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.