On Excellence : Just paying attention can bring dividends

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The Independent Online
I'M 52, I've been around, and when it comes to service, I am some kind of a fanatic (not just a demanding customer, but often a real pain in the neck.) The truth is, however, that I could probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of tim es that I've sent a meal back to a restaurant kitchen.

Well, I sent one back the other night, at a place that normally serves fine food. (I had ordered the vegetarian plate, and it had turned out to be merely a lump of bland pasta topped with a glob of nondescript cheese. It made one of those instant microwave meals seem like haute cuisine.) Anyway, I sent it back, and I learned something in the process.

The owner of the restaurant was on hand - which was to her credit - and quickly came to the table. But the first words out of her mouth were about money.

To wit: she would remove the meal from our tab.

Well, that's fine - but . . .

I was still left with a sour taste in my mouth, and it wasn't just from the food. The issue wasn't the money.

The truth is, the $16 (£10.25) tab wasn't going to significantly alter my bank balance (nor would it for most of the people who dined there).

There was something else that was missing - and that something showed up spontaneously the next time our waitress stopped by the table. She said she had worked for another restaurant that was always toying with its nightly vegetarian entree. Her casual remark triggered a five-minute conversation about vegetarian cooking and the like.

What she provided was worth 100 times the $16. She offered attentiveness.

Is this the most powerful force in the universe? Perhaps.

Which leads me to the writings of Mary Oliver, who, in her touching poem Mockingbirds, tells of an impoverished old couple who respond to the knock of strangers at their door. The poor folks have no worldly goods to offer the unexpected visitors "but their willingness / to be attentive."

The unbidden guests turn out to be gods in disguise, who surprise their generous hosts by treating the gift of attentiveness as the finest offering that mere humans could have made.

I suspect that this story, with its small but grand revelation, resonates with most of us - especially in today's topsy-turvy times. Overwhelmed by new technologies, new competitors, new everything, we hold the gift of human attention - from the waitresswho chats about vegetarian dishes to the sales clerk who makes eye contact rather than just staring blankly at an inanimate computer screen - to be a munificent blessing.

But can we do more than just nod our heads and add "Amen"? For starters, we can apply cold, hard statistical evidence to a topic that might seem the province of poets or Zen masters.

Consider some meticulous research done by the Forum Corporation. It analysed the losses of business customers by 14 leading manufacturers and service companies (such as banks).

Fifteen per cent of those former customers who switched to a competitor did so because they had "found a better product" - by a technical measure of quality. A further 15 per cent changed after finding a "cheaper product" elsewhere.

But 20 per cent high-tailed it away due to "lack of contact and individual attention" from the supplier, and 49 per cent because "contact from the old supplier's personnel was poor in quality." It seems fair to combine these last two categories, after which we could say: q 15 per cent left because of quality problems.

q 15 per cent scooted because of price.

q and 70 per cent defected because they didn't like the human side of doing business with the previous provider of the product or service.

Which brings us back to my lousy vegetarian meal - and to the impoverished old couple's "small" offering of care and concern. In this age of e-mail, the Internet and the raucous global village, attentiveness - a token of human kindness - may be the greatest service or gift we can offer, whether we're peddling paper clips, jet aircraft engines, £10,000,000 lines of credit - or $16 vegetarian meals.

The owner of the restaurant was lucky (I suspect) in that she had a genuinely concerned and personable waitress. The trick for bosses is in making sure that such responses are more than just good luck.

Companies such as Southwest Airlines, Rosenbluth International, Nordstrom and TGI Friday's are among the very few that seem to understand what I'm talking about - that is, looking directly for spirit and caring in would-be employees. Then, allowing (encouraging, even demanding) all employees to express their personalities, and, reluctantly, weeding out those employees who fail to measure up to this attentiveness dimension. Sadly, most bosses today - whether they are running a 30-table restaurant or a $3.5bn chain of department stores - think they are heroes when they erase $16 from someone's bill.

They fail to place this humble issue of attentiveness at the top, or even near the top, of their strategic agendas.

TPG Communications