Redefining Service

October 23, 2012

Service is a part of everyday life, but what is good service and why is it so hard to get?

As a designer, I view and practice design through the lens of service. I’m not referring to service design or any particular design specialty, but the concepts of providing a service, being of service, and delivering quality service. Lately, I’ve been thinking about what good service means, and doesn’t mean, in the context of career paths and human behavior.

One insight into the nature of service came from a very unlikely place. Back during the 1980’s New Age movement, I stumbled upon Dan Millman’s semi-autobiograpy, Way of the Peaceful Warrior. Perhaps it was the cover art that attracted me to it, but nevertheless, the story was compelling — a modern-day hero’s tale of self-realization spurred by a chance encounter with a mysterious mentor called Socrates. The application of Eastern wisdom to inherently Western problems of material attachment and perpetual unhappiness was nothing new, but the real-world context of this particular narrative struck a chord with me at the time.

Recently, I took a chance on the 2006 movie adaptation of the book, Peaceful Warrior. It’s a mildly entertaining remake with some peculiar casting (Nick Nolte plays a convincing Socrates), but it does home in on the more instructive moments in Dan’s story. Early in his journey as a cocky, overambitious college athlete, Dan criticizes Socrates for doing nothing better with his life than working at a gas station. Socrates, in his wisened, gravelly voice, corrects Dan: “This is a service station. We provide service.” Indeed, he does much more than pump gas — he attends to the needs of his customers, whether it’s an oil change, a windshield cleaning, a tire pressure check, a snack, etc. Service is not defined by the form of service. Rather, the capacity to serve is channeled in many different ways. Dan learns this lesson by briefly working at the service station himself, eventually breaking down his ego to the point where he can productively start down the warrior’s path.

For many of us in the service industry, our respective professional paths are matters of choice as well as of circumstance, and not always tied to a higher purpose. We may jump on a great opportunity, find an arrangement that suits our lifestyle, or simply take what we can get to make ends meet. Our employment decisions might only hinge on two factors: the work (what we’re skilled at and expected to do) and the reward (what we get for our effort).

What we often don’t stop to consider is the service — how well we meet both the unspoken and expressed needs of those we serve. We praise it when it’s great and raise hell when it’s not, but we don’t always articulate what exactly makes good service. In a way, defining good service and how to deliver it is like describing the soft, subtle traits that we admire in someone, like a reassuring tone of voice or a well-timed comment at an awkward moment; to dissect the idea is to somehow rob it of its magic. There are probably dozens of training regimens designed to teach people how to be more customer centered and provide top-notch service, but I think that developing a true service orientation involves a little more than that.

I’ve listed seven aspects of service that I think challenge the notion of what good is or should be. These are just some initial thoughts, with plenty of room for discussion:

1. “It’s not my job.” Who hasn’t heard or said this at some point? It’s easy to believe that doing a good job means meeting a framed expectation imposed by an employer. In some cases, perhaps it is sufficient. Occasionally, straying from a neat and tidy list of job responsibilities is necessary when a pre-defined solution isn’t handy or there’s no one else to hand the problem off to.

2. It means going the extra mile for someone. We have grown so accustomed to receiving the minimum level of attention from store clerks, utility companies, cable providers, and many others, that “exceptional” service actually surprises us. Such attentiveness might be considered a fluke. With the gradual shifts in business from higher efficiency to higher quality, and the impact of companies like Zappos in reshaping customer expectations of service, higher levels of service might someday become the norm.

3. You can fake good service. I really don’t think that’s possible. Good service requires authenticity to be successful, not to mention genuine satisfaction. Hints of insincerity or contempt for the customer always show through.

4. You have to pay more for good service. This view upholds the belief that money and social ranking should dictate how one gets treated in life. Five-star hotels and top-rated restaurants pride themselves on impeccable service, but only for special clientele. Service models tied to the sense of entitlement and exclusivity associated with wealth (ie, “white glove” service) will probably never go away, but they shouldn’t promote unfair or unequal service across the board.

5. It costs more to deliver good service. On the flip side of #4, companies may make financial investments in hiring better qualified people, contracting the design of more effective processes and workflows, and incorporating newer technology with the intent of improving service. These measures can certainly help when done right, but investing time and energy in understanding people and their needs would probably yield more insights with less expense.

6. Service is about transaction. A plain old job is about transaction, but service is always about a relationship — a human connection over a shared concern. Good service creates a positive experience that a) makes you feel good about your decision to interact with a service provider, b) makes you want to go back again, and c) makes you want to tell everyone you know so they can have the same experience. The idea of “doing business” with someone fades away when value is tied to what you share, not to what you get from each other.

7. Service matters less when it’s not face-to-face. At some point in our history, it became acceptable to lower the standards of customer service when it shifted to call centers, interactive voice response systems, e-mail/online forms, live chat, and other faceless channels. Now social media are expected to fill a customer service void created by the proliferation of devices and constant connectedness, but the promise and the reality are miles apart. One recent case of poor customer service on social media drew attention from the press, but there are probably many similar cases where a social presence did less to serve customers than it did to satisfy a social strategy checklist. Social media are pervasive and ubiquitous, but I’m not sure they succeed at being personal and responsive where it really matters.

There is yet no replacement for direct human contact. We can’t reproduce the empathy, rapport, and basic feeling of being heard that the presence of another living human being in front of us can provide, nor can we convey the nuance of communication through our many growing channels. No surrogate technology can deal with our messy lives, unpack our clumsy ways of expressing ourselves, or guide us to an answer that solves our problem or just makes us feel better.

We have a lot more work to do to humanize our interactions, but it won’t take more incentives, training, and intermediary channels. Service is an inner motivation to do good for someone without being told to do so, and without seeking personal gain. Channeling that drive into one’s work is the key to good service because it is a natural extension of oneself. To conjure the Eastern philosophy of Socrates, good service isn’t something you create — it is who you are.


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