Delivering Excellent and Ethical Customer Service

Jan 24, 2019

By Chip R. Bell

Let me tell you about Mr. Hightower. To put it bluntly, he was not a very nice man. His cold countenance was so tight it appeared even a faint smile would shatter his face. Here’s a story that will paint a clear picture of the man: One night as I was reading a bedtime story to my kid brother, he asked, “What’s a troll?” When I told him that a troll was a very short Mr. Hightower, he immediately understood the imagery. If our family went into town on Saturday, a sidewalk encounter with Mr. Hightower was more frightening than having to walk home alone from grandmother’s house on a dark night.

This was in rural Georgia. Mr. Hightower’s cattle farm was adjacent to our family cattle farm. These farms were comprised of large grazing pastures, their inhabitants confined by unreliable metal fences. Cows generally escaped their incarceration when an elderly tree expired and fell across the fence. For some reason, our cows always ventured north to Mr. Hightower’s front lawn; his cows loitered south along the highway beside our pasture to visit our cows.

The manner in which my dad handled a Hightower cow invasion and how Mr. Hightower handled the exact same scenario was a powerful lesson in the ethics of service. Mr. Hightower called up at first light with a demanding: “Ray, a bunch of your #%@ cows are out again! Get your boys up right now and come get ‘em out of my front yard. They’ve probably eaten my squash.” (Mr. Hightower always forgot that cows don’t eat vegetables).

When my dad spotted Mr. Hightower’s cows taking a joy ride, he never called. He calmly got us up to go with him to return the cows to their proper domicile. But he went one step further. He found the site of their prison break and repaired it. Then he waited until he saw Mr. Hightower in town on Saturday to provide a cordial briefing of the incident. Mr. Hightower never expressed gratitude and always seemed puzzled. But that never mattered to my dad. He knew he had done a good deed, helped retain civility between neighbors, and taught his boys the power of great service.

The Anatomy of Service
What is the act of service, really? We associate it with assistance or help—doing a good deed that benefits someone. However, for such a benefit to matter it must fall outside of the realm of what is routine. When we get our car repaired we bring with our vehicle certain expectations. We expect the work to be done accurately and with limited wait. We expect the mechanic to “clean up after himself”—no grease on our car seat. We also expect that, when we retrieve our repaired vehicle, we’ll have to get out our wallet. We only recall such a standard encounter if the experience either fails to meet our expectations or exceeds our expectations.

Enhancing the worth of the server-to-customer exchange—value-added or value-unique—comes from the spirit of service, an attitude of generosity. If the auto mechanic takes the time to explain the repair in a way that helps prevent a future occurrence, if the service manager leaves an ice-cold bottle of water in the car cup holder, or if the repair bill notes another problem was corrected without charge, we would describe that repair-for-money exchange as “great service” and tell our neighbors or tweet about it to our followers. My dad gave Mr. Hightower a gift. He could have left Mr. Hightower’s cows along the road where they were at risk of being hit by a passing truck. Instead, he generously made a sacrifice to return the cows. Plus, he repaired the fence.

The Best Service Combines Value with Generosity, Hospitality, and Self-protection
Great customer service is more than sacrifice born out generosity. As much as service is about giving, it is also about protecting. My dad knew that if he took Mr. Hightower’s approach to cow invasion, the two would be on the path to a country Georgia version of the Hatfields and McCoys. His service was more than an act of generosity and sacrifice; it was also an act of stewardship. He was giving, but he was also guarding.

Here’s an example from the business world: Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company authorizes employees, including housekeepers, to spend up to $2000 to make sure a hotel guest leaves satisfied. But if you examine that authorization more closely, you learn that prior to empowerment came special training in how to handle situations in a way that minimizes the need for such a costly gesture. Employees are taught to think like owners and “take care of the organization” as they “take care of the customer.” Here’s why: When customers witness acts of generosity that go beyond what they consider appropriate, they worry about the long-term viability of the enterprise. All of Ritz’s associates are as focused on “revpar” (revenue per available room) as they are on their GSI (guest satisfaction index).

Service is also about hospitality. The auto mechanic who does all the right things to add value to the exchange but does it with a negative attitude can cancel out all the benefit. A generous act without a generous manner looks to the customer like a ploy or ruse. Generosity only has power when it is delivered with authenticity and enthusiasm. Mr. Hightower’s cold countenance never changed, but that never stopped my dad from treating him like a valued neighbor. The lesson we kids got was that we had complete control over our attitudes. Since positive feels better than negative, we could choose happy—despite the Mr. Hightowers we encounter in life.
Customer service works when it enriches an exchange. Customers feel valued when a service provider adds something special to an encounter. However, generosity must be coupled with conscientiousness, or contentment turns into caution. And a generous heart without an enthusiastic spirit risks leaving customers believing they have received a gesture without importance and a gift without worth.
You can learn more about how to provide quality customer service at these AMA seminars:
Customer Service Excellence: How to Win and Keep Customers

Customer Retention

About the Author(s)

Chip BellChip R. Bell is renowned keynote speaker, customer loyalty consultant, and author or coauthor of several national bestselling books, including Managing Knock Your Socks Off Service. His newest book is The 9½ Principles of Innovative Service (Simple Truths, 2013). For more information, visit