The Ethics of Service

Chip R. Bell

Mr, Hightower was not a very nice man. His cold countenance was so tight it appeared even a faint smile would shatter his face. I was reading a bedtime story to my kid brother and he asked, "What's a troll?" When I told him that a troll was a very short Mr. Hightower, he immediately understood the imagery. If our family went to town on Saturday, a sidewalk encounter with Mr. Hightower was more frightening than having to walk home alone on a dark night from grandmother's house.

Mr, Hightower's cattle farm was adjacent to our family cattle farm in South Georgia. Cattle farms were comprised of large grazing pastures; their inhabitants confined by unreliable fences. Cows generally escaped their incarceration when an elderly tree expired and fell across the fence. For some reason our cows always ventured north to Mr. Hightower's front lawn; his cows loitered south along the highway beside our pasture to visit our cows.

The manner my dad handled a Hightower cow invasion and how Mr. Hightower handled the exact same scenario was a powerful lesson in the ethics of service. Mr. Hightower called up at first light with a demanding: "Ray, a bunch of your #%@ cows are out again! Get your boys up right now and come get 'em out of my front yard. They've probably eaten my squash." Mr. Hightower always forgot cows don't eat vegetables.

When my dad spotted Mr. Hightower's cows taking a joy ride, he never called. He calmly got us up to go with him to return the cows to their proper domicile. But, he went one step further. He found the site of their prison break and repaired it. He waited until he saw Mr. Hightower on Saturday uptown to provide a cordial briefing of the incident. Mr. Hightower never expressed gratitude and always seemed puzzled. But, it never mattered to my dad. He knew he had done a good deed, helped retain civility between neighbors, and taught his boys the power of service.

The Anatomy of Service

What is the act of service, really? We associate it with assistance or help—doing a good deed that benefits another. However, for such a benefit to matter it must fall outside of the realm of routine. When we get our car repaired we bring with our vehicle certain expectations. We expect the work to be done accurately and with limited wait. We expect the mechanic to "clean up after himself"—no grease on our car seat. We also expect when we retrieve our repaired vehicle to have to get out our wallet. We only recall such a standard encounter if the experience fails to meet our expectations or exceeds our expectations.

Enhancing the worth of the server-to-customer exchange—value-added or value-unique—comes from the spirit of generosity. If the auto mechanic takes the time to explain the repair in a way that helps prevent a future occurrence, if the service writer leaves an ice-cold bottle of water in the car cup holder, or if the repair bill notes another problem was corrected without charge, we would describe that repair-for-money exchange as "great service" and tell our neighbors. My dad gave Mr. Hightower a gift. He could have left Mr. Hightower's cows along the road at risk of being hit by a passing truck. Instead, he generously made a sacrifice to return the cows plus repair the fence.

However, service is more than sacrifice born out generosity. As much as service is about giving, it is also about protecting. My dad knew that if he took Mr. Hightower's approach to cow invasion, the two would be on the path to a South Georgia version of the Hatfields and McCoys. His service was more than an act of generosity and sacrifice; it was also an act of stewardship. He was giving; he was also guarding.

Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company authorizes employees, including housekeepers, to spend up to $2000 to make sure a hotel guest leaves satisfied. But, if you examine that authorization closer, you learn that prior to empowerment came special training in how to handle situations in a way that minimized the need for such a costly gesture. Employees were taught to think like owners and "take care of the organization" as they were "taking care of the customer." When customers witness acts of generosity that go beyond what they consider appropriate, they worry about the long-term viability of the enterprise. All of Ritz's associates are as focused on revpar (revenue per available room) as they are on their GSI (guest satisfaction index).

Service is also about hospitality. The auto mechanic who does all the right things to add value to the exchange but does it with a negative attitude can cancel out all the benefit. A generous act without a generous manner looks to the customer like a ploy or ruse. Generosity only has power when it is delivered with authenticity and enthusiasm. Mr. Hightower's cold countenance never changed. But, that never stopped my dad from treating him like a valued neighbor. The lesson we got was the fact that we had complete control over our attitudes. Since positive feels better than negative, we could choose happy despite the Mr. Hightower?s we encountered in life.

Service works when it enriches the exchanges. Customers feel valued when the experience a service provider delivers something special to the encounter. But generous must be coupled with conscientiousness or it turns contentment into caution. And, a generous heart without an enthusiastic spirit risks leaving customers believing they have received a gesture without importance and a gift without worth.

Chip R. Bell is founder and senior partner with the Chip Bell Group. A renowned keynote speaker, he is the author of several best-selling books. His newest book is Wired and Dangerous: How Your Customers Have Changed and What to do About it (with John Patterson) He can be reached through www.chipbell.com.

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