Service as an Expression of Grace


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“Thank you for being my customers,” the shop owner said to a group of prospects who seemed to be loitering in his small mall-based store. The uniqueness of his statement was that it was directed at three teenagers each with very loud dispositions, extremely baggy pants, and earphones hooked up to their IPods. Out of earshot of the owner, one young man remarked to his buddies, “Man, we gotta buy something!” As they left the check-out counter, the store owner shot point blank one final blast of benevolence: “Please visit me again.”

Grace is typically used in a religious setting —it means “unmerited favor or love.” Applied to customer service it is generosity expressed in an unlikely context. It is an assertion, not a response; an attitude, not a tactic. We get a glimpse when we witness a “random act of kindness.” Only service grace is not random, it is continual. Like the teenagers in the opening story, it causes customers to act their best. It can tame hostility, enrich the ordinary, and add “a story to tell” to “I got my money’s worth.” What is the anatomy of service grace? It is three things–being really good, eliminating the hassles, and adding a surprise.

Be Really Good

“When people ask me how do you make it in show business,” says famed actor Steve Martin, “what I always tell them — and nobody ever takes note of it ‘cuz it’s not the answer they wanted to hear. What they want to hear is here’s how you get an agent, here’s how you write a script, here’s how you do this — But I always say: Be so good they can’t ignore you. If somebody’s thinking, ‘How can I be really good?’ people are going to come to you. It’s much easier doing it that way than going to a lot of parties.”

Service grace means customers experiencing you pushing it to the top. The pursuit of excellence says to your customers, “You are so important to me that you get my very best.” “Being really good” includes service with an attitude—an unmistakable disposition of joy and confidence. It means staying on top of the subtle signals in the customer’s experience that might disappoint. And, it encompasses insuring customers witness great internal service—team member to team member.

Take Out the Papers and the Trash

Service grace is about “taking out the papers and the trash.” These were the opening lines of a song by the Coasters that spent weeks in 1958 as the number one hit on the charts. All service has a certain amount of garbage. And, in a competitive world in which customers demand more value for their ever diminishing dollar, if you don’t “take out the papers and the trash,” as the hit song goes, “You don’t get no spending cash!”

The expectations of customers are higher than they have ever been. Their patience is shorter and their likelihood of taking their cash elsewhere is greater. That’s a wake-up call to ramp up close attention to the service garbage–whatever hassles customers. It means paperwork should be easier and simpler; lines should move faster, be shorter, and customer facing employees should be friendlier and more helpful. Take a close look at where customers have to work hard to get the service that should come with ease. They came in to give you their cash and too often get treated as if they are an interruption to more important tasks.

And, Add a Surprise

Finally, service with grace is delivering a extra surprise. I call it the jack-in-the-box approach. There is something magical about a jack-in-the-box. First, the toy is always colorful. Most make happy music as you wind the crank. But, the coolest part is the fact that you never know exactly when the “jack” is going to pop out of the box. Graceful service is like a jack-in-the-box–colorful service punctuated by a joyful, novel surprise.

A brightly colored gumball machine sits on a small table at the entrance to Miller Brothers Ltd., a men’s clothing store in Atlanta. Beside it is a large bowl of pennies. Guess where Junior goes while daddy is trying on trousers? A dry cleaner in Charlotte gives a candy kiss to every customer. But, the familiar chocolate candy has a surprise—an almond in the middle. Compliment Mama Cole’s awesome banana pudding pie at Cole’s Café in Washington, DC and Mama just might surprise you with a copy of her secret recipe! Customers love novelty, especially in a time of dreary and worrisome news.

The next time you are delivering service to someone, give them service grace—your very best, with all the hassle removed, and with a joyful surprise added. Paraphrasing lines from an old poem, “Give to the customer the best that you have and the customer will come back to you.” And, they will probably bring you more customers!

Chip Bell
Chip R. Bell is the founder of the Chip Bell Group ( and a renowned keynote speaker and customer loyalty consultant. Dr. Bell has authored several best-selling books including The 9 1/2 Principles of Innovative Service and, with John Patterson, Take Their Breath Away. His newest book, Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experiences Through Innovative Service, will be released in February.


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