At Your Service: March 26, 2008

Excellence is easy – it sure looks easy when we see people performing various tasks with excellence. Those March Madness NCAA basketball players make shooting hoops look like the easiest thing in the world to do. But, what we are really seeing is the combination of the factors that contribute to excellent performance: planning, preparation, practice, commitment, know-how and innate talent. When they come together, it looks very easy.
It is part of our humanity that we naturally assume that others are like us. We tend to think that if something is easy for us to do, then it must also be easy for others. Nothing however could be further from the truth. One of the reasons we need each other and community is that we are each strong and weak in different places. What is easy for one may be difficult for another and vice versa.
When something is not easy for us, we need help. It is not uncommon, however, for us to have difficulty asking for the help we need. Many have a belief that asking for help is a sign of weakness. Others are willing to ask but do not know who to ask. For still others, the person they want to ask appears to be so busy that they hesitate to interrupt more important work. When we finally make the effort to ask, we sometimes receive more than we really need.
Asking for and receiving the help we need is a fine art. As service providers, one of the most important things we can do for our customers is deliver help in the form and at the time that it is needed.
It is rare that anyone needs help the moment they enter a store. Still, we often enter a store and before we’ve taken a full breath, someone is asking us, “May I help you?” The problem is not in the offer itself, but instead in its timing.
People need a moment to get oriented upon entering an establishment. It takes a few seconds for the eyes to become accustomed to the change in light and for the body to respond to other environmental differences such as heating or air conditioning. Until that adjustment occurs, the mind is not free to focus on anything else. This is why most people enter a building and hesitate before taking a step forward. Smart service providers wait until a customer has clearly acclimated themselves before making an attempt to get their attention.
Excellence does not occur in a void. One of the prime reasons professional athletes tend to break record after record is that they are striving for their personal best in competition with others striving toward the same goal. Their performance is elevated by the presence of others of equal or better caliber. This is contrary to the experience of providing help. When it seems that someone is competing with us (or flaunting how much they know) it interferes with the learning process.
Some of the best helpers in the world are coaches. Watching the NCAA games you can see them standing on the sidelines with eagle eyes on their players. Only when things have gone awry do they step in and stop the progress of a player’s game. At the same time, they are interjecting advice at key moments between plays. It is a balancing act from which we can all learn.
One good way to provide help is to first determine how much the person actually knows. We might ask them what they have already done, or what stopped them from finishing a task. This will tell us what they know and provide an indication of what help they really need. It also saves time, eliminating the time spent explaining what is already obvious to the customer.
Giving and receiving help requires good communications. Whether you are the service provider or the customer, you may find it helpful to listen more than you speak. As the server, wait until your customer indicates that they would welcome some assistance and then answer their questions as directly as possible; as a customer, ask for the help you need and then listen to the information you are given. On either side of the equation, it is always good to remember: two ears…one mouth…no accident.
If something is easy for you, you may be the ideal person to teach it to someone else. If you want to learn how to do something, find someone for whom it is easy and watch them work. Whether you’re a natural or struggling to learn, it is practice that brings improvement and ultimately, excellent performance. In almost every case, with enough practice, you’ll be the one saying, “It’s easy.”