Customer Service as a Spiritual Practice

Tom Morris

A neighbor of mine who has developed an unusually beautiful shopping center in town contacted me recently and asked whether I might be able to come to a celebration dinner he gives the merchants. My audience consisted mainly of store owners who work in their stories. This is a re-creation of most of what I said.

Joel called me some time ago, to invite me to speak tonight on the topic of "Customer Service As A Spiritual Practice." My first thought was "I really don't know anything about that topic." But, of course, that's never stopped me before. As one social commentator put it, years ago, "If no one ever spoke unless they really knew what they were talking about, a dreadful silence would descend upon the earth."

But my second thought was, "OK, I've never written a book on customer service, I've never spoken on it, but there is one thing that makes me something of an expert - I've been a customer almost all my life. And - wait a second - so have you. You've been a customer almost all your life. So, here we are in a room full of lifetime experts, and we have a few minutes to reflect together on our expertise and what we can learn from it.

Because of my website, I get emails from all over the world, on every subject you can imagine. I received one some time ago from a Canadian retailer. It started with the sentence, "Why are customers so rude?" I was tempted to write back, "Why are Canadian retailers so judgmental?" No - I'm just kidding. I decided that would be - well - rude. So I wrote back a nice, long, courteous reply.

Why are customers ever rude? They've had a bad day. They didn't get enough sleep last night, or maybe for the past two weeks. Their kids are acting up. Something bad happened to them at work today. Their body chemistry is about to blow. There are as many causes as there are aggravations in the world.

But notice something. None of the reasons I've mentioned has anything to do with us as retailers or service providers. It's something our customers have experienced outside of their contact with us. They have suffered, or they are suffering, and you know the old saying, "Misery loves company." So they're prepared to spread it around a little. And we can easily take it personally.

But that brings us back to our topic - "Customer Service as a Spiritual Practice." The best customer service is not reactive - it's responsive. The very best customer service in the world is based on the most universal moral and spiritual principle ever articulated, The Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Treat others the way you'd want to be treated if you were in their place.

Notice that The Golden Rule doesn't say, "Treat other people the way they treat you." That's unfortunately the way most people tend to live - you treat me well, and I'll treat you nicely; but treat me badly and you'd better watch out! Rudeness evokes hostility and the cycle spirals downward. Reciprocity is what philosophers call that behavior. Reacting in kind. That just lets other people call the shots for our conduct - it turns us into moral puppets. The Golden Rule liberates us to be the ones who call the shots - it doesn't matter who walks in the door, or what sort of mood they're in - treat them as you would want to be treated if you were in their place.

As a professor at Notre Dame, it was easy for me to use The Golden Rule in everything I did with my students. I knew how I would want to be treated if I were in their place. I had been a student - I had been in their place for many years before I became a teacher. In exactly the same way, we are all in a privileged position for applying The Golden Rule to our customers. We ourselves are customers. We have been, and continue to be, customers. We know what it's like to be in their place.

Think about every great store you've ever loved, or every great doctor's office, dental practice, or gas station. Any place you entered as a customer and came to love. You were treated there in accordance with The Golden Rule - in little things as well as in big things. We all have our stories of such places.

When I was growing up in Durham, North Carolina, there was a music store in Burlington that I'd heard about, and that I then visited, where the owner treated me like I was a great musician, when I was just 16. He acted like I was one of the Rolling Stones. I'd drive forty minutes each way to buy guitars and amplifiers from that man. He made me and my friends feel like we were the most important customers he had.

There was a cafeteria in downtown Chapel Hill when I was an undergraduate there at the University of North Carolina. The cafeteria ladies made me feel like I was a member of their families. There was a gas station in South Bend. Same thing. What a recent writer called A Great Good Place. There is a bank close by. First Citizen's Bank. Same thing. I wrote about them in one of my books, If Aristotle Ran General Motors: The New Soul of Business. And I'm particularly pleased to be with you all tonight for one great reason: You all are known for creating that kind of place.

And that brings us back to the spiritual part. Spirituality is about two things: depth and connectedness. Depth - seeing beneath the surface, understanding people's lives and needs, touching people deeply. Connectedness - making people feel part of a community or family of concern. Making a customer feel like a long lost friend. When we moved to Wilmington several years ago, my daughter said, "Dad, everyone working in stores here makes me feel like I'm a family member." We remember the places that have welcomed us like family, that have treated us in accordance with The Golden Rule.

And we remember those who haven't. A couple of weeks ago, I called a men's store in Atlanta a few blocks from where I'd be staying the next day. I said, "I need a winter coat. Could you somehow get one to the hotel I'll be staying at near you?" I was told, simply, "No. We can't do that." I wish I could tell you the name of the store. But that's part of the result of they way they responded to me. I have no memory of them, except their lack of care for me, as a potential customer.

Several years ago, I checked in to one of the most famous hotels in the country, in California. I had been a guest there twice before. I had even visited with my wife for dinner once when we were staying nearby on another occasion. On this particular day, I had just flown across the country, on two planes, after a night without much sleep, and I was extremely tired. It was also an unusually hot day for the location. I checked in at the front desk of this grand hotel, and was led to their extremely warm top floor, and shown into a stiflingly hot room. The bellman put down my bags and left. One bed was made up. Another was stripped, and the dirty linen was on top of it. Towels were on the bathroom floor, and there was trash - FOOD TRASH - in the waste baskets. I called the front desk and explained the situation, and asked if something could be done quickly because I had only a short time to take a quick nap that I really needed before I had to give a talk to a very large group staying in the hotel. I was the featured kickoff speaker for a three day event. After I described my room and my need, the front desk clerk said, "Well, that's not MY problem." Silence. I phoned my travel guru at the Washington Speakers Bureau and recounted what had just happened. Within thirty minutes, another bellman was escorting me to a large, clean, well chilled suite on a lower floor. It was too late for my nap. But I was able to have a great time with my audience nonetheless, just drawing on my deepest inner resources, knowing what they, as my customers, deserved. The event was a roaring success. And I haven't been back to that hotel since that day.

Contrast with this a group of people famous for customer care - Nordstrom Department Stores. I was on book tour in 1994 and happened to ask the lady I was buying a tie from whether there was a bookstore in the mall they were attached to. I told her I wanted to see if they had a certain book. She said "Allow me to take you there," and she led me down the escalator, out the doors, and through the mall. On the way out, I explained that I was on book tour and was just curious whether my book was in all the stores yet. She walked me practically a city block to the store, and, entering, asked the manager whether the book True Success had arrived. He said it was on the wall. Then she took me to the new nonfiction section, and there it was. I bought her a copy and signed it for her. She was as surprised as I had been. But my wife has assured me it doesn't detract too much from the retail value of a book when I sign it.

That was Golden Rule Treatment to the max. And I wanted to reciprocate. That's just the way The Golden Rule tends to work. When we treat people extraordinarily well, they most often feel an urge to reciprocate. Some people are masters at resisting that urge, but most will indeed reflect back the good they've received.

The tie lady listened to what I needed, and then took action. And that brings us to our last point. Customer service is a spiritual practice, and we can learn something about it from that other paradigmatic spiritual practice of prayer.

Think about prayer for a minute. Most of us tend to think that the most important part of prayer is talking. But the greatest spiritual people tell us that the most important part of prayer is listening.

And that's exactly the most important part of customer service as well. When we listen, really listen, to our customers, we can serve them best.

Go therefore, and listen. Remember that great customer service is indeed a spiritual practice, about depth and connectedness. Use the Golden Rule extravagantly, in everything you do, as a merchant, and as a customer, and I bet I never get an irate email from a Canadian retailer about any of you.


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