Category Archives: Customer Service

Two Japanese Words

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Any time I talk about customer service, I have to break out two of my favorite Japanese words, commonly used in the world of Lexus: kaizen and omotenashi. Kaizen means continuous improvement, an ongoing passion for personal and professional development. It goes without saying that any conversation about customer service will require a constant pursuit of offering better service today than we did yesterday. We must read, learn, try new things. Omotenashi is a little trickier to explain, as I don’t know that there is a true English equivalent.

Omotenashi loosely translated means hospitality, but it really is a stronger version of it. Imagine that your favorite celebrity is going to visit your home: think about how you would put out your best dishes, purchase fresh flowers, and prepare their favorite foods. This level of service is anticipatory, offering amenities which the guest doesn’t even know they want or need. It is a hospitality level designed to delight the guest, help them feel at ease, and create lasting memories. For a company aspiring to the utmost level of the customer experience, one can easily sense that omotenashi is the ideal goal.

In thinking of customer service in this way, I am reminded of the motto held by the Ritz Carlton: We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen. I love this phrase, because it conveys a sense of manners and graciousness. It implies that it is an honor to serve others (which it truly is). When I hear about a situation involving a heated debate with a customer or coworker, I think of this motto. Keeping a poised demeanor is absolutely essential, and the more that we maintain our decorum, the calmer the other person will pick up on our dignified presentation and respond in-kind.

In addition to these two concepts, I am unable to discuss customer service without mentioning employee engagement. I believe with my full heart that there can be no ongoing culture of exemplary guest service without a conscious commitment to the internal customer, the associate. It is not realistic to expect team members to be superstars of omotenashi and kaizen without a direct supervisor who embraces those same values. Of the 8-10 responsibilities I have at the dealership, the one which is my absolute priority is caring for the 5 employees for whom I am responsible. I cannot do anything else unless I know that they are ok, and that they have everything they need for the day. I work extra hours to accommodate special schedule requests, ask them about life events, keep communication lines open about their duties and tell them I appreciate them. As we have built our relationship over the years, they have rewarded me with a loyalty that impresses me daily. These amazing individuals provide anticipatory service to the Jim Hudson Lexus customers, seeing things that need to be done for them and jumping in without having to be asked. Ours is a relationship of the utmost level of mutual respect; we watch out for one another and safeguard a positive work experience. When guests comment on the friendliness and service extended by my department, I feel that it is a direct reflection on how they feel about their job.

It has been said that how one feels about their job is 90% related to how one feels about their supervisor. This is why I take my leadership responsibilities so seriously. Considering how much time we spend at work, I have the power to impact someone’s daily life in a significant way. I am sure that John Mackey of the Whole Foods organization concurs: “If you are lucky enough to be someone’s employer, then you have a moral obligation to make sure people do look forward to coming to work in the morning.”

The best way to fulfill this obligation is to lead by example. If I instruct my team to be punctual, well-groomed, polite, attentive, hard-working…then I myself must demonstrate those attributes in excess of the level I expect from them. If I am encouraging kaizen and ongoing learning, then I must pursue it, as well. My team and I help one another to be better employees, and by extension, better human beings. As we sustain an elevated level of courtesy and graciousness in our environment, that same optimistic attitude begins to ooze into our personal lives, with positive results. We become a blessing to one another.

Being a blessing to someone is at the core of everything I choose to do in my life. It has become my mission statement, informing every interaction at home, work or in the community. The cool thing about having a personal mission statement is that it simplifies decisions. Anytime I am overwhelmed or in doubt, I ask myself how I can be a blessing to the other person, and the answers and actions flow from that. Followers of my blog will recall how I came to discover this mission statement a couple of years ago, but perhaps do not realize how transformative it has become. Be a Blessing Blog By asking myself how to be a blessing to others, it brings personal significance to the customer service I extend. I want to bring the most beautiful aspects of omotenashi to the guest in front of me in each moment, and I am rewarded with a feeling of actually being in love with my job. I go home each night knowing that the work I am doing is my life’s purpose, and it is more fulfilling than any career I could have imagined for myself 30 years ago when I helped my first customer in my first job almost 40 years ago.

