another colleague, who traveled in from St. Louis, was looking forward to enjoying a Philly Cheesesteak sandwich during our one night in town. When he didn’t spot it on the menu, he was confused and asked the waiter if the restaurant served the city’s famous sandwich. He was told that the sandwich was available on the lunch menu but not the dinner menu.

Now this was a sophisticated urban hotel with a professional full-service kitchen. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility to anticipate that the chef, whose kitchen stocked flank steak, onions, green bell peppers, provolone cheese, and hoagie rolls, could go out of his way to surprise and delight my colleague by making an exception and crafting a delicious Philly Cheesesteak sandwich for him. Had this occurred, it might have surprised and delighted my colleague and even created a story.

Unfortunately, rather than exploring possibilities, our server seemed annoyed by our questions. (Keep in mind that I was only attempting to order a promotional drink that was advertised throughout the hotel and my colleague was simply trying to order a Philly Cheesesteak in Philadelphia.) To his credit, he regrouped before approaching our table a second time and was exceedingly gracious the rest of the night.

As you might imagine, the company that manages this hotel has a lofty mission statement that exalts the guest and trumpets a tailored customer experience. The only problem is that our experience did not reflect those ideals at all. And after a quick peek at the corporate website, I discovered a palpable incongruence between the hotel’s stated values (i.e., guest-first attitude, flexibility, creativity, adventurous, tailored customer experiences, etc.) and our actual experience.


Importantly, I do not blame the server. Rarely are frontline service providers the source of customer service mishaps. More likely the root of the problem is an incomplete understanding of their job role. When newly-hired employees transition into a company, it is their immediate supervisor’s responsibility to illuminate the totality of their job role. Of course, in order for them to do that, they must also be aware of the totality of their own job role. Sadly, in most cases supervisors and the management levels above them have the same incomplete view of their job roles.

Every job role is made up of two parts: job function (the duties and tasks associated with a job role) and job essence (one’s purpose; their highest priority at work). Job function is comprised of job knowledge and job skills, while job essence reflects job purpose. Typically, when newly-hired employees are onboarded into a job role, they receive training in order to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to be successful.

When employees possess adequate job knowledge and demonstrate sufficient job skills, they are deemed capable to reliably execute assigned tasks. While competency is necessary, it’s not enough if your goal is to accomplish more than merely executing transactions. What’s missing is an awareness of the essence of one’s job role. That is, their purpose; their highest priority at work, which might be to surprise and delight customers daily.

Whenever I ask five frontline service providers with the same job role, individually, to describe for me – from their perspective – their job role and what it entails, the collective responses are dominated by job functions. Oftentimes, there is no mention whatsoever of job essence in their individual responses. And because they share the same job role, about 80 percent of their responses are alike. There is little confusion about what they’re supposed to do and how they’re supposed to do it.

But when I ask the same five employees, individually, to tell me their purpose at work; their single highest priority, I get dumbfounded looks followed by questions such as “What do you mean?” or “Could you repeat the question?” Without elaborating further, I simply restate the question: “What is your purpose – your single highest priority – at work?”

When I collect these responses and compare them, in contrast to their responses to the first question about job role (which are nearly identical), their responses to the second question about job purpose are very different. While the responses are noble (e.g., customer service, profitability, safety, productivity, quality, etc.), they’re not alike. Remember, the question was not: “What is one of your priorities at work?” The question was: “What is your purpose – your single highest priority – at work?” While there is little confusion about what they’re supposed to do and how they’re supposed to do it, there is a great deal of ignorance about why they are doing it.


If I were managing the server we met at the beginning of this article, my first responsibility would be to educate myself. Could I, as their manager, confidently and accurately respond to the second question about job purpose? If not, where could I go for that information (e.g., corporate website, human resources, my boss, etc.). Remember, there is only one highest priority at work. What’s yours?

Let’s say I discovered that our single highest priority at work is to surprise and delight our customers.

Next, I would approach each of my frontline service providers and ask them the first question posed above: “Would you describe for me, from your perspective, your job role – what your job entails?”

They will provide a list dominated by job functions.

Then I will accept responsibility for their incomplete view of the totality of their job role by saying something like, “That’s an impressive list of job functions, the duties and tasks pertaining to your job role. All of those things are important and necessary. But if that’s how you would describe the totality of your job role, then I have explained your job to you incompletely. Job function is only one part of your job role. The other part of your job role is job essence.”

