Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Customer Service

Last week my daughter called me and asked if I would be willing to share frequent-flier miles with her. She was flying to Russia to pick up two adopted daughters (six-year-old Tanya, and her eight-year-old sister Veronica) and I was thrilled to assist the important mission. The reason she was asking me for help was because she had just learned that her carrier of choice had cancelled her frequent-flier miles because she hadn’t requested to use them nor had she used the carrier in two years. The airline unilaterally dropped the miles she had carefully amassed for over ten years. The same was true for my wife and other three children. All had been denied a perk and all were sorely upset with the company.

I realize that many of today’s airlines are struggling so they’re doing whatever they can to cut costs, but you have to wonder if it makes sense to completely alienate their customers when doing so. This got me thinking about customer service as a whole. How often do you need a problem solved, and instead of providing a solution, someone offers you a memorized script that doesn’t match your problem at all? When you study something as delicate as a subtle human interaction, and then try to pass on the gist of your observations to others, you often kill the spirit of what you originally observed. I’ve seen this happen before.

For example, when I was a boy I loved insects. Sometimes I’d watch ants for hours as they hauled Lilliputian bundles down footprint valleys and up tennis-shoe mountains. On listless summer days I’d crumble a Necco wafer over our front-porch deck and then lie back and watch as hundreds of tiny stevedores struggled to carry the pastel sugar boulders across the mottled surface.

My dad, seeing that I liked insects, encouraged me to start a full-fledged collection by scrounging a discarded Roi-Tan cigar box and pouring melted paraffin in the bottom. After the wax hardened, he presented me with a covered pinboard to be used for mounting dead bugs.

I delighted in the gift. For a week I scurried around with a quart jar, gleefully capturing anything that had the temerity to crawl or fly within my reach. Within a few days, my homemade display case was packed with spiders, dragonflies, and beetles—all neatly pierced with a pin and exhibited in rows, carefully arranged by species and size.

Surprisingly, despite my original enthusiasm, I quickly became bored with the hobby. My parents chided me for not having the gumption to stick with something, but I felt little guilt. I hadn’t loved insects in the first place. What I had loved was insect life. The job of managing a bug cemetery didn’t hold much appeal. I preferred watching two armies of ants battle feverishly over a decaying bird. Catching a glimpse of a dung beetle taking flight (not unlike a garbage truck going airborne) was equally fascinating. On the other hand, gawking at a beetle trapped in a box with a pin stuck through its neck held no appeal. To me, insect carcasses just weren’t insects.

Customer service, like the insects I captured as a boy, also has a living, breathing soul. And like any living creature, if you dissect service into its parts, you’re left with a hollow carcass. Just sit down at a table where the staff has been trained in customer-service “techniques.” A waitperson immediately appears at your table, smiles toothily, says his or her name, overwhelms you with friendly banter, and otherwise appears as if he or she is trying out for part in a Disney movie. Being treated with indifference never works; but then again, having someone gush over you in a way that feels completely insincere doesn’t work either.

Perhaps instead of teaching people to sign the bill with a “thank you” along with the obligatory heart dotting the “i” in their name, we should avoid “techniques” altogether. I think it would be more helpful to expose them to individuals who embrace the very soul of customer service. In my case, that would be my grandfather. When he first hired me to take charge of his grocery store on Saturdays (I was twelve) while he shopped at the wholesale house and played poker at the local Elk’s club, I was thrown straight into the deep waters of customer service—and I sank like a stone straight to the bottom. I’d sit in the store’s back room watching TV and eating candy bars until the bell over the front door rang, announcing the arrival of a customer. Then I’d reluctantly leave my post in front of the TV and treat each customer as an invading virus. I’d drum my fingers on the counter, letting the intruder know I was in a hurry. I’d make no small talk. I’d actually tell little kids to hurry up their penny-candy decisions. In short, I acted like a jerk.

At some level I knew I wasn’t doing a very good job, but I didn’t change my behavior until one day I caught my grandfather in action. I had stopped by the store to pick something up and had settled into the back room where I chatted with Grandpa. Just then the bell rang and Grandpa stood up, put on his vest to go along with his suit pants, white shirt, and tie, and walked out into the store.

