I know I keep talking about that trip I took to Portland in February, but bear with me one more time, because a conversation I had there keeps coming back to me, and it’s resonating with me even more now that we’re immersed in a hiring process.
Part of the gig that took me to Portland was a kind of professional speed-dating event with undergrads at my alma mater, Reed College. It was the kind of thing where college students get to have 5 minutes of your time to ask questions that will hopefully give them insight into the world of work that lay beyond the walls of the ivory tower.
In preparation, I was asked to submit a brief professional profile. There were questions about my background, my post-Reed education, etc, and also one of those questions along the lines of “If you could give soon-to-be graduates one bit of advice, what would it be?”
My response to that was “Get a service job and stick with it for a while. Wait tables. Sling coffee. Fill up gas tanks at the local Texaco. Work in a bookstore. Anything.”
Note: Hard Work Usually Comes *Before* the Payoff
During that speed-dating event, a student scheduled 5 minutes of my time just to ask this question (and I’m not at all exaggerating, which is admittedly rare for me): “Why should I get a service job? I want a prestigious job.”
Quote, unquote. A 22-ish-year old student with almost no work experience, and, if I recall, a BA in fine art, had her sites set upon a “prestigious job,” and didn’t seem to grok that she might have to bust her a$$ in the trenches for a while to get there.
After gracelessly picking my jaw up off the table, I gave her some insight into why I think it’s important – among other great lessons, she might learn a little humility.
But since then, the importance of a service orientation has been on my mind a lot. We’re hiring. We’re focusing on gelling our company culture so that even while we build the company, we can all continue to be proud of it every day. We’re dealing with an influx of work that is making it more challenging to maintain the same level of service we like to offer while we staff up.
These things all keep bringing me back to the value of a service orientation for a company like New Why, and for every one of the supersmart wondernerds that work here (and that will work here, for any of you aspiring superheroes that may be reading).
And still, sometimes, it occurs to me that a lot of folks don’t get why a service orientation is absolutely required to do the kind of work we do at the level we do it.
Service As Leadership
The curt truth of the matter is that most of our clients do not understand technology like we do. They need help making the right decisions for their companies, and they need guidance in understanding the stuff involved – from process to programming.
If they didn’t need that help, they wouldn’t need us. It’s easy to forget that when you’re the kind of person that people might call a supersmart wondernerd.
The stereotype of the over-confident and condescending tech geek is a stereotype for a reason. He’s the guy that tries to fix the problem before you’ve explained it, whose ego overshadows your problem, and who usually leaves things worse off than he found them, but is clueless about your experience of him as horrible.
After all, he fixed what he thought was your problem. I suspect you’ve all encountered this character. And I suspect that most of you really hope you never have to again. I hope you never have to, either.
There are literally billions of web dev shops all over the world (exaggeration, maybe) and plenty in Denver that can get the job done to some varying degree of satisfaction.
But what makes shops like us a little bit different is that we try to do so with our eye focused on 2 things at the same time: quality craftsmanship and exceptional service.
That exceptional service requires a lot of humility, a lot of patience, and a lot of question asking. These are probably not traits you associate with your last company’s IT guy.
This kind of approach requires us to spend a lot more time understanding problems, so that we can solve them more efficiently and completely.
Sounds Hard. Why bother?
New Why has invested a lot of time and effort into building strong community networks and a meaningful reputation for great websites for nonprofits and websites for businesses. We’re not the most expensive shop in town by a long, long shot, but we’re not an Eastern European bargain shop either.
The value we deliver isn’t just in beautiful code (though it is there, too), but in thoughtful attention to our clients’ needs. To deliver the kind of websites and marketing work we pride ourselves on, we have to give a lot of attention to the intentions and needs both of our clients and of theirs.
We need to intuit and decipher and translate on behalf of our clients. We can’t do that if we’re not paying very close attention.
Some 80% or more of our business is from referrals. Our customers love us, so they share our names with their colleagues. If we fail to meet that same level of expectation with every client, we’ll lose that momentum, and we’ll lose that esteem in the community, and we’ll lose those projects. That means lost opportunities. Lots of ’em.
The Golden Rule Is Not Enough
We had an all-team meeting last week. One of those meetings the announcement of which would have sent shivers down my spine when I was a cocky recent grad busting my a$$ in the trenches of a bookstore while wondering why I couldn’t just have a cushy “prestigious job,” but which now I find oddly inspiring – probably because I’m working, at long last, for a company that I sort of want to hug every single day.
In the meeting, Tynan, Commerce Kitchen’s CEO, talked a lot about why he founded CK and spent some time reminding all of us about the expectation our clients have of us and that we have of each other, and why we need to strive to meet those expectations (not exceed them – just pay attention, identify them, and meet them).
He brought up the Golden Rule’s lesser known but smarter cousin, The Platinum Rule. The Platinum Rule states not that you should treat others as you would want to be treated, but rather that you should treat others the way THEY want to be treated.
That’s a pretty simple but profound twist on things and it has a pretty radical impact on how you view customer service. It requires us to seek first to understand (hey all you Seven Habits fans out there!), which allows us to approach our clients from a position of empathy and compassion as it relates to their goals and the challenges they’ve entrusted us to solve on their behalf.
Taking the same perspective on internal customer service allows our teams to avoid a lot of the acrimonious distractions that derail a lot of teams.
When I worked at that bookstore decades ago, I discovered that I freaking LOVE customer service. It was a huge surprise – I thought I was / should have been destined for great things right out of college.
At first, the thought of helping one more grandmother find just the right book for her above-average granddaughter (“Oh yes! Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats is perfect – except, did he write one about dogs? She likes dogs better.”) irked me.
After just trying to get better at it for a bit, though, I realized the pleasure in truly connecting someone with what they needed, what they wanted, something they might enjoy, or even just taking 5 minutes out of my day to talk to another Flannery O’Connor geek.
Those customers who caught me on my better service days were always more likely to come back. They each had puzzles that I could help solve, and we had only discovered that because I’d taken the time to hear where they were coming from.
I didn’t recommend Flannery O’Connor to someone who came in looking for a nice romance, even though some of her stories do focus on odd courtships, for example. I got to know Danielle Steele and Diana Gabaldon; I devoured Stephen King and Patricia Cornwell.
I figured out the difference between history and military history and figured out how to spot enthusiasts of both. I tried to see the entire store from their perspective, and pointed them in the direction they wanted to be pointed.
I know I wasn’t always perfect at it then, and I know I’m not always great at it now, but it is always what I’m shooting for, and what I want our teams to always be shooting for. Understand the client; understand their challenges; empathize with them; and give them the best solution and best experience their money can buy.