Unconditional Service

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Ramen is a traditional Japanese noodle dish that, well prepared, is a highly desired delicacy. That’s the back story for the new movie, The Ramen Girl. A young woman finds herself in Tokyo and wants to understudy a master ramen chef who speaks no English; she speaks no Japanese. He is impatient and demanding; she works hard to be perfect. The climax of the movie (without giving too much away) happens when the frustrated chef takes the equally frustrated protégé to visit his mother, the person who taught him to be a great ramen chef.

Creating ramen, the chef’s mother explained to the young women, is not about mixing ingredients in the proper proportion and cooking the broth at the right temperature. In order to make a dish that connects your heart to your customer’s heart, you must put your soul into preparation and presentation, not just your smarts and sweat. It was a turning point. The woman let go of her pursuit of precision and embraced the “from the heart” expression of her spirit. Imaginative service is like preparing ramen.

Step One: Learn to Cook

There has always been a major difference between “being a cook” and “being a chef.” Cooks follow food recipes; chefs fashion cuisine creations. I spent an evening with some friends having dinner with Tim Love, a world famous Southwest chef. In 2006, Tim defeated Iron Chef Morimoto on the popular TV program Iron Chef America. “Before you can become a chef,” Tim described to us over roasted portabella mushrooms he had prepared, “you must first learn to cook.” A good cook makes sure he or she has the right ingredients, the proper utensils, and the oven set on the correct temperature.

Imaginative service starts with the fundamentals. Bank customers want accuracy; hospital patients desire cleanliness, and airline passengers expect safety. The basics are the foundation that must be carefully maintained. What are your customer’s core requirements at every encounter with you or your organization? How do they perceive how well these basics are maintained? What signals does shoddy “taking care of the basics” communicate to your customers? Customers don’t evaluate service objectively based on facts; they judge it subjectively based on perceptions. You are in charge of the objective facts; you are also in charge of their subjective perceptions.

Step Two: Remember the Right Goal

The goal target of service is not to serve the customer; the goal is to get the customer to know they have been served…and served well. The shift is away from performing a service activity–what you do, and more on producing the service result—what the customers thinks of what you do.

A great chef, like a great service person, without loosing sight of “the right ingredients in the broth,” puts their energy into the customer’s hopes and aspirations. It means knowing the customer well and thinking about their evaluation of the experience. Service is not about you, it is about assisting another in a fashion that makes an important difference while making an positively memorable impression.

Harvey MacKay, CEO of MacKay Envelopes, developed a list of questions about a customer (“The Mackay 66”) the answers to which he expected his sales people to know. It was a structure to help get behind the superficial. What are your customers’ children’s hobbies? What are the artifacts (pictures, trophies, etc.) at your customers’ location that tell you about them? Where did your customer go on his or her last vacation? What is your customer’s proudest achievement? Only if you learn your customer’s hopes and aspirations can you go beyond their needs and expectations.

Step Three: Loose Your Self

Francis Coppola is one of this century’s best film directors. Even folks who cannot recall his name, know his films—The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, American Graffiti, etc. While making the movie Apocalypse Now, he ran into a challenge with highly independent actor, Dennis Hopper (remember Easy Rider?). The encounter was chronicled in the film-making documentary, Hearts of Darkness.

Dennis was spending too much time enjoying recreational drugs and not enough time exercising the boring but necessary discipline of learning his lines. “You learn your lines so you can forget them,” coached Coppola. “I need you to go beyond your lines and come from who you are, not what you recall.” Great service comes from going beyond the basics to “come from who you are.”

You loose your self when you discover ways to create an unexpected encounter. The Good Samaritan story is known across religions, not because a good man helped another in need. The core of the story told in response to the question “Who is your neighbor?” was an unlikely helper helping another in need. A Samaritan helped a Jew; Jews and Samaritans hated each other. Service is remembered best when something about it is unexpected.

How can you surprise your customers? Whom can you serve who might be surprised to be served by you? Years ago Bill Marriott would occasionally visit his hotels and spend time helping at the front desk. Word quickly spread that the CEO was helping the front line. What can you add to the service experience that would produce a customer smile? How can you connect with your customers in a way that touches their heart, not just satisfies their requirements?

There is an expression in golf of “playing over your head.” It means that
a golfer is playing at an unexplained level of excellence in which serendipity and the extraordinary seem the momentary norm. Unconditional service is serving without reservations or conditions. It happens when a service provider so deeply cares about the customer that they “serve over head.”

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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