Years earlier when I had asked Grandpa what his job title was he had told me he was a merchant. I had never heard the word merchant before, but by the way he said it, I was sure that it was on a par with a brain surgeon or Supreme Court justice. Now as he put on his merchant uniform and walked into the store, Grandpa smiled. There, standing in front of the candy counter and holding a redeemable pop bottle, was one of the neighborhood kids who had always driven me nuts by taking forever to choose two pieces of penny candy. But grandpa didn’t seem the least bit annoyed.

In Grandpa’s mind he was providing a valuable service.

Grandpa was a merchant of the highest degree and that meant it was his job to meet the public’s needs. What could be more important? When waiting on a customer, he was never in a hurry because serving the customer was his mission. And on this day, when I watched him patiently wait as a tiny waif clutching a dirty pop bottle chose between malt balls and a licorice whip, Grandpa leaned forward with a smile on his face. He didn’t say a word. He simply sent a message that said, “I’m a merchant. I’m here for you.” With grandfather there was no technique to customer service. It wasn’t in a script or rote action, it was in his soul. Service is always in the soul.

Having had more experience with customer service by now, I feel embarrassed about how I had once acted. Fortunately, I changed my selfish ways. Grandpa had taught me what was supposed to take place each time I faced a customer. In fact, when I close my eyes I can still see the live lesson he unknowingly taught me. There is my eighty-six-year-old grandfather leaning forward, dressed in vest, shirt, and tie, and gently smiling as a little girl muses over penny candy.

Crucial Conversations QA

Being Micromanaged by Coworkers

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

Q Dear Authors,

I hate it when others tell me what to do. My coworkers not only worry over me when I have new jobs, but they tell me what to do even when the task is routine or basic. I do like to take my time at doing some things and I know that this bothers people. I also feel like I can handle certain jobs at my leisure—that I don’t have to get to them right away. This worries some people though. They make me feel like a child, not a responsible adult. They only look at my errors and not at my accomplishments. I’m making a lot of improvements in my life, but they go unnoticed.


A Dear Micro,

Whenever I work for an organization as a consultant, I know it’s only a matter of time until someone complains to me that they are mismanaged. Some feel like you do—they just want to be left alone. Others actually want more time with their boss and, believe it or not, more instruction. Both cases, of course, result from differing expectations about the frequency and type of interaction between employee and boss. (In your case it’s between you and colleagues, but the point is the same.)

Now, here’s the question: who’s at fault here, the boss or the employee? Usually both play a role in the problem, but there are times when either (1) the boss really is looking over people’s shoulders too often and driving everyone nuts, or (2) the employee actually does need a lot of follow-up—including detailed instructions.

Based on the language of your question, I’m guessing that you are doing things that cause people to worry. You suggest that you experience the problem with coworkers, that you bother people both with your pace and response time, and that people focus on your errors.

Here’s my advice. Seek detailed feedback from a close friend or colleague. If you can, select someone who has seen you at a time when you’ve felt micromanaged. Explain your concern. Start with the facts. Describe two or three cases where people have told you what to do—even though you asked for no help and didn’t believe that you needed it. Then ask for honest feedback. Since this problem is happening with several people, you must be doing something that has people worried. What exactly are you doing? If people have a hard time answering that question, prime the pump by offering suggestions you suspect may be the problem. For instance: Have you been unpredictable? Is your error rate unacceptable? Is your pace too slow for others’ taste? Do you seem to put off important jobs? Make it safe for your friend to give an honest response by asking calmly and sincerely. Listen intently and repeat back what your friend is saying without becoming upset.

Once you have gathered detailed feedback on the specifics of what you’re doing (you may have to talk with more than one person), you will then be in a position to (1) rectify anything you’re doing to cause people to worry and (2) talk to others about what they’re doing—after all, you’re not the only one involved here. Seek detailed feedback. Take a close look at how others are viewing you and why.

Good luck with your personal change efforts,

Crucial Accountability QA

Retirement Impasse

Dear Authors,

My wife retired early and I intend to retire next year. We currently live in Tucson, and have agreed on the following:

  • We don’t wish to continue living in Tucson year round.
  • If we live in Tucson only part of the year we can’t afford to keep the home we have lived in for thirty years.
  • For the past two years we have looked at alternative places to live, and we have come to an impasse.

