Nina Spencer

Beating the February Blahs with a Sweeter Focus on Service Excellence

Enough already! Enough of this February in the upper latitudes of the northern hemisphere! Yes, yes, I realize that Working Wisdom is read by people from as far away (from me) as Australia and Africa and that, therefore, some of you dear readers may not relate, however, from where I sit--literally and metaphorically--I am now likening this year's visit from "old man winter" to that old and somewhat unkind cliché about the similarities between fish and relatives that overstay their welcome: after a few days (months?), they stink!

Yup. Sometimes February can be brutal, even if you have had a vacation, or at least a long weekend. "February blahs" can set-in and "cabin fever mentality" can really take hold at this time of year. And when that happens, despite this being the month of Valentines Day, hearts and all sweetness, we can become snippy and snappy with our colleagues and internal clients, as well as--heaven forbid--our external customers. And that just won't do.

Case in point, this is Reading Week for most Canadian universities. As such, now that my daughter is wrapping up her undergraduate degree this spring, she's in England this week, poking around Cambridge and Oxford Universities as she contemplates her immediate post-graduate future. London is home base. She ventured to Cambridge this day, via the express train. The correct platform upon which to stand was confusing; she approached the Information Booth attendant with manners and grace (and, even if she hadn't, that would hardly be the point!). The attendant's response was curt and clipped. Who knows what was really going on for that fellow, but the point is this: it was an Information Booth! A.K.A. a Customer Service Desk! If you can't get kindness and sweetness from those manning Information Booths, where can you get it??? The U.K might not get much in the way of snow to pull one's sprits down and bring on the mid-winter edge, but even there the grey dreariness of winter days must wear on at least some employees' dispositions.

Whether this side of the "pond" or that, the northern hemisphere or southern, when it comes to delivering the sweetest service excellence, it serves us all well to remember a passage I see come my way by email from time-to-time:

Be kinder than necessary,
for everyone you meet (or professionally serve!)
is fighting some kind of "battle".

Have you ever actually tasted fear? Had something frightening quickly happen to you out-of-the emergent blue, eg. a near car crash, etc., that forced the taste of adrenalin (or whatever that is) right up into your taste buds? Well if you can actually taste fear, do you think you might also be able to taste the experience of sweetness? Maybe not--I'm not sure. I'll have to watch for that one, myself; you too. But perhaps we can "taste" sweetness emotionally, if not physically.

On the contrary, apparently a word exists in the ancient Hindu religion/language of Sanskrit--rasa--that specifically refers to the physical tasting of "sweet" that one experiences when one is purely and masterfully focused on meditation and, therefore, connected with the divine. For those who can achieve this state, more power to you (and to your customers, as a result). For the rest of us, if you're not that evolved, but you still wish to purely focus on giving the best you've got to your staff, colleagues, clients or customers, day-in and day-out...eat chocolate and work on "sweet" service excellence practices. Because, after all, what is "sweetness" if not kindness and generosity towards others?

What is the translation of "sweetness" in the workplace? The etymology of the word, "s-w-e-e-t" (developed from Old English, before 830 A.D./CE) means, "pleasing to the senses, mind or feelings" (Chambers Dictionary of Etymology--love that book!). So while we still have this tail end of the official month of "sweet-hearts" and "sweet-ness", and to distract you from the February blahs, here are 12 Belgian-chocolate-like suggestions for being pleasing to the senses, mind or feelings of another...to being sweeter to all those consumers of your services with whom you daily cross paths:

  1. Your company or organization may have plenty of official words for outlining service excellence, but what about your own? Take the time to formally outline what service excellence means to you. How do you know--even if it's never seen or acknowledged by another--when you've delivered the finest in service to your internal or external clients? It's essential to satisfy the official company or organizational philosophy or motto on service excellence...and it's also sweet to deliver, in spades, on your own personal brand of it, too. Keep it simple, if that helps, eg. a one line, classic promise, or, if you'd rather, get quantitative in your promises to yourself and your clients, eg. if your voice mail says you promise to return calls within 24 hours, make sure you keep your promise, both to your client and yourself.
  2. Write down, ahead of time, the specific "go to" people (and their full contact information) with whom you need to connect for helping solve your customer/client problems; after all, it's hard, if not impossible, to know everything your clients may ask--isn't it? Fine service excellence and fully functioning teams know that, "lone rangers" are hardly ever the most efficient and effective way to solve client woes. On top of all that, having this information at your fingertips, demonstrates to your client that you've anticipated their needs and possible snags in processes.
  3. customer service checklist