While there are still moments of incredible stress and frustration in my work life, I cannot imagine doing anything else, for any other company, as long as I am physically able to work. Customer service positions have to be the most challenging and difficult of any jobs today, but by embracing two small Japanese words and coming up with a mission statement that resonates for you, I can testify that even a job you have had for many years can become new, fresh, and amazing.

 

Don’t Send the Bear

I follow a blog about a guy who knits. I subscribed after reading his book, Mad Man Knitting, a mesmerizing tale of a waiter who worked at one of the most successful restaurants in the country, and then lost everything when it closed. The author was homeless for a while, living in deplorable conditions with little to eat and few support systems. Documenting his experience in vivid detail, he writes about how he slowly started scrounging an existence from- of all things- knitting. He knits the most adorable bears, writes about the textures and colors of the yarns, takes a photo and then sells them. In addition to his passion for knitting bears, writing forms his other creative outlet. His prolific output dwarfs the rest of the blogging world, with weekly and sometimes daily posts. He seems to have a lot to say and a lot of time in which to say it.

Mad Man Knitting Blog Link

One might think that the Mad Man Knitter-aka Gregory Patrick-is a similar tale to that of Porkchop Zimmerman from my last blog. They both suffered and found contentment through their art. They both produce an abundance of work, high quality stuff, well-received and inspiring to many. Both seem to still struggle a bit financially in spite of their modest celebrity status. Both personal journeys are fascinating to me. I have pretty much stopped reading the Knitting blog, however. And the reason, surprisingly, is customer service.

While Leonard “Porkchop” Zimmerman is at home with his mom sending free Happy stickers to anyone who requests them, Mr. Patrick has a long list of unsatisfied customers who sent in money for his adorable bears, only to receive nothing in return. If you read enough of his blogs, far enough back, you will find where he gets overwhelmed by the angry messages from customers who want their money back. The problem is that he has already spent the money and doesn’t have it to send.

It’s a cruel joke, really, because he constantly posts photos of new and adorable bears which he has just created, encouraging you to buy them because he only has beans and rice to eat. You are in love with the bear and empathetic to the artist’s plight. What you do not realize, however, is that you may or may not actually receive the product. Most people assume that even a backlog of orders would eventually be fulfilled. This is not the case. Some of us have ordered a bear, hoping to own this soft, adorable symbol of resilience through adversity, only to grow weary of waiting for its arrival.

I have to tell you that there seems to be a bit of randomness to order fulfillment. If Mr. Patrick knows you, or you happened to order a bear when he had postage money on hand, you receive a well-crafted and huggable bear. The rest of you, well…not so much. Sorry.

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In his defense, I knew the risk when I ordered. I had read blogs about his angry customers before I even sent in my money. I thought that the other customers were just impatient people, that they didn’t fully understand this struggling artist, and I empathized with Mr. Patrick in his plight to learn to manage a small business after only recently getting off of the streets. I assumed that eventually, a bear would arrive, and it would be an inspiring symbol to me, one I would set out to view daily. I would see it and think about the man who lost everything and learned to rebuild again. It would be a reminder to appreciate the little things, like a simple meal of beans and rice. It would serve as a gesture of solidarity with the blogging world. I was resolute to never contact him with inquiries about when to expect the bear, and prided myself that I would be the patient bear-adopter who waited kindly for my future fuzzy friend.

And then time passed. And then more time passed. So much time passed that I began to view myself as a bit of a sucker, and I decided to write off my purchase as a monetary gift to a stranger (he accepts donations in support of his blog). It wasn’t a lot of money and I didn’t need the bear. The sad thing is that I would have paid twice what I sent to receive it, and had plans to order many more. I eventually realized that I didn’t want the bear. The adorable yarn face would now represent disappointment and broken promises. I hoped that the bear would never arrive. And it never did. It’s been over 2 years since the order, and I’ve long since moved from where I lived when I placed it. He couldn’t send it now if he wanted to.