I would like to live in the small town of Eagar in the White Mountains of Arizona because I have been visiting the area to hunt, fish, and camp since before we were married, and I love it there. My absolute favorite fishing lake is only 20 minutes away. My wife feels it is “too rural.” (The rural nature of the town is one of the main attractions for me.)

My wife would like to move to Payson, AZ—which does absolutely nothing for me. There are fishing lakes within a half-hour of town, but I know nothing about them and don’t have any “connection” to them. It is considerably larger than Eagar and it is only one hour from Phoenix, which means that the town is overrun with Phoenicians every weekend and all summer.

To “Start with Heart,” my fondest wish is for our retirement years to be happy ones—for both of us; but it seems that we can’t get past the basic point of where we will live. I feel that I don’t even know what the crucial conversation is, much less how to start it. Any suggestions would be most welcome.

At an Impasse

Dear Impasse,

Conflict. Irreconcilable differences. These are the toughest crucial conversations; they require our best thinking and our best skills. You and your spouse are making life changing decisions which not only affect your situation, but also your most important relationship: your relationship with each other.

As we begin, consider this important caution: in every word and action create and maintain mutual respect. It’s very easy when wrestling these tender issues to be hurt or frustrated and resort to sarcasm or cutting remarks and slide into the varying degrees of silence. Don’t. Be respectful; be slow to take offense. Get your heart right before you open your mouth. Ask yourself what you really want. I’m guessing that you want to agree upon the place you will live in a way that builds a loving relationship. You want to live in a place that will make you happy. You want to live in a place that makes your wife happy. And you want a loving relationship.

Now, with these purposes clearly in mind, let’s take a look at the impasse. You want to live in a rural setting; your wife wants to live in a more urban area. It seems like your disagreement is about strategy. Suspend this difference for a moment and examine the purposes behind your strategies. Purpose is what you really want. Strategy is how you will go about getting what you want. One way to get to purpose is to sincerely, respectfully ask “why?” Try to understand why a given strategy is important to the other person.

To get to your purposes, let me ask some “why” questions of you. Of course I don’t know your responses, but this could serve as an illustration of the skill.

  • Why do you want to live in Eagar?
  • Why is “rural” important to you?
  • What does rural mean to you?
  • Does rural mean elbow room between you and your neighbor?
  • Does rural mean you can see cows from your porch?
  • Does rural mean an absence of something? Traffic jams? Fast food chains?
  • Why is fishing important to you?
  • Would any great fishing spots do, or does it have to be a certain spot? Why?
  • Does family factor in? Why or why not? Friends? Community?

Now use the questioning approach to understand your wife’s purposes.

As the questioning process gradually reveals your purposes and your wife’s purposes, look for which purposes are mutual. Are some different but not necessarily conflicting? Perhaps you want acreage so you can have horses. She might want to be close to shopping and restaurants. Different purposes for sure, but not necessarily conflicting or incompatible.

Next, brainstorm possible strategies that will enable you both to realize the purposes that matter most.

For example, suppose you want elbow room between homes, no traffic, a place for horses, and frequent fishing. And let’s say for example that your wife’s purposes are to be close to shopping, close to friends, not isolated, and active in her church.

Once the purposes are understood, a number of different strategies could possibly work. For example:

You buy a home and some property outside of Payson. You get your horses; she has a short drive (20 minutes) to the things she wants. Two weekends a month you go fishing wherever you want (you’re retired, remember?). How about a small cabin by your favorite lake? How about explore some new fishing holes?

Now, this may not be a reasonable solution to your dilemma, but the point is the process. Use the process to clarify what you both really want (purpose). Never argue about strategy; be creative, brainstorm, explore possibilities. Always look for strategies that will enable both of you to get what you want.

If you have to face conflicting purposes, stay in the creative mode. Look at the time frame: short term/long term. “We live in Payson until the grandchildren are in school, then move to Eagar.” Or try six months in Payson, six months in Eagar. (This option works for thousands of “snowbirds” in Arizona and Florida.) Be willing to try an experiment together and see what you learn. Be flexible.

Look for a common goal or value that transcends your competing purposes. Maybe something like proximity to family trumps both shopping and fishing, so you end up moving to Snowflake, Arizona instead of Eagar or Payson.

Not all conflicts can result in an ideal solution; however, if we take the time to get clear about what’s important and sincerely work the process, we can work together to seek a mutually satisfactory result.

Best Wishes,