At Your Service: August 5, 2009

Rules are the wrap that holds the fabric of any organized system together. As members of families, companies and communities, our participation is dependent upon our mutual agreement to abide by the rules. Laws and rules define that which is prohibited, leaving everything else to us as a possibility.
We can go anywhere we want, but there are penalties if we drive faster than the designated speed limit. Because the speed limit changes from place to place, municipalities are mandated to post signs and we to read them. A reminder of this reality is the content of the most common advisory given to those driving into the area along Route 28 – the speed limit is the limit.
Similarly, our employment hinges to some extent on our agreement to arrive and stay for a certain period of time. We conform to dress codes and behavior patterns as is “appropriate” to the business or industry. Our performance is gauged according to our compliance with certain behavior norms.
Even the expectations of our customers are linked to their understanding of customer service “rules of engagement.”
Generally, we are most pleased with those service providers who smile when they greet us, provide direct answers to our questions and treat us respectfully throughout the transaction.
Nonetheless, when people are making reservations at one local popular eatery, the waitress they are most likely to request is none of the above. Our unnamed friend breaks all the rules for appropriate customer service behavior and generates loyalty that others envy. How does she do it?
When greeting customers, she is just as likely to smirk, “You again,” as she is to give you a warm welcome. Ask her a question and chances are the response will be filled with irony or satire. She is a master of the “smart ass” brand of customer service made famous by Lindy’s. While I have never seen her behave in a way that is outright disrespectful to customers, she walks right up to the line, looks the rules in the eye and is not the one blinking first.
What makes it possible for her to break so many rules and win is a combination of her attention to detail and her willingness to be intimate without being invasive – in short, she knows her customers (even the new ones).
By closely observing the behavior of customers, she is able to anticipate needs others would miss. The second time you order a cocktail, she remembers the specifications you designated before. She remembers that I don’t like ice in my water and makes sure that whoever is on refill duty knows that. Reading the mood at a table, she adjusts the level of attention she gives a table to enable more or less privacy to her guests.
I can still remember the very first time she waited on me, which is years ago now. When I asked what she recommended, her response was a series of questions about my preferences. Having really listened to my answers, she then told me what I would like and probably dislike about the night’s specials. Then and now, she makes “special” recommendations that are spot-on.
She knows when to break the rules and uses her formidable sense of humor to bridge the gap. It is a lesson learned by all those who are the best at what they do. The rules exist to facilitate order and efficiency; what remains is the fodder of possibility and effectiveness. Those who aspire to excellence know that there are also times when the rules are meant to be broken.
As confirmation of this simple truth, I paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr.’s words from his letter to the nation from jail. “Everything that was done by Hitler was legal; while the actions of Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, Adams, et al, was against the laws of their times.” At every level, from the mundane tasks of our daily lives to those concerns that impact us all, we get to choose which rules to keep and which to break.