  4. Create a system or checklist for measuring service excellence. If you hold a position of official leadership, ensure you facilitate lots of staff feedback for tracking your measures. And then ensure that your staff is regularly "caught" demonstrating those "random acts of sweetness". This can work, too, between one colleague and another; you don't have to hold the "official" leadership position to praise another for conspicuous and/or spontaneous demonstrations of service excellence.
  5. As I champion throughout, Getting Passion Out of Your Profession: How to keep loving your living...come what may, do what it takes to sincerely note the good you perform everyday--to love what you do for a living/to be proud of your daily professional contributions--no matter what...come what may. Delivering on kind service excellence is oh-so-much sweeter, and easier, when you possess a sincere heart to do so, regardless of what clients or customers may "throw" at you. Make sure you have your own personal reasons for wishing to deliver service excellence/your own higher purpose to do so (not just because your organization says so or because you wrote it down).
  6. Contemplate what impresses you when you are on the receiving end of service excellence...and then fold those practices into your own demonstrations with your own customers, eg. a couple of weeks ago I dined at a lovely little Italian restaurant in Toronto's Forest Hill Village. As Toronto Life Magazine describes, "At week's end, [at Pizza Banfi, 333B Lonsdale Rd.] Forest Hillers patiently wait their turn; tables can't be reserved. No matter; congenial staff burst with hospitality." Wow...bursting with hospitality! What does that look like? Although I was there mid-week, the story was the same--lots of hustle and bustle and a little waiting, too. We were seated. All was well...at least for us. Immediately next to us, however, a couple who had just started into what looked like a romantic dining experience--with wine and appetizers--were surprised with a waiter's "whoops!" A server had accidentally bumped the table and (possibly) knocked a glass of red wine right into the woman's lap. In a nanosecond, while the server was still trying to form his first words of profuse apology and while the guest was still trying to determine if any actual damage was done, the manager swooped down upon the table with a business card, expressing sincere concern for any stain to the woman's outfit and earnestly promising, at the very least, to take care of the dry cleaning expenses, and, at the very most, to reimburse the cost of a whole new outfit (and that was without even knowing how much the outfit cost!). Wow! That certainly was service excellence in action. They were "on it" so fast my head spun! Impressive, indeed. So make a list of what you think customers value most and then deliver, eg. attention to detail, speed, thoughtfulness, dependability, sincerity, problem-solving abilities (or better still, try calling this particular quality, "solution-orientation").
  7. Self-Disclose and/or Share Information with clients where and when appropriate to do so. Many of the misunderstandings or friction between customers and service providers can be reduced, or even eliminated, if the service provider would only fess up and share a little more information about why a particular, eg. policy or procedure, etc., is so.
  8. Point the way ahead. I f you can't help make it "right" (when the customer feels it's all "wrong", eg. because you plain just don't know how to fix it, or perhaps because you don't have the authority to do so), give the customer the best person, department, phone number, etc., with whom to connect next. And if you don't know who that is, tell them you'll find out and stay with them (or call back) until you've done so. There's no shame or embarrassment in confessing, "I don't know", as long as what follows next is, "But I'll find out". Bottom line is: your customer, your responsibility.
  9. As much as possible, under promise and over deliver. If you secretly think something will take two hours/two days/two weeks, etc., to figure out/to research/to deliver, tell 'em you'll get back to 'em in three, and then work like the dickens to get back to 'em in one!
  10. And one of my age-old favourites: Change your voice mail daily (and make sure the tone of your voice is gracious, "sweet" and welcoming, too!)...so that your clients/customers know exactly where you are when you're not answering your phone, and when they can expect you back to respond to their enquiry. Recording a general, "I'm not at my desk right now, but if you'll leave your name and number I'll get back to you as soon as possible..." never cuts it for truly demonstrating the sweetest and the best in service excellence. No one wants to hear you say you're not there--that's self-evident...you didn't pick up! Your customers want to know when you'll be back.
  11. Be memorable to your repeat clients. Remember, it's often the little things that count, eg. remembering their names, where they're from, their interests, birthdays, hobbies, where they work, etc., and fold those points into conversation when and wherever appropriate. In other words, go the extra--"unnecessary", in some people's minds--mile. It makes a positive difference and inspires customer loyalty, too.
  12. Express Thank-you, Thank-you, Thank-you. I thank-you; our managers thank you; our directors, VPs and even our president and CEO thank you! You can't say "thank-you", too much--well, maybe you can (and become a little obnoxious about it), but I know you know what I mean. :-)
  13. Stay in periodic touch. Connect once in a while with those clients or customers with whom you've forged a sincere bond--not just because you're thinking of further business (which is fine and honest enough)--but also because it feels good...from either end of this equation. Most everyone would like to expand their connections and relations, and know that others think well of them and wish to say, "Hey there!" once in a while.

There's so many more "sweets" that can be added to this customer service "box of bonbons", but this dozen makes for a yummy start.

In this month of February--despite the continued cold and wintery weather in some corners of the planet--there's been lots of focus on "love", but I'm encouraging you to focus on "sweetness", instead. Not that saccharine, artificial/shallow-type sweetness, but, rather, the genuine article...the real McCoy.

So, the next time you pop a chocolate into your mouth, in the boardroom/the meeting room, or to satisfy your 3 p.m. "hungries" with a candy bar, think about what else this need for "sweetness" means...what it really means (beyond that your blood sugar is low!). And remember this old saying:

You'll always get more flies with honey than with vinegar.

"Who wants to catch flies, anyway?" some of you smartie-pants may ask? :-)

Work with me here! How about this, then:

You'll always grow more satisfying workplace customer relations,
and stay professionally saner, day-in and day-out, too,
with sweetness than with bitters.