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Innovating Service With Chip Bell

Customer Care

Grace: Honor Your Customer

Being nice, networked, and notable

Published: Monday, January 8, 2018 - 13:02

I do not at all understand the mystery of grace—only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.
—Anne Lamott

Howard Perdue was the owner, manager, and spiritual leader of the Ford tractor dealership in McRae, Georgia, during the 1950s and 1960s. In that era, about 185 percent of the population—practically every man, woman, child, dog, and mule—was involved in the overtime occupation of worrying about soybean prices and praying for rain. Because no one could do much serious farming without a tractor and the proper plows, Perdue was the center of the universe. He was also my mother’s brother.

The Perdue-farmer relationship was a special one. Few farmers started the planting season with enough money to fund all their farm equipment needs. They typically bet—along with Perdue—on the success of their harvest. Their new combine or fertilizer spreader was bought on credit and a promise to pay “when I make my crop.” Frequently, farmers literally “bet the farm” when an unexpected equipment failure led to an unforeseen expense. But the risk was not only on the customer’s side; if the farmer could not harvest his crops, Perdue lost as well.

I once overheard a troubled farmer pleading his cash shortage problem to Carl Vardaman, who ran the parts counter. “I’m sure Mr. Howard will understand your situation,” Carl assured him.

I watched from behind the counter as Uncle Howard emerged from the garage, wiping engine grease from his hands. The farmer and Perdue greeted each other without shaking hands—farmers generally only shook hands with the preacher when leaving the church. “How’s Mary?” Perdue asked, attempting to alter the straight lines on the farmer’s downcast face.

I didn’t hear their conversation—they went behind closed doors. But when they emerged, Perdue announced to Vardaman that the farmer would be getting a new carburetor. It was coded communication, a signal from Perdue to Vardaman that credit had been extended, boundaries expanded, and trust restored. The farmer left with his head held high.

Grace performs marvelous feats.

Grace is also a word with a heavy load. Some words are simple, with a singular, direct meaning. Not grace. It can mean simple elegance—as in, a sense of class and polish. We use it when we describe the effortless movement of a superb athlete or the easy graciousness of a host. Grace can mean honoring the presence of someone—“You grace us with your company”—and grace can shoulder its biggest payload in the religious definition of “unmerited or unconditional favor or love.”

Graceful service is an assertion, not a response. It is an attitude, not a tactic. We get a glimpse when we witness a random act of kindness. But service full of grace is not random; it is perpetual. To riff on a line from Jack Nicholson in the movie As Good as It Gets, it makes a customer want to be a better person. Like some mysterious alchemy, when compassion meets caustic, all the acidity disappears. Grace not only tames hostility, it also enriches the ordinary and elevates “I got my money’s worth” to “I have a story to tell.”

Always count on goodness

Archaeologists excavating the Egyptian pyramids discovered an unexpected treasure—wheat seeds that dated back to about 2,500 B.C. In the burial traditions of antiquity, the seeds were there for the dead pharaohs to eat if they got hungry. The find would enable scientists to determine what variety of wheat was in use during the ancient world and could be invaluable for launching new strains of wheat. Out of curiosity, the scientists planted the 4,500-year-old wheat seeds in fertile soil, and an amazing thing happened: They grew!

The seed story has always amazed me. How could seeds that ancient still grow? Then, a friend pointed out that the moral of the story might not be in the seeds, but rather in the fertile soil. “Every living thing on the planet has the capacity to do remarkable things if placed in fertile soil,” he advised me.

Innovative service starts with the assumption of the goodness of customers. And such belief can ignite a self-fulfilling prophecy. Customers treated with goodness assume the behavior and attitude of goodness.

The assumption of goodness is manifested as sincere respect. When I was a kid, I used to accompany my grandfather to town in his pickup truck to buy a few bags of feed for his cows. To and from the feed store we talked about stuff like two old friends, not like an elder and a kid talking. And he always introduced me as “Mr. Chip” to the people we encountered. If the salesperson at the feed store asked him how many bags he wanted loaded, he would point toward me and declare, “Mr. Chip can tell you.” As a 10-year-old, I felt very grown up. It is that same type of declaration, respect, and affirmation that provides fertile soil for growing a customer relationship.

