Matt's Articles

Service is an Attitude


“Customer service is not a department… It’s an attitude.” I have a pad of sticky notes that I have been using since I started my career that say this at the bottom. Why do I still have them? Honestly, it was a really large pad and I used them as more of a reminder than for taking notes. It’s funny though, I thought I understood the meaning well, but I have learned a lot more since becoming a consultant.

I started my Industrial Engineering career at Motorola inside of a service organization. We repaired radios at very high volumes, so it looked like manufacturing, though it was truly a service. Someone owned these radios, they were waiting to get them back, and when they were back they expected them to be working again. It was important to think beyond just efficiency (as I was trained from my industrial engineering degree) and think about the total customer experience. Was the product returned in better condition than it arrived? Was the product returned to the customer quickly and did it meet their expectations? Was the product fixed right the first time? I kept these experiences with me throughout my career and made sure that the customer’s expectations were emphasized whenever I was doing work for them. I like to think that this made me a better engineer and a better Blackbelt.

“Customer service is not a department… It’s an attitude.” The attitude, in my mind, was always thinking of the customer and thinking about their experience. I drove this thinking. I taught it in my classes. I often asked, “Who is your customer?” “How do you know that they are happy?” I described ways of getting feedback and measurements to ensure the customer was happy. At the same time, I watched the growth of the services industry. Companies were recognizing the value of providing their customers with more than a product but a full experience. Car companies were going beyond just selling cars to selling reliable transportation. Software companies were not just selling an application, but ways to make work easier, requiring ongoing enhancements and support services. This all confirmed for me that I really understood this “attitude” and others were getting it as well. …but then I became a consultant.

I started my consulting career by identifying a handful of services that I could provide and talked to companies that I thought would benefit from those services. Note the language, “that I thought.” You see I spent my career learning about Lean and Six Sigma and figuring out how to convince “narrow-minded” executives that they needed Lean and Six Sigma. In reality, I wasn’t quite this bull-headed (I think), but looking back, my approach was self-serving. Grow my career by convincing more executives that Lean Six Sigma was the solution to all their problems. Another important word here “self-serving” …this is not the service attitude. Yet, when I look back throughout my career (and if you are honest, you may say the same about yourself) I spent too much time self serving. I spent too much time thinking about how the company is helping me, how a project is good for me, how this new role will help my career, how convincing this person helps me. Often feeling frustrated because people wouldn’t get on board to help me, help my career. Me, me, me, me…

“Customer service is not a department…. It’s an attitude.” It turns out that I only understood part of the attitude. (That is, in a business operational context.) The broader attitude is that we are always serving. We are serving the person across from us, our families, our communities, our peers, our bosses, our employees. It’s not an easy attitude. I realized this only as a consultant because I quickly learned (or I would be out of business) that there is no reason for a business leader to listen to me unless I am serving them. My agenda doesn’t matter; it is very easy for a person to simply not respond, hang up the phone, or close the door. To engage people, I have to listen to them. We all have to listen. To get someone’s attention, the conversation must be meaningful to them. It must be about their situation, their problems, their aspirations, and what they want. Now this doesn’t mean bowing to every demand. Service isn’t subservient. It does mean that I understand things through their lenses and talk about how I can help in ways that are meaningful to them. Or, at times, recognizing that maybe my wonderful box of tools cannot actually help them. It means setting my agenda aside to truly listen. This is hard. I am a results driven person. I want to get my statement of work in place, agree on pricing, establish a start date, blah blah blah. But this is all self-serving. Sure, it needs to happen, but it won’t happen until I really understand the customer’s needs.

“Customer service is not a department…. It’s an attitude.” It’s a pretty big realization and I appreciate the fact that I had to leave the inside of the corporate world and work from the outside to really gain this appreciation. It often makes me wonder how the corporate environment might change if more people thought this way. I encourage you to do the same. The next time you are frustrated with work ask yourself, “Who do I serve?” “Am I serving my boss, my company, my employees, my peers?” Ask yourself, “Is the frustration a result of too much emphasis on serving myself?”