All of this is OK. I mean no ill will to Knitting Guy, and still admire his crafts. Although I have no interest in reading the blog or receiving the bear, I still think there was a message of tenacity in his story. But my inability to acquire a bear makes me appreciate Leonard Zimmerman even more, the artist who found a way to fund his passion and fulfill his promise to his fans: you have been there for me, and I will be there for you.

I think I’ll order some Happy stickers.

Be a Blessing

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I had never cared much for the expression, “be a blessing” to someone, but now it is all I think about. It pops into my head at random daily moments, such as when the kid who bags my groceries tells me to have a nice day. At first, I am tempted to give a quick closed-mouth smile or a cursory, “you too.” Something clicks, and it occurs to me that I need make an effort to be earnest in that moment. So I work up my most genuine smile, make eye contact, and tell him that I hope he has a super day, as well. My previous automatic response and my new heart-felt one seem the same on the surface, but I feel strangely better knowing that I’ve tried to jam all of the sincerity I can corral and place it on a platter in front of a stranger I may never see again. In doing so, the “be a blessing” phrase pops in my head, and a new habit slowly forms.

Now that this habit is taking root, it is shocking to see how many similar opportunities bubble to the surface, and how pleased I am to try to rise to the challenge. It forces me to “be in the moment”- another phrase I am reconsidering- because in order to be a blessing to someone, you have to be conscious and focus. You cannot be a bright spot in a fellow human being’s day if you are distracted. Grumpy moods also fall away with a genuine desire to be kind.

Kindness is at the heart of being a blessing, and it really is easier than I thought to simply make an effort. We all could surely use more niceness in our lives, with so much stress tossed at us from all angles. Holding doors open, tipping a little more generously, offering compliments, remembering to ask about a co-worker’s sick mom, buying someone a biscuit in the morning: all of these gestures only require me to briefly stop thinking about myself and let the other person’s happiness take priority.  The more I serve others, the more I acquiesce to the tenet that it is an honor to do so. I’m thinking of tweaking my personal mission statement.

This new mindset came about in a strange way: at the end of an employee interview. I was screening someone for a position in our sales department, a tall female in a tight black skirt and a silky, tan, low-cut, sleeveless blouse. From the moment I saw her, I did not want to like her. I knew that my boss would be displeased at her presentation style, with her painted talon-length fingernails, artificial hair color and distracting false eyelashes. I was immediately exhausted at the prospect of having to coach another female on how to dress in a more “Lexus-like, conservative business attire”, only to find that they never truly convert to our culture’s severely subdued fashion requirements.

My superficial judgments waned as the conversation with the talon-fingered candidate progressed, because I couldn’t help but admire her devotion to a point of view based on integrity. She simply wanted to work at a place where she would be encouraged to offer remarkable customer service. She was striving to succeed in a professional environment where everyone subscribes to the ethics of honest selling. She looked me in the eyes and she listened to everything I said. I was beginning to overlook the fashion blunders.

I was also slightly endeared to her because she was nervous. If she seemed slightly fidgety during the interview, she was downright rattled by the end. It was as if she fell in love with the job after hearing details about the dealership, and the significance of our dialogue increased exponentially with each passing minute. As I left her in the care of another manager, she effused gratitude at what she called my “great kindness”. She made it seem that I had done something beyond just ask some questions about her skills, that I had perhaps given her some life-changing gift.

The only gift I had given her was complete honesty in the interview, sharing everything that mattered in that moment. I told her what is impressive about our dealership, and what is challenging. I gave her a glimpse of what she could expect from me if things proceeded to the next level; I told her my strengths and weaknesses. I let her know that the talons would likely need trimming, and conveyed the pressures that come with working in a luxury environment. I said that I expected her to take ownership of mistakes, and promised that I would do likewise. Her gratitude for this honesty took me my surprise. I have been this frank with candidates in the past, and they always received the information as commonplace. At the end of this conversation, though, I walked away feeling that I had been a blessing to her. She nervously expected a difficult interview, and instead experienced a straightforward dialogue.

