Back with an Apology: Rare Rewards of Service Professionalism

I’ve often made a distinction between service and servitude.

Sadly, and all too often, customers treat service providers like they are lesser beings. At the same time, I am disheartened when service providers take little pride in developing the skills necessary to be true service professionals.

It is my belief that automation will replace many service providers who are not passionately engaged in the art of assisting others. A 2016 Washington Post article highlighted the potential impact of automation on an American workforce currently rich with service employees by noting:

“The ‘automation bomb’ could destroy 45 percent of the work activities currently performed in the United States, representing about $2 trillion in annual wages…Currently, only 5 percent of occupations can be entirely automated, but 60 percent of occupations could soon see machines doing 30 percent or more of the work.”

It is my view that we will always need some level of human service delivery and that the future of service jobs will be relegated to a much smaller number of service professionals. By my definition, service professionalism involves an appreciation that all business is personal and that every customer wishes to be respectfully treated as an individual. Service professionals develop skills in attentive listening, empathy, and resourcefulness.

From a distance, Starbucks barista Andrew Richardson appears to be one such service professional. Andrew recently interacted with a drive-thru customer named Debbie. During that interaction, Debbie became angry about two issues 1) that Andrew’s Starbucks had run out of drink carriers, and 2) that Andrew could not take trash from her car back in through the service window. Andrew listened attentively to Debbie and treated her with respect during what Andrew perceived as Debbie’s “mild irritation.”

The impact of Andrew’s service professionalism was evidenced in a truly rare outcome one day later. Debbie presented again in the drive-thru lane, this time to hand Andrew the following apology card:


Courtesy of Andrew Richardson

Yes, the depicted $50 bill was enclosed in the apology card.

So let’s look at a couple of the key messages from Debbie concerning Andrew’s professionalism, “Keep up your attitude of cheer & hope. Stay hopeful no matter what kind of people cross your path (or drive thru)…You taught this ole lady something yesterday about kindness, compassion & staying humble.”

Andrew noted that relative to the scope of challenges he faces in customer service each day Debbie was at best a 2 on a 10 point scale. Despite that rather ordinary interaction from Andrew’s perspective, clearly, Debbie saw the experience as positively transformational.

So, what’s the lesson from this atypical apology? The art of service professionalism requires, as Debbie so aptly indicated, an attitude of cheer, hope, kindness, compassion, and humility. Additionally, while most irritated customers won’t apologize or express their gratitude for your professionalism you never know the back story that affects a customer’s behavior and typically you don’t know the impact your service professionalism has on them.

I suspect that if a customer ever offers you a $50 tip of gratitude for how you managed their upset, you probably demonstrated the type of service professionalism that will provide some insurance against displacement from automation. What do you think?

Short of having a customer return with an apology card, how else can you know if you’re acting with service professionalism? How can you recognize colleagues when they are serving you or your customers at the height of their professionalism?

Way to go Andrew and Debbie…you’ve reminded us all that professional service matters!

Smoke over black background

Joseph A. Michelli, Ph.D. is a professional speaker and chief experience officer at The Michelli Experience. A New York Times #1 bestselling author, Dr. Michelli and his team consult with some of the world’s best customer experience companies.

Follow on Twitter: @josephmichelli

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