At Your Service: Feb. 11, 2009

Animals, from the most feral to the human variety, when in the wild, sleep in formations that enable protection from predators; hence the phrase, “I’ve got your back.” Even in our most civilized forms, we still need one another to see that which we cannot see ourselves. Feedback is one of the most critical elements of community.
It has evolved that we are relatively free with feedback that we believe will help someone to improve some aspect of their life. Parents point out that we are slumping hoping we will stand up straight. Teachers tell us about the many things we don’t know, testing us to ensure that we are learning. On the job, our supervisor will point out every mistake. Friends will pull us aside so that we can remove the wayward piece of spinach lodged between our teeth. There seems to be no end to the many sources of “constructive criticism” that will enable us to be and do our best.
Generally speaking, we are not as likely to tell people when they are doing a great job. We don’t want their heads to swell, or feed the ever-starving ego. Yet, we have seen and know from our own experience, that the only sure way to improve is to know the precise moment when we are doing something in the “perfect” way. While results will tell us whether something is working toward whatever goal we are trying to achieve, they will not tell us how much better we might be.
Positive reinforcement is the surest way to enable people to do their best. Coaches observe their athletes and point out the moment when some action is taken in just the right way. The athlete can then begin to make the distinction for themselves of what it feels like when they are doing it right; and their speed improves as a result. Feedback enables more effective results.
I took this lesson to heart many years ago when I observed in the training room that all students learned a lesson when one person served as an example. AND (big and), they learned best when the person serving as the example was being praised for doing something correctly. This observation led me to develop a practice of telling people when I observed something positive about them. So, I’m the one who gives compliments to perfect strangers when I think they are dressed nicely or their haircut is flattering to their face. I thank people for doing things that make a difference in my life. I sometimes simply tell someone that I admire the way they handled a certain situation. While I don’t do it as often as I would like, it has taken me into a host of interesting situations and given me much food for thought.
I have found that people often don’t know what to say in response to positive feedback. They seem to be well equipped with responses to criticism but are often baffled by the kind word. Some people assume I want something from them; others are embarrassed by positive attention. Yet, whatever their initial reaction, they ultimately smile at the recognition and are thankful that someone took the time to let them know that something they are doing elicited a positive response. Everyone wants to make a difference in some way.
This practice led to my creating the Catskill Best Service Awards, now in its 11th-year and included elsewhere in this week’s paper. The voting affords readers the opportunity to provide local businesses with the feedback they need to know that their customers are satisfied.
Service and any determination of its quality, is completely subjective. One customer may think you and your staff are the model of excellence, while another will find some action you take to be an unfortunate response to a situation. The expectations of one customer may be easy for you to meet while another will seem unrealistically demanding. Every service provider will have a mixed bag of customer responses to how you do what you do. The awards serve as one form of feedback about how your customers feel. Those receiving awards can interpret winning as positive feedback about the quality of service they deliver.