Have you ever wondered why you almost always receive the sandwich you ordered at the deli near your office and, if you paid with cash, the correct change, but seldom receive your order from an energetic employee who smiles, maintains eye contact, and adds enthusiasm to his voice? Where is the extra hint of customer service?
I’ve thought about this dilemma a lot and here’s what I’ve noticed: Most companies do an effective job of training employees and holding them accountable to the proper execution of their assigned job functions–the duties or tasks associated with their job roles. For instance, when checking into a hotel, I’m regularly asked for a valid method of payment. And after I’ve been seated at a fine dining restaurant, I’m frequently presented with a wine list. And the sacker at my local supermarket routinely poses the rote industry greeting, “Paper or plastic?”
Job functions outline what to do and how to do it. They are mandatory and, in most cases, are observable and measurable. Job functions receive a great deal of attention from management, and employees are held accountable to complete them in a manner that is consistent, timely, and accurate.
But job functions only represent one half of an employee’s job role.
The other half of every employee’s job role is job essence. Job essence refers to an employee’s highest priority at work–which, for most service industry employees, is to create delighted customers who will increase the amount and frequency of their spending, and enthusiastically recommend the business to others. Job essence reflects why (from the organization’s perspective) employees do what they do at work. Most of the time, an organization’s why is unknown to its employees. Or, its why is known but is misunderstood or misinterpreted.
Job function is detailed in job descriptions, policies, procedures, protocol, and checklists, whereas job essence is reflected in employees’ personality, creativity, enthusiasm, passion, and unique flair. Displaying job essence, unlike executing job function, is voluntary and, oftentimes, difficult to measure. Because of this, employees in many organizations fail to consistently demonstrate job essence, devoting more of their energy and attention to the proper execution of their job functions.
When I ask five employees with the same job title what they do and how they do it, 80 percent of their responses are similar. This is no surprise since these employees are describing their job functions. However, when I ask the same five employees why (from the organization’s perspective) they do it, 80 percent of their responses differ.
Awareness is key. People don’t know what they don’t know.
The first thing to do to increase awareness and improve the quality of customer service in any business is to ask employees this question: Would you describe for me, from your perspective, what you do–what your job entails?
When I pose this question to employees in my consulting work, the responses I receive almost always apply exclusively to their job functions.
Consider, for example, my latest conversation with a supermarket employee:
Me: Pardon me. Do you mind if I ask you what you do–what your job entails?
Employee: Are you from corporate headquarters or something?
Me: No. I’m just interested in what you do.
Employee: Well, my main job is to sack groceries, but when we’re not busy, I bring in shopping carts from the parking lot and sweep the store. Sometimes I have to check prices or clean up spills. That’s about it.
Every action mentioned relates to job function. Rarely do employees reference actions or behaviors pertaining to job essence, which, ironically, should be their highest priority at work.
Although it didn’t come up during my informal interview with the supermarket employee, the essence of his job role might be to create a delighted customer who would sing the praises of his supermarket. In order to accomplish this, the employee must properly execute his job functions in addition to consistently displaying job essence. There are countless ways to achieve this, such as:
Expressing genuine interest in customers by offering assistance when noticing a perplexed customer peering down a long aisle or scanning a store directory
Displaying a sense of urgency when verifying the price of a grocery item that’s in dispute
Paying attention to detail while sweeping the sales floor
Anticipating the needs of customers by bagging delicate food items separately such as eggs and loaves of fresh bread
Conveying authentic enthusiasm for serving customers by adding a bounce to his step and energy to his voice
Over the years, I’ve observed that while employees consistently execute mandatory job functions for which they are paid, they inconsistently display voluntary job essence for which there is little or no additional cost.
So, even as a supermarket employee asks, Would you prefer paper or plastic bags? (executing a mandatory job function for which he is paid), if he fails to smile, make eye contact, add enthusiasm to his voice, or in some other way appear interested and engaged (demonstrating voluntary job essence for which there is no additional cost to his employer), then he has missed an opportunity to connect with his customer and make a lasting positive impression.
The reason that employees tend to view their jobs strictly in terms of job function is pretty clear: Job function is results-oriented. Managers are interested in results. Job function is doing what you are told. Managers appreciate compliance. Job function is doing what’s expected. Managers don’t like surprises.
Energy flows where attention goes. Until managers actively model, recognize, and reward job essence in the same way they do job function, achieving results will take priority over establishing relationships, compliance will trump initiative, and customer service will be characterized by routine and predictable transactions.
Where is your attention going?
For more insights and business strategies, sign up for our free leadership newsletter, Leader’s Edge.
Steve Curtin is the author of Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary (AMACOM Books, 2013).
He wrote the book to address the following observation: While employees consistently execute mandatory job functions for which they are paid, they inconsistently demonstrate voluntary customer service behaviors for which there is little or no additional cost to their employers.
After a 20-year career with Marriott International, Steve now devotes his time to speaking, consulting, and writing on the topic of extraordinary customer service. He lives in Denver with his wife and their four children.