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“But I do everything I’m supposed to do.”

Yesterday I met with Zane, a manager of a fast-casual restaurant. During our conversation, he shared some of the recurring challenges he faces in trying to elevate customer service at his restaurant.

One frustration he disclosed was the inability of his staff (with the exception of one or two “superstars”) to consistently provide exceptional customer service. According to Zane, when he challenges employees to “try a little harder” to provide exceptional customer service, the majority reply, “But I do everything I’m supposed to do.”

This response is quite telling and, I believe, holds the key to whether or not customer service quality will improve at his restaurant.

You see, the above employee lament highlights the mandatory aspect of job functions that are required of employees’ job roles—those tasks or duties that are expected by customers; that they’re supposed to do. Absent from this remark is anything that is not required, unexpected, and voluntary—what I refer to as job essence.

Most employees consistently execute mandatory job functions (that are expected by customers; that they are supposed to do) but inconsistently demonstrate voluntary job essence (that is unexpected by customers; that employees choose to do). This explains why you and I seldom receive exceptional customer service: Because it’s voluntary. Employees don’t have to deliver it. And most don’t.

The reason that Zane is challenged by staff who consistently deliver hot food hot and cold food cold (job function) but inconsistently express genuine interest in customers or convey authentic enthusiasm in serving them (job essence) is because most operations (and the supervisors who oversee them) focus predominantly on job functions and the efficiencies associated with them in order to reduce costs and increase profits.

In Zane’s restaurant, it’s not uncommon for employees to receive feedback on and be held accountable to menu knowledge, following procedure, completing their sidework, and other job functions. And it’s unlikely that a day will go by that he doesn’t scrutinize operational metrics associated with job function: average check, food costs, inventories, productivity, profitability, etc.

That’s what managers do, right?

I told Zane that I understand the importance of job function. (Really, I do. You can’t run a business without it. And you can’t provide exceptional customer service without it. No guest at his restaurant wants an undercooked entrée delivered with a smile.) But job function is only half an employee’s job. The other half, job essence—which is often neglected by employees and managers alike—is missing in most employee interactions that customers would describe as routine, uneventful, and transactional.

Managers: Remind your employees daily through modeling, feedback, pre-shift meetings, etc. that excellence lies not in what’s expected and required (what they’re supposed to do) but in what’s unexpected and voluntary (what they choose to do), such as: anticipating needs, paying attention to detail, displaying a sense of urgency, following-up, etc.

And therein lies the key: Exceptional customer service (in Zane’s restaurant and your place of business) is always voluntary. Always.

Feel free to comment. But you don’t have to. Just like delivering exceptional customer service, it’s your choice.

Illustration: Aaron McKissen

Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.
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