I was relaxing on a flight last month in my usual window seat, happily reading a book with the soft, natural sunlight beaming through the window. A member of the cabin crew passed by and, seeing me reading, stretched out her hand and switched on the light above me. She smiled, and then she walked away.
I was distracted from my reading, and a little puzzled. The extra lighting from above was too bright for my comfort. I like soft, even dim lighting when I read, but friendly cabin crew did not know that. She thought she was serving me well. After she left, I reached up and turned off the light.
We define service as “taking action to create value for someone else”. The question is who decides what is of value? In the story above, the service provider assumed she knew what I would value. She did not check with me first or after. She was well-intentioned, but she was wrong.
The tendency to assume can be a trap for service providers, especially those of us who consider ourselves to be true experts in our fields. “I have the experience,” we may think, “and am in the best position to decide what is valuable for my customers.”
While confidence is a positive trait for any service provider, curiosity about others is even more important. Before making an expert prescription, do we take the time to ask and fully understand? In medicine “prescription without diagnosis is malpractice”. In service, action without understanding can be unwise.
Even if we think we know the situation well from many years of service, each customer (or colleague) is unique. Even the same customer may value something different under different circumstances. I enjoy soft light for reading, but if I am working on my computer I like it bright! Is knowing what worked in the past and doing it again in the present really good enough? Or should we check again with questions to understand what’s valued now?
This idea of understanding first is also relevant for senior managers. It is common for leaders to feel frustrated when team members do not seem to notice or appreciate the incentives and bonuses provided.
But this goes back to question whether team members actually value what has been provided? Are channels of communication open for the leaders to enquire? Do managers assume that monetary rewards are the best way to win team members’ hearts and minds?
This need for curiosity also applies in our personal lives when the receivers of our “service” are spouses, children and other family members. Do we seek regular update about their needs? Do we confirm their current interests? Or do we simply do what we have done before and expect others to be delighted? When there is no shared understanding of what is valued between service providers and receivers, feelings of frustration can arise on both sides.
Stephen Covey’s fifth habit begins “Seek First to Understand”. This is an excellent habit in any communication, and especially so in service. Good advice to apply with customers, colleagues and our family members.
If only the smiling cabin crew member understood that.