Lessons From a 13-Year-Old

What motivates people to provide great service?

I have some ideas about this, but I’ll admit I certainly don’t have a magic formula–if I did, I would bottle it and send it to every company, vendor, and supplier we have to deal with in the course of the day.

I suspect your observations are similar. For example, when I ask a room full of people to think about a time when they got horrible service, it generally takes about three seconds for them to come up with an example. In fact, the real challenge for them seems to be selecting which one of the bad service experiences they’re going to use.

In contrast, when I ask people to think of an over-the-top great service experience, they’ll generally stare up at the ceiling with blank expressions on their faces struggling to think of even one example!

It’s the same thing in this column–I have no trouble whatsoever sharing bad service experiences as examples of what not to do in your business.

But situations with great service,unfortunately, are few and far between; and when they do occur, it’s a cause for celebration.

Who Will Watch the Dog?
We recently took a trip to the beach to celebrate our daughter’s graduation from UNC  Wilmington. Her graduation ceremony was on a
Saturday, and we had booked a condo in Carolina Beach for the week right after that.

The only problem? They didn’t allow dogs. So we decided to do what we had always done in situations like this: we had a neighborhood kid come over to the house a few times a day to feed, walk, and spend “quality play time” with our dog, Chico.

But having recently moved to a new house in a different neighborhood, we were essentially starting from scratch.

A Fund-Raising Visit...
One afternoon, the doorbell rang,which, of course, is Chico’s indication that (a) there’s an intruder in the house or (b) someone is here to play  with him. He started barking and ran to the door.

We were met there by a boy named Jonathan who was selling candy for a school fund raiser. Chico sawhim, ran inside, came back with
a stuffed animal, and swung the loose end up to the boy so they could play Chico’s favorite game: tug-of-war.

Clearly Chico liked Jonathan, so Lorie asked him if he would be interested in doing some “pet-sitting” for Chico.

After a visit with Jonathan’s mother to confirm the dates and review the details on the “Dog-Care Checklist,” we were all set.

We had Jonathan start with a short weekend trip, which went fine, and then we had him watch Chico for the week.

We were able to monitor the times he came because our alarm system sent us text messages, and we gave him his own unique code to enter.

We May Have a Problem
We got a call that Jonathan had forgotten about a soccer event he had to attend the following Saturday– the last day of our trip.

Fortunately, we have friends who recently moved into our same neighborhood, and they offered to takecare of Chico for the day. The only things they needed were to get the key and learn how to use the alarm. We gave Jonathan our phone number, and gave his number to our friend.

What happened next was a lesson in how to provide great customer service.

So Here’s the Plan...

Jonathan left a message on our friend’s voice mail explaining where he had left the key. He met up with her later in the day to show her Chico’s “routine.” To avoid any possible complications with the alarm system, Jonathan drew her a diagram of the control console, with step-by-step instructions on how to arm and disarm the system (see right). He even called her from the road during the day to see if she had any questions. Needless to say, Chico was taken care of as was planned and was very happy; our friends were happy; we were happy...and...Jonathan got to go to his soccer event.

A win-win-win situation if ever there was one! But the story gets even better...

“I Want to Do the Best Job I Can”

Early the following week, Jonathan stopped by the house to get paid, and to make sure everything was okay on Saturday. I explained that it was fine, and thanked him for drawing the picture and calling our friend.

He said it was no problem–“I want to do the best job I can.” I tried not to smile too broadly, but he had done so many “right” things that I couldn’t help myself.

Let’s take a few minutes and review the lessons we can learn from this experience.

1. Be Clear on Expectations
We met with Jonathan and his mother to review the dates, and explain each step of the process. We made sure Jonathan knew how to work the alarm system, and Chico made sure he knew where the treats were kept.

When Jonathan realized that he would need to hand off responsibility to our friends, he made sure that the expectations and details were communicated to them as well–right down to following our example and creating the “instructional drawing” on how to use the alarm system.

2. Have a “Plan B”
Since we were going to be 2-1/2 hours away at the beach, we had given Jonathan our friends’ number in case there were any problems and we couldn’t be reached. They were going to keep an eye on the place to make sure any packages were picked up and brought inside.

From Jonathan’s perspective, he knew that he had “local” help right down the street, and after he left, he initiated the call with our friends to make sure everything was going smoothly.

3. Be Committed to Service
Most important of all, and the thing that’s most difficult to teach, is the importance of having a real commitment to great customer service.

My follow-up conversation with Jonathan made it clear that he wanted to do the best possible job for us–not necessarily so we would want to use him again in the future, but because doing a good job was something to aspire to as its own reward.

In this day and age of outsourcing, uncaring service, and offshore call centers, even the most basic level of service can be a competitive advantage.
Truly great service, however, can make the difference between being “just another player” in a particular market and becoming the dominant force in an industry.

It seems a bit depressing that we have to learn lessons like this from a 13-year-old, but it’s also encouraging that there might be a glimmer of hope for our future generations.