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VIEWPOINT: Do you offer uncommon customer service?

November 26, 2007

I was recently in a grocery store and had an enlightening experience about customer service. While I was waiting in line to check out, the clerk, who did her job with competence and precision, asked the elderly gentleman in front of me whether there was anything in his cart he needed help lifting. He said "no" and the transaction continued.

The young man who was bagging the groceries asked the elderly customer the same question. Again, the man declined, but it was noteworthy to me that the second offer of assistance seemed much more sincere than the first. And then the reason became clear. The clerk told the bagger that only she was supposed to ask that question. The bagger responded, "Why?" and the clerk stated, "Because I get marked for whether or not I ask it and you don't."

It occurred to me why so many companies promoting good customer service miss the mark. They tell their employees what they want them to say and do and the employees go through the motions, but with very little heart.

As a psychologist with 30 years of clinical practice, I know that how we experience life determines what we do and how we act. If our experience is that we are "doing a job" and customer service is a function of job performance, our "customer service" falls flat on those we serve.

Good customer service is really about relationships. If our experience of life is about having the best relationships we can with all those we come in contact with, then our customer service is about having a better relationship with the person before us, the customer. There is heart in this type of customer service.

A number of life circumstances over the past 10 years have led me to see the experience of life as being only about relationships.

As a business owner, I read about business practices and how various management and leadership strategies affect productivity and profitability. As a psychologist, I am interested in what characteristics are consistently present in those who have contentment and happiness.

Interestingly, there is a common characteristic critical to better health and longevity, greater happiness, enhanced productivity and increased prosperity: a focus on better-quality relationships.

Consider, though, that this outlook changes the definitions of who the customer is, what the product or service is, and what the goal of customer service would be. First, in considering the importance of relationships, my customer now becomes everyone I come in contact with. My patients and staff, to be sure, but also my wife, kids, extended family, friends and neighbors. The clerk at the gas station, the waiter at the restaurant-even the passerby on the street-are all my customers. And the product or service? Well, it's me. I'm selling a better relationship with me because in the end the consequence of greatest value to me is a better experience of life.

Now, what if businesses emphasized, by example and training, the importance of better relationships with one another, the internal customers and their customers? The data tells us the story. The most important variable in customer satisfaction and loyalty is employee satisfaction. One of the most critical variables in employee satisfaction is a belief they are cared for by fellow employees.

So, good customer service is not what I'm told to say or do but comes from a deeper, more heartfelt desire to be all I can be and to enjoy the best experience of life possible. And while this all "feels good," it is also backed by the data.

The bagger in the grocery store didn't know the research findings, but intuitively was offering service to the elderly customer that was authentic and sincere because it was relational. And in the end, not only did the customer and the grocer benefit, but the young bagger's quality of life was undoubtedly better, too.



Sipes is the founder and senior partner of locally based Indiana Health Group, a behavioral health firm and founder of nextVoice, a company designed to help people lead better lives.
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