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Leading Undisciplined Service

by Guest Writter
Chip R. Bell

She was over-the-top friendly. Her eye hugs made you feel like you were in the presence of a forever friend.  As she rang up my purchase at the checkout counter of the super-sized department store, she commented on my cowboy boots. “You’re either from Texas or you got a heap of cowboy in your blood,” she teased as she put my purchases in a shopping bag.  Then she added, “I put a discount coupon in your bag for apple cider; you know you always need extra cider during the winter!”

As I thanked her for her delightful service, she shattered the stellar moment with a quiet pronouncement.  “I am sorry I won’t see you when you come back; today is my last day.”  I had to know the reason so I coaxed her for an explanation.  “To be honest,” she said with obvious disappointment, “I was terminated.  My boss said I was too undisciplined.”

I left the store but her closing comment remained on my brain. It made me wonder:  Was this “made in heaven” checkout clerk perpetually late?  Did she mouth off to her supervisor?  Did she have poor work habits her colleagues complained about?  What did “undisciplined” mean?  After a nearby meeting, curiosity won out over “let well enough alone” and I went back to the store, found her still on the checkout counter, and asked my burning question.

Her answer:  “He said I was not following the script and that I was doing things for customers that made other checkout clerks look bad.”

The Limits of Consistency

We all have benefitted from the virtues of a strong quality focus.  It has yielded us products without zero defects and processes with few hiccups.  We get our fast-food burgers in less than 3.2 minutes; our packages delivered by 10:30.  Our bottom lines have been made fatter by a strong allegiance to uniformity, efficiency and order.  Henry Ford would marvel at how far we have taken his assembly line productivity concept.  Computers now upgrade passengers to first class instead of the unpredictable gate attendant.  Self-service has yielded us 24/7 shopping hours.

And, there is more.  CRM advances and voice recognition inventions have mechanized our dealings to a fine level of precision.  We have dashboards that give us early warnings on wayward moments in the making.  Our headlong focus on consistency has paved the way for clear-cut standards, benchmarks and metrics that enable leaders to act more like air traffic controllers than ranchers corralling a stray herd.  Correctness is good; and originality is, well, suspicious.

Ain’t it great?  But, then we have those occasional seemingly maverick spirits who brighten our day by being rather undisciplined.  We have those who abandon the script, sidestep the uniform, and turn a customer experience into more of a treasure hunt than a tightly choreographed encounter.  And, in the radiance and magnetism of that special magical moment, Wal-Mart efficiency loses to Cirque du Soleil extravaganza.  Is it any wonder that today’s customers are bored?  They long for more “discount coupons for apple cider.”

The Leadership Pressure to Sanitize Service

We live in an era of stimulation that stays lodged in the memory of customers.  Remember the half time show at the last Super Bowl?  Katy Perry rode a giant glass lion as she sang her hit song “Roar” and then jetted around the arena with fireworks in the background.  That day over 100 million people had their standard for a great experience elevated.  Over 50,000 guests visit the Magic Kingdom…every day!  It is time to get out of the plain vanilla service business.

But, the leadership of originality takes great courage.  It means the acceptance of a few “mad scientists” among our employ.  It entails having faith employees will be good stewards not just good soldiers.  It requires focusing on a customer-centric mission not just a rule-centric task. And, it involves resourcing and affirming front-line ambassadors to focus on the happiness of customers more than the arithmetic of the cash register.

Robert Greenleaf long ago used the term “servant leader” to suggest a new form of service leadership where the command and control of a drill sergeant was replaced by the manner of a managing partner of a law firm or medical practice.  Some recoiled at his use of the word, “servant” which could imply “servile.”  But, Greenleaf’s true meaning was that leaders should play a role of support, empathy, encouragement, foresight, in other words, a clear and present commitment to the growth and well being of those they served.

What would your leadership be like if you had subordinates named Lady Gaga, James Cameron, Booker T. Washington, Susan B. Anthony, or Steve Jobs?  We have about reached the limits of efficient service and we need to decorate that milestone with the addition of enchanting surprise.  Customers want experiences with emotional connection, not just rational precision.  The perfectly prepared cupcake of service may bring them in, but it is the whimsical sprinkles of service that bring them back.  It takes leadership guts to encourage service ingenuity and originality.

[Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]

About the Author

Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker and the author of several best-selling books.  His newest book is the best-selling, award-winning book Sprinkles:  Creating Awesome Experiences Through Innovative Service.  He can be reached at www.chipbell.com.

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