The Nobility of Service

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“You make me want to be a better man.” These were the most quoted lines in the hit movie “As Good As It Gets.” It was Jack Nicholson’s awkward “terms of endearment” directed at new girlfriend Helen Hunt. The words capture the essence of the nobility of service—helping customers source their higher self. And, in challenging times when so much in customers’ lives pulls them down, noble service can help them pursue their best.

Noble service is sourced in joy and fun—a better emotional place than simply “good service.” It comes from the same part of our soul that organizes a party or does a favor for a friend. When that part is used regularly, it raises self-esteem, increases resilience, and improves morale. Take a look at Fortune Magazine’s annual “Best Companies in America to Work For”—Nordstrom, Container Store, Marriott, eBay, and FedEx—and you see the noble service-high morale link. They boast the lowest turnover (a cost saver), the best recruits (an investment), the highest productivity (another positive hit to the balance sheet) and the greatest profits.

Noble Service Comes From Excellence

How does one reawaken the nobility of service? Make it come from the heart. Greatness does not come from working harder or working smarter. Greatness comes from working “hearter.” (I made that word up!) When it comes from the best of who we are, it invites out the best of who customers can be. It means showing customers extraordinary patience when they are making a big a deal out of a small issue. It means staying vigilant for opportunities to provide unexpected help. Proactive service is not reactive; it is anticipatory–thinking ahead of the customer’s requirements. It means caretaking—keeping customers out of the weeds and worries of their service encounters.

Excellence is about demonstrating obvious pride in our role and the opportunities that role creates. The Marriott Quorum in North Dallas had a well-known doorman for many years named Charlie. When Charlie received a compliment on his great service he would say: “My company created my role for one reason: to make you very happy sir. And, the best part is they picked me to do it.” That is the type of pride that elevates and enables.

Besides, excellence is the best lay-off armament available. Will it guarantee job security? Of course not. But, when decisions are made about who goes and who stays as organizations are forced to trim staff in the face of declining profits, those people showing their best while creating happy customers will be the ones more apt to wind up in the “retained” group.

Noble Service Comes From Trust

“How ’bout going and getting the tractor and parking it in the barn?” These sweet words were music to my ears when I was a ten-year old growing up on a farm. It was my dad’s way of nudging me along to maturity. To get the very special privilege of starting, driving and parking a large expensive tractor communicated trust and respect. His gesture also left me feeling like a partner…and tall!

Customers enjoy feeling “tall.” Trust shows our confidence in customers and our optimism regarding their fulfilling their end of the service covenant. Trust bolsters self-worth. It empowers. And, it communicates a special commitment to the importance of the customer’s contributions to the bottom line. Nobility comes from caring beyond the transaction. Customers feel valued, not when their needs are met, but when their humanity is affirmed in the process.

Customer trust is about putting more focus on nurturing the relationship than on miserly squeezing every dollar out of every transaction. This doesn’t mean “giving away the shop.” Everyone in the organization should protect and grow the assets of the organization. However, customers remember organizations that refrain from “nickel and diming them to death.” Find ways to do little extras for customers they didn’t expect. The small, personalized extras gain more customer devotion mileage than big, splashy ones.

Noble Service Comes from Character

I was exiting a taxi at the Hartford airport and requested a receipt for the fare. The taxi driver laughingly said, “I’ll give you two—one for you and one you can turn in for however much you think you can get the boss to reimburse.” The message was clear. He believed every business traveler pursued ways to stiff the company by padding their travel expense reports. “I only need one,” I told him. “I own the company.” His grin quickly changed to a look of embarrassment.

Noble service comes from “own the company” character. It means every employee making decisions like an owner. Smart owners practice responsible stewardship along with giving great service. They make decisions with one hand on their “wallet” and the other on their heart. And, when customers witness service with character, their confidence in that organization climbs. When they witness decisions that would make a mother proud, it invites them to return and provokes them to tell others.

Character-filled service is not just a reflection of the organization’s values (One of Enron’s core values was “integrity!”), it is every person always focusing on doing “what’s right.” While leaders-with-character make it much easier to take the high road, customers are typically served by people far from the board room. And, that means finding courage and tenacity. It means looking at every action or decision through the lens of “What would this teach my son or daughter if they could watch me now.”

When organizations are economically challenged, there can be a temptation to jettison a customer focus in exchange for a “greed focus.” Hunkering down need not include shutting out. While “only about the bottom line” may yield short-term returns, it is almost guaranteed to produce long-term failure. Treating the customer well in the tough times insures they treat you well in the better times.

We live in an era of grey—more pessimism than hope; more worry than joy. Imaginative service can be the light at the end of dreariness if it targets the customers’ hearts, not just their bank accounts. Does your service lift spirits? Does is elevate the soul of customer service? What can you do to make your customer “want to be a better person?”

Chip Bell
Chip R. Bell is the founder of the Chip Bell Group (chipbell.com) 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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