The thing about being a blessing to someone, however, is that both parties receive happiness. I walked away from that interview with a new inspiration that has stayed with me ever since. Others smile more brightly at me when I give them my sincere cheerfulness, and I become increasingly addicted to the high of being a blessing to…well, anyone. Friends, family, coworkers, customers, store clerks and servers  are all candidates for my new-found mission. Mind you, I am not taking on a new personality, and realize the limits that my serious disposition pose in the face of this new approach. The outgoing perky gene is just not in my DNA. But if small tokens of goodwill are all that is required to being a blessing to others, and it feels this good to do it, that is a habit worth embracing.

Acceptance for Blamers

I have been working with the public since I was 15;  I have been managing people since I was 24. On top of that, I was single for 30 years. These are the credentials I offer for claiming to know the most fundamental truth of all human interaction: Anything we hope to accomplish in life comes down to accountability. Regardless of personality or beliefs or socioeconomic status, all individuals fall into one of two categories: those who take ownership of their experiences, and those who blame everything on external forces. For the sake of this blog, I am going to call the latter group “blamers”, and the former group “normal people”. I hope you will forgive me for sounding judgmental. I’m actually pleading a case for blamer acceptance.

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There is a book called, “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)”, which explains the mindset of the blamers. Apparently they suffer from “cognitive dissonance”, which is a fancy way of saying that they lie to themselves because they couldn’t cope with the truth of their own failures. I won’t go too deeply into why they can’t cope, because it doesn’t interest me, and because it is enough to know that these blamers are out there, with their fancy-sounding disorder. For whatever reason, they are completely incapable of the one sentence that normal people say on a regular basis: “Well, I messed that up. I’ll do better next time.”

Blamers don’t realize that admitting a mistake is not a big deal. It’s like they are stuck in the third grade, when all kids lie about who glued a frog to the teacher’s desk or who jammed their gum into the pencil sharpener. It is unfortunate, really, because people admire a person who is not ashamed to apologize and offer to make amends. Blamers think their self-worth is tied to their mis-steps, and after too many hits, the ego cannot do anything but regress into the old habit of pointing the finger. It doesn’t matter where the finger points- another person, the weather, a broken computer-as long as there is a reason for their error that takes the ownership off of them.

Here is the main “take-away” for you, dear reader, and I want you take it in slowly and pause for reflection. You cannot change a blamer or tell them that they are a blamer. By definition, they could not accept that fact. You cannot argue with them, reason with them or help them improve. Their lives belong to the wind or the random chaos that surrounds them. They do not believe they can improve their lives, and therefore if you attach yourself to them, you need to accept that a certain amount of randomness will impact you. Let them experience their own consequences without trying to save them or get wrapped up into their stories. The “drama queens” of the world are all blamers, and they all ironically claim to hate drama.

The only strategy that will save your sanity is to be able to recognize a blamer, control your emotional attachment to their issues (which they always have), and focus on their positive attributes. For example, when dealing with a “blamer” customer, who often likes to go on and on about the bad things that happened to them, just stay calm and focus on the solution. “Let’s not worry about why things went wrong,” you can calmly offer, “let’s just focus on moving forward in a positive way.” When you demonstrate enough confidence and reassurance (often through repeating the above line in what is called the ‘broken record’ technique), the blamer will eventually calm down and revert back to their core personality, which is frequently quite charming.

So when at all possible, surround yourself with people who will own or even embrace their flaws. Making mistakes is a beautiful thing. Be gentle with the blamers, understand that they are just hard-wired that way, and appreciate their good qualities. Recognizing and understanding these two types of people will simplify your interactions and minimize the drama in your own life. Now that’s what I call a fundamental truth.