If helping others is an intuitive part of being human, why is it so hard to get good service?
I am going to offer two reasons.
- People, in general, don’t value and recognize the importance of service. They view it as a second-class calling or someone else’s job. They don’t realize the incredible and critical need for it as part of human success.
- In the world of business, most workplaces are focused on their bottom lines and serve up a daily diet of “it’s all about money” in their messaging and conversation. And it this messaging that creates self-serving, competitive cultures that butt heads with providing service.
Let us take a deeper look at both of these.
I DON’T SERVE ANYBODY, THAT’S SOMEONE ELSE’S JOB.
When you mention service, for many people, their first thought is customer service. However, service—helping people—is so much more than a job or role in a business. Service is something that is quintessentially human. While we are not the only animals to be helpful, we are one of the few who will do things to benefit others without the need for reciprocation.
Additionally, serving others by being helpful and cooperative—commonly known as prosocial behavior—is something we all do almost from the moment we wake up in the morning to the time we drift off to sleep. If you make coffee for your spouse, partner, or roommate in the morning, service. If you help get the kids ready for school, service. If you help a colleague with a report, service. If you pick up milk on the way home, service. We do it as an almost required part of our lives. We help family, friends, and coworkers constantly. In fact, it would seem helping others is something we almost can’t not do.
Yet, we still undervalue its importance. We, for eons, have placed people who are in service roles beneath us. Think of the millions of people exploited, enslaved, and forced to serve. Even when we became more “enlightened,” servants, although paid for their work, were seen as lower class and expected to unquestioningly do the bidding of their employer.
Today, we see all kinds of holdovers of these sensibilities. It’s not uncommon to hear derisive language being used to describe “service roles.” Phrases like “they’ll get a ‘real’ job soon” are all too common when people hear of someone working in a restaurant or retail.
You see, we like service when we are being served but we hate the thought if we are expected to do it. And given history’s legacy, it makes sense. However, this is a narrow view. This sees service only in the light of servitude, or being controlled by someone, and dismisses the noble notion that being of service can be and is so much more. Being of service in contrast to being in servitude is about bringing value. And bringing value to others to help them accomplish things, well, what could be more respectable and worthy of our admiration? Yet, the stigma goes on and service is derided and mocked, and what’s even more confounding is that it all flies in the face of how we are wired. There is overwhelming evidence that humans are built for prosocial behavior and in fact need it if we hope to keep going.
When we are born, we are largely selfish, we have to be, we simply can’t do for ourselves as tiny infants. However, once past this, quite early in fact, an altruistic urge to help others starts to emerge. There have been numerous studies detailing how infants demonstrate helpful behaviors. In one study of 100 children, all 19 months old, the infants shared food with others even though they themselves were hungry. In another study, children as young as 18 months showed a tendency to volunteer their help in situations where the experimenter pretended to be in need. When the experimenter dropped something and reached for it, the infants would naturally reach out to try and help them, however, when a need for help was not shown, the infants did not make a move. Significantly, the infants came to the aid of the experimenter even though the scientist was a stranger, did not prompt or ask for help, and offered no reward. Given this evidence and repeated studies of a similar nature, it seems apparent that helpfulness, while many times appearing to be motivated by selfishness later in life, is very likely driven by a more innate, unselfish inclination early in life.
And while many might pawn this off as coincidence, there are other things that seem to be telling us that Mother Nature wants us to help each other. Take oxytocin for example. Oxytocin is the so-called love chemical. It is the feel-good hormone that trickles into our system when, soon after birth, we first cuddle with our mothers. It’s the chemical that gives us those good feelings when we “fall in love.” It is also what’s behind the warmth we feel when we help someone, get help from someone, or even see or hear about helpfulness. And, just for an added punch, while oxytocin is boosted, cortisol, the stress chemical, is decreased. Overall, it looks like we are naturally being prompted to be helpful. And it works. We can all think of times when we saw someone doing something helpful, felt good about it, and then helped someone soon thereafter when the chance presented itself.
But why? Why is our biology trying so hard to get us to help one another? Well, as with so many things, no one knows for sure but most scientists and psychologists believe it to be fundamental to our survival as a species.
We humans are not the biggest, fastest, or strongest beasts in the jungle, and somewhere in our prehistoric past, it became pretty evident that working together and forming groups to fend off predators and hunt for food was a good strategy for staying alive. There was power in numbers, and to be effective, those numbers had to cooperate and help each other. And it’s no different today. All of us need help at one time or another. Even the most reclusive need others. As John Donne so eloquently put it, “no man is an island.”
Finally, on top of making us feel good and less stressed as well as giving us the protection and resources afforded by building families and tribes, research has found another advantage to being helpful and cooperative. In a study of college students, it was found that those who were more prosocial were more successful in attracting partners and mates. So, in addition to all of the other benefits, being helpful gives us a better chance of perpetuating the species. It isn’t just a nice-to-have, it appears to be more of a must-have for our very existence.
Given all of this, it would seem the message is loud and clear. Nature wants us to be helpful to each other and it is one of the most important things we have done and need to continue to do in order to keep evolving and growing regardless of our motivations. We need each other and we need each other’s help. It is fundamental to being human and something we should respect and nurture.
THE WRONG MESSAGE
Why do we do business? What is the reason for it?
In 1970, Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman published a landmark article in the New York Times entitled The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits. And while Friedman did qualify this proposition in certain ways, most businesspeople just saw the banner headline and ran with it as a license to make money and profit at almost any cost.
