Make no mistake: Employees choose whether or not to serve


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Do you work hard? When questioned publicly, an overwhelming majority of us will respond that, yes, we work hard. I’m not sure what the percentage is, but I bet it’s close to the percentage of us who, in the presence of others, would claim to be excellent drivers who observe posted speed limits, consistently use our turn signals, and come to a complete stop at stop signs.

But what is the actual percentage of us who really work hard? A study by Yankelovich and Immerwahr reported that, when confidentially surveyed, fewer than one in four employees (23%) say they work at their full potential. Less than half (44%) report that they do the minimum possible and only work hard enough to keep their jobs.  And three quarters of employees surveyed admitted they could be significantly more effective in their jobs.

Want to see these statistics in action? Check out this video Exposing Bad Customer Service by Jack Vale Films.

What stops these employees from closing the discretionary effort gap between what they are prepared to do and what they actually do? Experts name several causes, including:

  • the quality of the work environment
  • the organization’s culture
  • the nature of the employee’s relationship with his immediate supervisor, organization, and coworkers

While I agree these causes influence the amount of discretionary effort employees are willing to expend, I disagree that they determine them. In other words, regardless of external influences, employees have the freedom to choose their response to any given stimuli – including customer inquiries.

Here, I’ll reference Stephen R. Covey’s perennial book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Now, before you judge this post as passé due to the book’s 1989 copyright date, recognize that Covey got it absolutely right when he wrote: “there is a gap or a space between stimulus and response, and the key to both our growth and happiness [and, I would add, our effectiveness at work] is how we use that space.”

Covey claimed that, as human beings, we have the freedom to choose our response in any situation. He did not qualify his assertion by saying “in certain situations,” for instance, when the quality of one’s work environment is superior, or the organization’s culture is inspiring, or the nature of one’s relationship with her immediate supervisor, organization, and coworkers is healthy. He said, “in any situation.” Employees who blame having inadequate resources to do their jobs, bemoan the organization’s service culture, or cite apathetic coworkers or surly bosses as justification for their indifference are merely rationalizing their poor performance. In reality, they are forfeiting their freedom to choose their responses within these situations.

Dr. Covey identified what he referred to as four human endowments, or gifts, that people can access “in the moment of choice” to choose their response and, in so doing, improve their effectiveness (i.e., how they manage the space between the stimulus and the response):

  • Self-awareness: conscious knowledge of one’s own character, feelings, motives, and desires
  • Imagination: the ability to create in our minds beyond our present reality
  • Conscience: awareness of right and wrong
  • Independent will: the ability to act based on self-awareness, free of all other influences

Had the retail employees in the Jack Vale video recognized that their behavior was a product of their own conscious choice, based on values, rather than a product of their conditions, based on feelings, the video would have had a dramatically different outcome.

For instance, if the featured employees exercised their self-awareness to recognize their personal standard of performance, regardless of the standard deemed acceptable by the store’s culture, then it’s likely they would have taken the initiative to properly serve the customer. And if they had chosen to use their imagination to improvise in the event that they felt constrained by inadequate tools and resources to do their jobs, then it’s likely they would have solved the customer’s dilemmas. If these employees consulted their conscience, certainly they would have concluded that their actions were wrong. Finally, had they recognized their ability to perform independent of others’ behavior or the established norms, they could have challenged the status quo by choosing to expend discretionary effort in the moment of choice.

Make no mistake: Employees choose whether or not to serve. Although factors such as work environment, culture, and relationships with coworkers can certainly influence one’s performance, they cannot determine it. Between the stimulus and the response, employees have the freedom to choose their response. The extent to which they exercise and develop the four human endowments empowers them to realize their unique potential and provide exceptional customer service, regardless of their circumstances.

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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