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Unconditional service

Yesterday, while channel surfing for a college football game, I stumbled upon the reality show Undercover Boss. The episode featured Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen’s Chief Talent Officer, Lynne Zappone, going undercover at several Popeyes locations.

At one restaurant, viewers meet a Popeyes maintenance employee named Doug who’s responsible for the location’s cleanliness. During the segment, Doug reveals that even though his job is perceived by customers to be “at the bottom of the totem pole,” he takes pride in knowing that if the restaurant isn’t clean, customers won’t come back.

He also pointed out while cleaning the exterior of a commercial trash dumpster in the parking lot that, even though the dumpster was not the property of Popeyes, he washes it anyway. Doug justified his actions saying, “I do a lot of things I don’t have to do.”

One of the other things Doug chooses to do is to, out of his own pocket, purchase non-toxic cleaning solutions to use on surfaces that may come in contact with restaurant guests such as tables and door handles. As expected, Ms. Zappone was delighted to discover Doug’s commitment to excellence and compassion for customers.

But viewers learned something else from Doug. While showing Ms. Zappone a watch he received years earlier when he was recognized as the Employee of the Month at his Popeyes restaurant, he lamented that the program had been discontinued. He observed that other quick service restaurants like Burger King and McDonald’s had employee recognition programs and felt that, if reinstated at Popeyes, the Employee of the Month incentive would motivate employees to improve their job performance.

Despite feeling underappreciated by customers and his employer, Doug did a great job. He held himself to a higher standard—his own performance standard. He did not provide service conditionally, as so many employees do (e.g., “If the customer appreciated my efforts, I’d be more responsive” or “If my boss recognized me once in a while, I’d try harder”).

Like unconditional love, where one partner loves another regardless of his or her qualities or actions, unconditional service requires that an employee commit to providing exceptional customer service regardless of the qualities or actions of customers or management.

Does this mean that employees should endure abuse from customers or tolerate exploitation from employers? No. What I’m suggesting is that, in the absence of customer appreciation or a formal employee recognition program, employees should continue to provide the highest possible product and service quality, as Doug modeled, according to their own high standards.

If they choose not to, they’re not only letting down their customers and coworkers, they’re lowering their own performance standards. And that’s a shame because doing so is contagious and habit forming. Nothing good comes from it.

When employees’ performance is contingent on being rewarded by customers or employers, they’re handing over the keys to their attitude and performance. When that happens, it’s a lot like personal relationships that are based on lofty expectations and conditional love: there’s no scenario in which they thrive.

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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