They will likely ask, “What is job essence?”

Then I will clarify by saying, “Job essence is your purpose; your single highest priority at work.”

They will likely ask, “What’s that?”

And then I will say, for example, “Your single highest priority at work is to surprise and delight customers.”

Then they might ask, “How do I do that?”

The conversation that follows, besides serving customers directly, might just be the most valuable use of your time at work. This is a great opportunity to reinforce:

  • Job purpose
  • Company culture
  • Performance standards
  • Purposeful actions and behaviors (e.g., expressing genuine interest, conveying authentic enthusiasm, providing pleasant surprises, etc.)

While no two conversations will sound alike, imagine if you chose to reinforce job purpose by saying, “As I mentioned, our highest priority at work is to surprise and delight our customers. Think about your last shift. Can you give me an example of how you personally reflected this purpose?” Or you can ask for an example of what they observed a coworker doing to reflect job purpose. Or you can solicit an aspirational example of what could be done to surprise and delight customers. You can even ask for an example of how they have been surprised and delighted as a customer themselves outside of work.

This is also an opportunity to reinforce the company culture by sharing an example of what was done recently or in the past, perhaps in another department or at a different location, to surprise and delight customers. Or you can point to performance standards that are in place to reinforce job purpose such as, “The reason that we include a complimentary amuse bouche in our table service as a standard is to reinforce job purpose; to surprise and delight customers.” And you might even point to purposeful actions and behaviors that elevate guest experiences – and tips – from ordinary to extraordinary, such as: using names, recalling preferences, paying attention to detail, and displaying a sense of urgency.

Assuming these types of informal one-on-one conversations took place regularly and were expanded to include more formal settings such as staff meetings, pre-shift meetings, and taste panels, how might that have impacted my dining experience and that of my colleague from St. Louis described earlier? Would the server have offered the same tone-deaf responses, aloof from mood or sensitivities, relating to my interest in the promotional cocktail or my colleague’s desire for a Philly Cheesesteak sandwich?

We already know the kitchen stocks the necessary ingredients. Certainly it’s not unprecedented that a server has made such an accommodation in the past. And this is especially possible, if not likely, when job purpose is routinely discussed and reinforced in the operation as suggested above. What better illustration of surprising and delighting your customer? Likewise, even though a missing ingredient or two may prohibit assembling the specialty cocktail, I bet the bartender can craft a similar cocktail that captures the spirit of the promotional drink. And that’s yet another opportunity to surprise and delight the guest!

It’s no secret that competent servers are knowledgeable about menu items, specials, prices, and food ingredients that may affect dietary restrictions. They must also be skillful in the way they operate the P.O.S. system, carry a tray, deliver and clear tableware, and serve wine. Being capable will suffice if the goal is to reliably execute assigned transactions. But if the goal is to achieve the organization’s purpose, its highest priority: “To surprise and delight customers,” then being capable is not enough.

Employees must reflect job purpose by exuding “surprise and delight” in their attitude, demeanor, mood, body language, enthusiasm, and individual flair. They must honor company culture by initiating acts of surprise and delight that will build company lore while reinforcing the alignment between what the company says and what employees do. They must uphold performance standards designed to incorporate job essence into job function in order to operationalize “surprise and delight.” And, finally, they must exhibit purposeful actions and behaviors such as using names, recalling preferences, following up, and being observant, that will elevate the guest experience and leave a lasting positive impression.

To accomplish this, leadership must first be crystal clear on job purpose, the single highest priority in the workplace. Armed with this awareness, they must initiate individual conversations modeled after the one above with each member of their staff. The objective of these conversations is to illuminate the totality of every employee’s job role – both job functions AND job essence – and to connect the employee’s daily job responsibilities to an enduring organizational purpose.

Now, if you will permit me, I’m going to continue my search for that elusive cocktail.

Reprinted from the Hotel Business Review with permission:

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Steve Curtin
Steve Curtin is the author of Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary. He wrote the book to address the following observation: While employees consistently execute mandatory job functions for which they are paid, they inconsistently demonstrate voluntary customer service behaviors for which there is little or no additional cost to their employers. After a 20-year career with Marriott International, Steve now devotes his time to speaking, consulting, and writing on the topic of extraordinary customer service.


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