Scripting job essence

March 31, 2011

Based on peer conversations I’ve had over the past week, I’ve been considering the potential to script/institutionalize job essence so that it can become a function of one’s job role—and not left to chance.

To clarify, the essence of an employee’s job is his overarching purpose—his highest priority. Job essence for employees at most companies is to create promoters—enthusiastic customers who will recommend their products and services, are less price-sensitive, and have higher repurchase rates.

Job function refers to the duties associated with one’s job role. For example, a job function of a restaurant server may be to provide ice water to guests who have been seated by the hostess. This may be restaurant protocol—a mandatory step in the process of providing table service.

But providing restaurant guests with ice water in and of itself does not reflect job essence—to create a promoters of the restaurant. The reason being that guests, at least in the U.S., expect ice water to be served. So providing ice water is not a differentiator—there’s no competitive advantage. In fact, if it’s not offered and diners have to ask for it, that may be seen as a displeaser.

On my flight home from Boston last night I thought of two examples of businesses that had, from my perspective, captured job essence within an employee’s job function (though I’m sure we could produce many more):

1.) There’s a restaurant in Denver called The Broker Restaurant that provides a complimentary shrimp bowl (with the purchase of two or more entrees) in the same way many fine dining restaurants provide a basket of bread. While a basket of bread is typical, ordinary, routine, and expected, the shrimp bowl (for first time guests) is unique, extraordinary, fresh, and unexpected. Placing the shrimp bowl on the diners’ table is a job function, just like providing glasses of ice water—or a basket of bread, that reflects job essence: providing a pleasant surprise. (Unless, of course, you’re allergic to shell fish…)

2.) I recently visited a delicatessen at the Atlantis hotel on Paradise Island in The Bahamas to purchase a roast beef sandwich for lunch the following day. When I placed the order, I mentioned this to the server. She then confirmed the bread type and some other specifications and then disappeared in the direction of the kitchen. When she returned, she handed me my order pointing out that she had taken the time to group and individually wrap the sandwich’s ingredients in wax paper to keep them fresh and separated until I was ready to build my sandwich at lunchtime the following day.

If this was the restaurant’s policy (a job function) on to-go orders intended to be consumed the following day, then it illustrates how the essence of the server’s job (express genuine interest, provide a pleasant surprise) could be captured in a job function. Now, I doubt this is standard policy at the delicatessen. More likely, I was fortunate to encounter an engaged server who made the choice to express genuine interest in me, anticipated my needs, and provided me with a pleasant surprise.

Both examples illustrate how job essence can be institutionalized (via standard operating procedure) as a job function. The danger, of course, is to rely on these standardized practices to “wow” guests and deemphasize the spontaneity that ordinarily accompanies job essence.

This is what happened at The Ritz-Carlton after guests remarked that nearly every employee they encountered responded to requests with, “My pleasure.” At first, it was fresh and unique, conveying professionalism while expressing genuine interest in serving the guest (job essence). Over time, however, it became a bit rehearsed and predictable—and it lost its uniqueness and charm.

Now, in order to convey more sincerity and spontaneity, Ritz-Carlton encourages “ways of being” as opposed to “ways of doing” by suggesting that employees vary their replies to guests’ requests (e.g., “My pleasure,” or “Absolutely, “ or “Right away,” or “Certainly”), recognizing that these responses are always preferable to “No problem.” (Which is like nails on a chalkboard to me—not at the Apple Retail Store but certainly in a luxury hotel or a fine dining restaurant.)

Can you think of any other businesses that have managed to effectively capture job essence within a function of the employee’s job role?

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  • Curt Newport

    Back when airlines were just starting their cuts, my wife and I got married. We deferred our honeymoon for several months, but did take a quick weekend escape immediately following the wedding. The destination was a mystery to her, but I had planned everything.

    As my new bride had consented to remaining in the dark for as long as possible (which was verified several times by airport personnel on our arrival), I discussed my plans with the flight attendant as he waited to board his aircraft. He mentioned that, by law, they were required to make a destination check, but would let me know before he did that before, so that I could distract her.

    If the story had ended there, it would have been fine. However, he also asked for my seat numbers. I showed him my boarding pass, with seats 9A and 9B, and he said he would check in with me when we were on board. A few minutes later, he approached me with two boarding passes in our names, with new seat assignments, 2A and 2B, First Class, and then escorted us on the plane with the crew.

    During our trip, we were, of course, warned before the “Destination Check” announcement, and also acknowledged over the PA as “newlyweds”. The Captain came back during our flight, and shook our hands, and asked if it was still a “secret”, which it was. He congratulated us, and returned to the cabin. During his “initial descent” announcements, he repeatedly changed the name of the destination (New York was mentioned, as was Paris, Hong Kong, and, I believe, Saturn, followed by an explanation. Prior to landing, the flight attendant presented us with a bottle of wine, two glasses, and a card signed by the entire flight crew.

    I’m sure the crew had fun, and that, I think, is the point of your article. It was a source of fun for them, amusement for the other hundred or so passengers on board, and really demonstrated the essence of their jobs was to create an active promoter. They also had no idea that I was a very frequent flyer, and that I continued to fly United Airlines for three to four trips per month for the next five years as a raging fan. Not because of one instance like that, but because of several.

    And, yes, we got to Boston before she knew where she was. It was finally the license plate on the taxi that gave it away.

  • Brian O’Neill

    Can job essence be scripted? I don’t think so; though in the call center world I’m currently working within, there’s no lack of trying (sadly). Can job essence be crafted…sculpted…guided like the many lanes of a busy freeway? Absolutely. Ritz-Carlton gets this with their “ways of being.”

  • http://stevecurtin.com Steve Curtin

    Curt, obviously this trip predated the conspicuous Boston Beer Works brewpub that now graces the United terminal at Logan… ; )Yes, you managed to include great examples of both mandatory and expected job function (issuance of boarding passes, destination checks) and optional and unexpected job essence (spontaneous upgrades, warning ahead of destination check announcement, pilot greeting, pilot initial descent humor, wine/glasses and signed card).United Airlines shined in your story, though Southwest Airlines seems to steal the spotlight as the airline that does the best job of fusing job function and job essence. Specifically, they have a reputation for injecting personality and humor into the otherwise staid pre-flight safety briefing.Regardless of the company, employees always have the option to inject their uniqueness, personality, and flare (job essence) into ordinary, routine, and predictable tasks/duties (job function). It simply requires a choice.

    Many employees choose to execute transactions rather than fulfill experiences, which is a shame. Not only are they willing accomplices in perpetuating the monotony of their work (as they process each customer like the last customer), they are also deterring promoters when their highest priority should be to create them.Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

  • http://stevecurtin.com Steve Curtin

    Brian, while I’m inclined to agree with you regarding scripting, there are examples of impersonal automated attendants that have incorporated elements of essence (e.g., using appropriate humor). One example describes a bank’s voice mail system which concludes a long menu by saying, “If you’d like to hear a duck quack, press 7.” I’ve listened to my share of predictable voice mail directories but have never come across something as refreshing as this. I’d call back just to let my kindergartner hear the duck quack!Another involves a hotel’s automated wake-up call using a script from the British actor Stephen Fry (Jeeves of Jeeves and Wooster fame): “(discreet cough) Good morning. I’m so sorry to disturb you, but it appears to be morning. Very inconvenient, I agree. I believe it is the rotation of the earth that is to blame.”What I appreciate about both of these examples is the fact that when someone was given the option of executing an ordinary, predictable process or doing something unique and different, she chose the path less traveled by. And, as Frost said, “that…made all the difference.”

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