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The Game of Service

Phillip Van Hooser

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"Business a game?" you ask. “It can't be. Business is serious. . . well. . . business!"

Okay, I agree. Business is serious. There's a lot riding on the outcome. But think just a moment of the game of business in the same terms as you would any other competitive game in which you enjoy participating, such as tennis, chess or Monopoly. Each of these games shares a number of common characteristics. For example, each is governed by a specific set of rules. The rules are usually fairly easy to understand, but not always easy to follow. Each game requires players to be pitted against at least one other opponent. Finally, for a positive outcome to be realized, either or both participants must possess the skill and strategy to accomplish their individual goals.

The “individual goals" of both parties are where things begin to get sticky. In tennis, chess or Monopoly the goal is to beat the opponent as soundly as possible. However, in the game of business, to be really successful-to be a truly expert player-both parties must win the first time and every time thereafter. For example, those who provide products and services must make their customers happy by providing quality products and services at a reasonable price, while still making a necessary profit. But they can't just do it once and be forever satisfied. One profitable business exchange does not a successful business make. Sustainable businesses have been and always will be built on the foundation of repeat business.

Successful automobile dealers prosper when their customers return every three or four years in search of their next vehicle. Restaurateurs prosper when their patrons establish a habit of eating with them regularly. Barbers and hairdressers prosper when their customers return to their chairs every few weeks, without once thinking about where else they might be able to get their hair cut or styled.

In business, like in other games, there are certain to be winners and losers. Each is fairly easy to spot. The winners are the ones sporting the logos on the side of their trucks that proclaim “Doing business since 1957, " or “Voted # 1 for the eleventh year in a row. " The winners are the ones who continue to expand their product lines and service offerings. The winners are the ones who report sustained growth and profitability quarter after quarter, year after year. The winners are the ones who have the best and brightest talent clamoring to join the ranks.

But the losers in the game of business are easy to spot, too. The losers are the ones who place “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS" signs in the storefront windows. The losers are the ones acting as if business in the 21st century will be the same as it was in the 20th century. The losers are the ones filing for bankruptcy, or worse, doctoring their own books to mislead others. The losers are the ones who vigorously contest every customer complaint. The losers are the ones who undercut the authority and ability of their own employees to handle customer complaints directly.

I'm not suggesting every successful business is successful solely because of its service expertise, or that every unsuccessful business is struggling solely because of a lack of service focus. The game of business is much more complicated than that. But I do believe those who prosper in the game of business are those who take the time to learn the game in the first place. And in learning the game, it is impossible to discount the importance of having satisfied customers who continue to do business with us and who are willing to share a goodwill message with others about us and the products and services we offer. Whether the business is distributing hundreds of bottles of barbeque sauce locally or overseeing millions of dollars of Medicare reimbursements nationwide, whether the business is intent on rebuilding your automobile's engine or giving your spine an adjustment, one thing is for sure-it's all about the customer.

He'll Know My Name

I hadn't been in Willie's cab for more than thirty seconds before he had already introduced himself to me and learned my name. During the next thirty minutes or so, Willie used my name in casual conversation at least two dozen times. And it was all so natural. After our first few minutes together, I consciously forgot that our relationship was that of customer and service provider. It came to feel more like a discussion between friends. Therein lies the magic and the power of using a customer's name. People are drawn together.

Of course, customers are not just those individuals walking into our showroom or calling us on the telephone. Those customers tend to get our immediate attention. Their faces are not as familiar to us. They come from outside the company. We refer to them as our “external" customers.

But we should never discount the importance of our “internal" customers as well. Most of us have them. Internal customers are our co-workers, with whom we interact daily, as we strive to serve the needs of the external customers.

Unfortunately, because our internal customers have become so familiar to us over time, like our own family members, too often we end up taking them for granted. The critical need to acknowledge our internal customers and their contributions cannot be overstated. When working with my corporate clients I often remind them that if they improve their internal customer service activities, their external customers will benefit from it. If not, it is hard to predict exactly what problems will ensue.

Years ago, I was working as a Human Resources Manager in a non-union manufacturing facility. During my time there, a union organizing drive was initiated by a relatively small, but determined group of employees. Day after day, for several weeks, this group actively solicited their fellow employees in hopes of gaining support for their particular labor union of choice.

One of the more vocal internal supporters of this movement was a middle-aged machine operator whom I will call “Lonnie. " I remember Lonnie specifically for two reasons. First, I remember his involvement with this organizing group as being totally out of character for him. In the four years I had worked with Lonnie, I had found him to be intelligent, capable and a hard worker, but very quiet, reserved and inclined to remain in the background regarding public issues. He had stressed to me a number of times over the years that he preferred not to speak out in public and that he didn't enjoy taking on leadership roles. Yet there he was, not only speaking out, but leading the charge.

The second reason I remember him so well is because of something Lonnie once said to me. I had always seen my role of Human Resources Manager as a type of local liaison, or go-to person, for both labor and management. As such, I spent a good portion of every workday interacting with production employees on the shop floor, as well as with management people in the front office.

One day, while walking through the plant, Lonnie whistled to get my attention and then motioned for me to join him at his workstation. I made my way to him to see what was on his mind. He was quick to let me know.

"Phil, I haven't had the chance to tell you this before, but I wanted you to know that my involvement in this union drive has nothing to do with you personally. I appreciate what you do to help address some of the issues that are a concern to us, " Lonnie said quietly, with sincerity in his voice. It was something he didn't have to tell me, especially during a time of heightened tensions in the company.

"Thanks for saying so, Lonnie. I appreciate hearing that from you. "

It could be argued that I would have been better off stopping right there. But, Lonnie had initiated this conversation, not me. Now there was something I really wanted to know. And the best way to find out was to ask.

"This is really none of my business and it won't hurt my feelings if you choose not to answer. But, I'm curious. Lonnie, why are you so involved in this union movement? This is really not like you. "

Lonnie's eyes were quick to lock on mine. I watched as his quiet demeanor changed right before me. In mere seconds he stopped being quiet and unassuming. In a moment of transformation he became determined and outspoken.

"Phil, I have worked at this plant for nine years. I have done almost every job in this department. I have worked all three shifts and Lord only knows how many hours of overtime, " he said. Then he paused briefly and pointed across the plant in the direction of the Plant Manager who stood talking with another employee.

"Phil, do you see that man right there?" he asked, his voice brimming with resentment. “After all these years, he doesn't even know my name. I dare you to call him over right now and ask him to tell you my name. I guarantee you he wouldn't be able to do it. Can you believe that? After nine years of working together, he still doesn't know my name!" Then Lonnie paused for another moment as his eyes returned and fixed themselves on mine. Then he added, “But, when this is all over, he'll know my name. "

Yes, the game of business is the game of service and it starts right where you are. Begin to think of your employees as your customers. Now ask yourself, “What can I do to help meet and exceed their expectations?" The service you opt to offer your internal employees will be a model for the service they are expected to offer your external customers. Service, like charity, begins at home.

Phillip Van Hooser is the author of the best selling book, “Willie's Way: 6 Secrets for Wooing, Wowing and Winning Customers and Their Loyalty. This book has been embraced by companies all across the U. S. and beyond to help their people become more successful customer service professionals. When his strategies are implemented, organizations and individuals experience higher productivity and customer retention rates and develop a renewed spirit for serving their employees and customers. For more information, please visit


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