For the last 50 years, most businesspeople have deemed making money the purpose of business much to the chagrin of customers, employees, suppliers, and communities worldwide. But this is flawed. To say the purpose of business is to make money is like saying the purpose of life is to eat, and I know no one who says that. Eating is what gives you the ability to fulfill your life purpose, it is not the purpose in and of itself. Likewise, making money is what allows business to fulfill its purpose, but what is that purpose?
Let’s look at the words of Peter Drucker, one of modern management’s preeminent thinkers, “Business enterprises … are organs of society. They do not exist for their own sake, but to fulfill a specific social purpose and to satisfy a specific need of a society, a community, or individuals.” That seems pretty clear. Business is here to satisfy the specific needs of people.
How about other business thinkers? R. Edward Freeman, a distinguished faculty member at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia as well as the mind behind Stakeholder Theory, says the purpose of business is “to create value for customers, suppliers, employees, communities, and financiers.” Alex Edmans at the London School of Business has a similar sentiment. He says the purpose of business is “to make products that transform customers’ lives for the better.” Finally, here are some words from that maverick of business thought, Tom Peters, who says, “Organizations exist to serve. Period.”
Clearly, if one listens to these leaders, the purpose of business is much more than a self-serving mission to create wealth, it is, by contrast, a more other-serving, prosocial calling. In all of the research I have done and in my experience of businesses large and small and in all varieties of industry, there is one thing they all have in common, they all have an underlying purpose of providing goods and services that help people. Whether those goods and services help people do things they don’t know how to do, do things they don’t want to do, or get them access to things they don’t have ready access to, all of them help people. Thus, every business, at the most fundamental level, is in the service business. They all, in another quote from Drucker, “exist to serve a customer.” Profit comes only if that provision of service is done and, if you want repeat business, done well.
The problem is that we continue to drive the profit-first message ad nauseum. And because of it, customers and serving them becomes second or third on the priority list or maybe even worse. And what’s ironic here is that our businesses rely on them; without customers there is no business. Yet in meetings in offices all over the world, the first item on the agenda is financial performance. Employees are told to focus on cutting costs to maximize profit. Salespeople are incented for doing anything they can to squeeze every cent out of buyers. The message is “money is our priority so do whatever it takes to get more of it” and it is feeding a monster that sidelines the people for whom business is intended to serve.
This thinking is not only misguided, it’s unnatural. Instead of being about helping and cooperating, which is Mother Nature’s priority, it is about getting more for self, which is a priority that would have doomed the human race millions of years ago.
So, we wonder why good service is hard to come by. When we believe helping others is not a worthy calling in life and that it is something to be relegated to a lower class, we diminish its nobility and the desire for anyone to want to pursue it. When we feed people regular, ongoing messages that tell them that helping people is not the most important thing but gaining for the benefit of self is, we lead people to focus on egocentric motives that lead to lack of accountability, questionable ethics, dishonesty, and immoral behavior that become norms and are justified as the way business must be done.
I often hear it said that the reason service is poor is because good people are hard to find, but the evidence leads me to question that. Are they hard to find or have we just turned them into something they were not meant to be?
I believe if we send messages to our team members that helping others is the priority and then demonstrate how to do it by being helpful to them, we would be amazed at how things would change. Employees would begin to align to a helpful mission and customers would benefit from being better cared for. And when customers feel better, they come back, they buy more, and they tell others the good news.
It’s not poor training, it’s not bad people, it’s wrong thinking and spreading the wrong gospel. We are built, as humans, to help one another, and business was built to be a vehicle for that. Align those and service improves, and when service improves, lives improve.
Here are some thoughts to get you started on correcting the situation.
- Start a campaign to message the true purpose of business. Look at the mission of Ritz Carlton, “we are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” This is the regular message Ritz Carlton employees hear, and if you read between the lines it says, “We are here to serve, not just customers but each other.” To them, service is the purpose of the company and making money comes because of it, and the better they serve, the more money they make. Develop a rally cry of your own and start messaging it.
- Start meetings by talking about customers. Read customer comments, recognize employees who have been acknowledged by customers, go over customer feedback, or have a frontline employee come in and tell you where they see customer challenges. Make it clear, helping customers is the first agenda item in the meeting because it is the first agenda item for the company.
- Be a model of service. Help those around you. Make it clear through your actions that service isn’t just for customers, it’s for everyone. We all need help and we all can provide it for someone.
- Hold brief, daily stand-up meetings where you ask people to speak up if they need help. It will be slow at first but eventually people will begin asking. And don’t be shy yourself, be the first to step up and talk about where you could use help. Once they see it is safe and not some admission of their weakness, people will reach out.
- Develop training for human skills, the so-called soft skills, to accompany technical training. The average amount of training for human skills is only 20% of the typical business-school and corporate-training curriculum, yet 85% of success in the workplace has been pegged to these skills. We have that weighting almost completely backwards. Be a champion of correcting this balance.
- Practice empathy. See those around you as people with hopes, fears, and problems just like you. Then ask questions and listen. You will learn things and be better equipped to help them succeed. You will better understand what resources are needed and what obstacles need removal to the benefit of them and your organization.
- Pursue excellence. Find little ways to improve your performance each and every day. Write better, listen better, help better, be better. Your discipline and quiet diligence will inspire.
Service can be better and while many would start with complicated mapping and designing, the road to better actually needs to start by changing misguided thinking and reversing the constant communication of the wrong message. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see.”
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