How would an assumption of goodness have changed the outcome in that famous scene in Pretty Woman when Vivian Ward was treated with arrogance and disdain? What would have happened if Howard Perdue had played stern banker instead of benevolent neighbor with his neighbor in need? Instead of watching rejection at Howard’s tractor store, I saw sincere respect, and rather than judgment, I witnessed grace. And the payoff was plain to see when Perdue showered all three definitions of grace upon his grateful customer.

Serve with bold altruism

Everyone, regardless of faith or theology, knows the story of the Good Samaritan. The parable is about a man who stops to give aid to someone who hates him. The man who needs help is a robbery victim and Jewish; at the time, Samaritans were considered by many to be an inferior people whom they despised. Think of the view as similar to the one that bigoted whites in the Deep South held of African-Americans during the early 1950s.

But there is an unfamiliar part of this familiar story. Before stopping to help his “neighbor,” the Samaritan had walked from Jericho to Jerusalem, 30 miles uphill on challenging, rocky terrain populated by thieves. The route was called “The Way of Death.” Despite the exhaustion and anxiety from his journey, the Samaritan stops to help his enemy, transports him to a nearby inn, and covers all his costs. He could have said, “I am too tired,” “I’ll be rejected,” or, “This is too hard.” Instead, he invests in the situation in a way that makes all the difference. It is more than a gift; it is a bold and conscious sacrifice.

Tom’s Shoes donates a pair of shoes to a child in need for each pair a customer purchases from the company. Scooter’s Coffee sources 100 percent of its coffee beans from shade tree plantations. Customers know that each cup they drink saves two square yards of rain forest in Latin America. When Houston-based Hilcorp Energy made a challenging corporate goal, all 1,380 employees, regardless of position, got a performance bonus—$100, 000 each. Graceful service takes more than routine effort or everyday contribution. It is an abundance of spirit; it is contribution beyond what is reasonable; it is altruistic.

Be the giver you hope your customers become. Show your most focused, treasure-hunting curiosity. Be slow to blame, quick to affirm, and the very best at celebrating your customers. Always do what you say you will do. If you can’t, renegotiate early. Check all greed at the door. The world of work works when there is a deep-rooted connection to the conscience rather than a myopic focus on the competition. In the words of Tara Hunt in her classic book, The Whuffie Factor (Crown Business, 2009), marketplace influence comes through “being nice, being networked, and being notable. There is no room for bullies or lots of money. Money may buy you an audience, but it will not guarantee influence.”

We live in an era of cynicism. Customers today are on guard, half expecting a scam, rip-off, or unfair treatment. They witness hidden fees, nickel-and-diming practices, and greed-driven pricing. The venom often found on customer review sites reflects pent-up scorn from a collection of disappointments, not just a single incident. This makes graceful service a powerful remedy to indifference and irritation. It begins with acting like every day is your customer’s birthday. You can start igniting grace with a simple, “I am here to serve and daringly make a difference in your life.”

Courage is grace under pressure.
—Ernest Hemingway

Animators for grace

“Is there a light inside it?” my granddaughter asked while looking through the business end of my antique kaleidoscope.

“No,” I said. “The light comes from the outside and shines through this end.” I could see the wheels of insight turning in her head.

“So, it’s like being really nice to people you don’t even know,” she pondered.

She is clearly developing the wisdom to animate her relationship with grace!

• Respect is not what you believe; it is what you show. Use sir and ma’am to people you do not normally address in that manner. Take actions that would get you the Ms. or Mr. Great Manners award!
• Avoid giving any one-word answers to your customers’ questions.
• Be a proactive guardian of your customers’ dignity. Stand up for their significance. Never let anyone hear you bad-mouth a customer.
• Be the best example of integrity your customer has ever seen by always doing what is right and not being fixated on what is allowed.
• Graceful service that is profound is the type that assumes innocence, even with a history of the opposite. Judgment fuels defensiveness, for you and your customer.


About The Author

Innovating Service With Chip Bell’s picture

Innovating Service With Chip Bell

Chip Bell has helped companies dramatically enhance their bottom lines and marketplace reputation through innovative customer-centric strategies. For the sixth year in a row, Global Gurus in 2020 ranked Bell as one of the top three keynote speakers in the world on customer service. Bell has authored 24 books; seven are international best sellers. His latest book, Inside Your Customer’s Imagination: 5 Secrets for Creating Breakthrough Products, Services, and Solutions, shows how co-creation partnerships enable you to tap into the treasure trove of ideas, ingenuity, and genius-in-the-raw within every customer.