Real Leaders

When Your Customer Becomes the Leader

Meeting people in atelier

Let’s start with two important leadership principles: 1) There is a good service person inside almost every front-line server; and 2) just as customers can stand on the outside and see the absurdity of stupid rules, we need to sometimes help a service person navigate the bureaucracy that can govern their service.

Practice these two principles, and poor service will be a rarity. They are also two rules for great leadership!

I was visiting a friend in the hospital. When the nurse announced to my friend she would be shortly bringing him breakfast, I saw it as an opportunity to go down to the hospital café and get breakfast-to-go to eat when my friend got his breakfast. The café was set up as a self-service buffet with powdered eggs, bacon, sausage, grits, hashbrowns, toast, and biscuits.

Two cooks were in the back of the open hospital kitchen in conversation. When one saw me not serving myself, she asked, “May I help you?”

“Good morning!” I warmly said to her and waited for a response. When she echoed my greeting, I asked, “I’ll bet you have a grill?” I had noticed one behind her. “Yes, we do,” she replied.

“Wonderful,” I said, with all the optimism and sunshine I could muster. “I’d like two eggs cooked over easy, please, for my friend who is a patient.”

“Sorry,” she said in a very robotic voice, “We are not allowed to cook eggs over easy.”

Now, pause for a second. What would the typical customer do next? And, what would the typical customer conclude? This is where the two important leadership principles come into play.

“I am so sorry,” I said. “But, I’m confused. I thought I heard you mention that you had a grill?”

“Yes, but we have a rule that uncracked eggs cannot be served to a patient or a guest,” she said with the first sign of “wish-I-could-help” coming from her voice. “You’ll have to have the scrambled eggs on the serve-yourself buffet.”

“Oh, that’s okay,” I amiably said. “I just know your gourmet eggs would be so much better than these powdered eggs. And, I bet you could crack the eggs and cook them fried on your special grill!” There was a pause. “Coming right up!” she told me and began her work. At this point, two nurses came in to serve themselves and saw me waiting.

“Can we help you?” one nurse asked.

“Thanks,” I answered. “I am waiting on the chef to finish cooking my eggs.”

Then, the punch line that was worth the price of admission! “You got her to cook you eggs?” the other nurse asked in disbelief. At that point, I could not resist. I called back to my egg expert and commented, “They surely do smell great!” She turned and grinned.

Once the eggs were cooked, instead of just handing them to me over the counter to put on my plate, she brought them around the buffet counter and presented them to me!

Now, here is the moral of this story… in story form. Spotting the biscuit on my plate from the buffet, she enthusiastically asked, “Would you like me to heat up that biscuit in my microwave back there?” The two nurses looked stunned. She was now no longer the hospital’s cook; she was my chef! “Where do I leave your large tip?” I asked as I was heading to the cashier, knowing tips were not allowed. Again, she giggled and called back, “You just come back to see me again!”

Leading Great Service as a Customer

Leadership is not just about getting employees to achieve important goals. It is about influencing anyone to direct their personal pride and energy toward an achievement. Let’s examine a few rules of engagement that netted me great service and could net you great results from those you lead.

1. Check Your Pessimism at the Door

Enter the encounter with a server or an employee with the expectation that greatness is about to happen and should happen. Visualize an awesome outcome. Then, let your positive attitude and confident expectation come from that terrific mental picture. Avoid making demands. Instead, put your energy into creating a lighthearted connection. Directing must start with connecting; caring must bolster guiding.

2. Carefully Manage the First Ten Seconds

The first ten seconds are vital to shaping the reception you get. Aim your eyes and best Steinway smile at the server (or employee). Deliver a greeting that loudly proclaims, “We are about to have some unbelievable festivity here. And you’re invited!” Optimism and joy are generally infectious. Always use your best manners—“please,” “sirs” and “thank you’s.” A chilly initial reception will generally thaw if you are persistent in your cheerfulness; don’t assume success will come from your opening line.

3. Help Others Deliver Greatness

Most service people and employees are really eager to deliver excellence. Sometimes barriers make it difficult. Be a willing helper in clearing barriers away. If the barrier is a foul mood, try a quick tease or sincere compliment to turn sour into sunny. If the barrier is a silly policy, offer a creative suggestion that helps bolster confidence without putting the service person or employee at risk. “What if you…” can more easily be heard without resistance than “Why don’t you…” Show your best curiosity and focus on empowerment, not insurrection.

4. Be Generous and Thoughtful

Never view any encounter to be influenced as a single transaction but rather the start of an important relationship. Affirm excellence, not just results. Praise service people to their superiors; employees to their colleagues. Express your compliments to great service providers or employees with a follow-up note or call. The next time you return,
you’ll get their red carpet best!

Don’t wait for great service or outstanding employee performance to just happen. Take charge of elevating the encounter from “okay” to “awesome.” Servers like great customers just as much as customers like great servers. Leadership is about serving others, not getting your way. Serve others from your heart, and you will be served in the same fashion.

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