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CoachWoodenJohn Wooden, the legendary former UCLA basketball coach, said, “Don’t confuse activity with achievement.”

This insightful quote reminds me of the common misunderstanding plaguing service industry employees (management and non-management) everywhere: they confuse activity (executing job function) with excellence (demonstrating job essence).

So many managers race to their superiors with spreadsheets that reflect accuracy, efficiency, and productivity, basking in the affirmation received (usually by executives who are a management level or two removed from real, live customers). But the spreadsheets only tell half the story (the half resulting from job function). The other half of the story (resulting from job essence) is told by customers. But not everyone listens to customers…

Why does management tend to gravitate to spreadsheets and the familiar results of job function? The primary reason is because these metrics are objective. As such, they are simple to quantify. Managers can check their math and take confidence in the numbers. These results are also expected by management and other stakeholders. (After all, they were forecasted and budgeted months earlier.) And they are mandatory, measuring the results of what employees must execute at work—what they are paid to do.

Not so with job essence. Job essence is often subjective. As such, it is difficult to quantify. Managers are uncomfortable with ambiguity. And unlike job function, job essence is unexpected by customers and is voluntarily demonstrated by employees, reflecting those qualities (e.g., energy, enthusiasm, flair, etc.) that employees choose to display—for no additional cost.

I recently received an email from a blog reader that summarized a negative experience she had with an employee of a wireless carrier. Instead of accepting responsibility for a mishap and offering to resolve the issue, the representative she dealt with was defensive, took the situation personally, and retaliated against her.

As the employee blindly adhered to company policy (which is often worded to protect the financial interests of the company, not the consumer), he was dutifully executing job function and, in so doing, was likely affirmed by management. The numbers for his location (at least for the immediate fiscal period) will look incrementally better with each financial concession he deters.

But if we consider the big picture (beyond near-term results), it’s not quite as rosy for the company. Here’s why: This blog reader has already shared her negative encounter with me and probably several others (only she’s naming the company and location in question). Her loyalty to the brand is likely neutral at best—meaning that when an opportunity to defect presents itself, she won’t hesitate to leave. She’s also less apt to take advantage of the carrier’s promotions during her contract period because of her dissatisfaction with the company’s customer service. These promotions are designed to increase sales. If she’s choosing to ignore them, well, they’re not accomplishing their goals.

Had the employee chosen (it’s always a choice) to demonstrate job essence (e.g., expressed genuine interest in the customer by making eye contact, listening, and responding empathetically; provided a pleasant surprise by proposing an appropriate concession; or delivered service heroics by going above and beyond…), he likely would have created a promoter who would sing the company’s praises to whoever would listen, be fiercely loyal to the brand, and at least consider the various pitches made by the company to add this or that feature to her mobile plan.

Don’t confuse job function with job essence and, just as Coach Wooden did with his players, you can achieve disproportionate success with your customers.

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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