Mr. Hightower was not a very nice man. His cold countenance was so tight it appeared even a faint smile would shatter his face. I was reading a bedtime story to my kid brother and he asked, “What’s a troll?” When I told him that a troll was a very short Mr. Hightower, he immediately understood the imagery. If our family went to town on Saturday, a sidewalk encounter with Mr. Hightower was more frightening than having to walk home alone on a dark night from grandmother’s house.
Mr. Hightower’s cattle farm was adjacent to our family cattle farm in South Georgia. Cattle farms were comprised of large grazing pastures, their inhabitants confined by unreliable fences. Cows generally escaped their incarceration when an elderly tree expired and fell across the fence. For some reason our cows always ventured north to Mr. Hightower’s front lawn; his cows loitered south along the highway beside our pasture to visit our cows.
The manner my dad handled a Hightower cow invasion and how Mr. Hightower handled the exact same scenario was a powerful lesson in the ethics of service. Mr. Hightower called up at first light with a demanding: “Ray, a bunch of your #%@ cows are out again! Get your boys up right now and come get ‘em out of my front yard. They’ve probably eaten my squash.” Mr. Hightower always forgot cows don’t eat vegetables.
When my dad spotted Mr. Hightower’s cows taking a joy ride, he never called. He calmly got us up to go with him to return the cows to their proper domicile. But, he went one step further. He found the site of their prison break and repaired it. He waited until he saw Mr. Hightower on Saturday uptown to provide a cordial briefing of the incident. Mr. Hightower never expressed gratitude and always seemed puzzled. But, it never mattered to my dad. He knew he had done a good deed, helped retain civility between neighbors, and taught his boys the power of service.
A Service Prelude
What is the act of service, really? We associate it with assistance or help– doing a good deed that benefits another. However, for such a benefit to matter it must fall outside of the realm of routine. When you take your car in to be repaired you bring with your vehicle certain service expectations. You expect the work to be done accurately and with a limited wait time. You expect the mechanic to “clean up after himself” –no grease on your car seat. You also expect when you retrieve your repaired vehicle to have to get out your wallet. As customers, we only recall such a standard encounter if the experience fails to meet our expectations or exceeds our expectations.
Enhancing the worth of the server-to-customer exchange—value-added or value-unique—comes from the spirit of generosity. If the auto mechanic takes the time to explain the repair in a way that helps prevent a future occurrence, if the service writer leaves an ice-cold bottle of water in the car cup holder, or if the repair bill notes another problem was corrected without charge, we would describe that repair-for-money exchange as “great service” and tell our neighbors. My dad gave Mr. Hightower a gift. He could have left Mr. Hightower’s cows along the road at risk of being hit by a passing truck. Instead, he generously made a sacrifice to return the cows plus repair the fence.
However, service is more than sacrifice born out generosity. As much as service is about giving, it is also about protecting. My dad knew that if he took Mr. Hightower’s approach to cow invasion, the two would be on the path to a South Georgia version of the Hatfields and McCoys. His service was more than an act of generosity and sacrifice; it was also an act of stewardship. He was giving; he was also guarding.
Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company authorizes employees, including housekeepers, to spend up to $2000 to make sure a hotel guest leaves satisfied. But, if you examine that authorization closer, you learn that prior to empowerment came special training in how to handle situations in a way that minimized the need for such a costly gesture. Employees were taught to think like owners and “take care of the organization” as they were “taking care of the customer.” When customers witness acts of generosity that go beyond what they consider appropriate, they worry about the long-term viability of the enterprise. All of Ritz’s associates are as focused on RevPAR (revenue per available room) as they are on their GSI (guest satisfaction index).
Service is also about hospitality. The auto mechanic who does all the right things to add value to the exchange but does it with a negative attitude can cancel out all the benefit. A generous act without a generous manner looks to the customer like a ploy or ruse. Generosity only has power when it is delivered with authenticity and enthusiasm. Mr. Hightower’s cold countenance never changed. But, that never stopped my dad from treating him like a valued neighbor. The lesson we got was the fact that we had complete control over our attitudes. Since positive feels better than negative, we could choose happy despite the Mr. Hightowers we encountered in life.
Service works when it enriches exchanges. Customers feel valued when the experience a service provider delivers something special to the encounter. But generous must be coupled with conscientiousness or it turns contentment into caution. And, a generous heart without an enthusiastic spirit risks leaving customers believing they have received a gesture without importance and a gift without worth.
The Service Postlude
The Hightower saga was also a lesson in principled service. It telegraphed to my family the nobility of service–encounters laced with goodness, kindness, and compassion. It gave us insulation from a world too often filled with avarice and self-centeredness. It provided guidance in how to nurture long-term relationships. And, it ensured we arrived at adulthood with a sense of character and moral courage.
All leaders walk in a floodlight. How leaders handle the Mr. Hightowers of the world trumpets their values and reveals their interpersonal manners. And, when they take the high ground, they solidify the ground under the feet of their employees. When they demonstrate respect and benevolence, they bolster a space of safety and strength. Ethics is far more than morality—it is the very substance of all relationships.