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Work • Purpose

How to Serve

Understanding how to serve customers well is a major factor in the success of corporations: and service has a big role outside work too. It’s one of the many ways in which there’s an overlap between getting better in business and getting better at life in general. Service means helping others to thrive. It’s a goal that’s been around longer than humanity.

A service culture exists amongst Japanese Snow Monkeys

We’re all keen on being served well. But getting good at serving is tricky. It’s a problem that deserves a great deal of sympathy. We’re one of the first generations in history to be grappling with the delivery of effective service on a mass scale. There are so many ways service can go wrong.

One: The fear that it’s humiliating to serve

For centuries, the idea of service was focused on one particular kind of job: being a servant. 


It didn’t necessarily seem like a terrible option at the time. There was little social mobility; if your parents were servants you were probably going to end up doing the same thing. Carrying a tray or polishing shoes might not seem at all bad compared to hewing coal or digging the fields. But there must have been untold millions of moments of petty humiliation, many of them around unpleasant bosses.

Then across the Western World this kind of employment largely disappeared, under the combined impacts of WWI and WWII.


Mary Quant, 1965

And by the 1960s – in the New York of Mad Men or the London of Mary Quant – being a servant came to sound like a dreary, slightly shameful kind of work. Service wasn’t sexy.

The ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre, who had been offered the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964 and had very publicly rejected it, were getting a wider hearing. In his Being and Nothingness (1943), we find a strangely annoying waiter as the focus of Sartre’s account of what he felt was wrong with society in general: to serve is to be inauthentic, to fail to be who you really are.


‘Let us consider this waiter in the cafe. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes toward the patrons with a step a little too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer.’ (Being and Nothingness, Part I Chapter 2 – ‘Bad Faith’)

For all these reasons, the image of the grovelling, defeated – and resentful – servant (or waiter) infected the whole idea of service. The successful person is served, the less successful does the serving. This attitude lingers. The background belief that serving is humiliating leads to problems.

The low esteem in which service can be held leads some ambitious people to steer clear of obvious ‘service’ roles. It’s easy to under-rate the potential economic contribution of good service to the company. So it gets under-rewarded, which maintains the circle of low-esteem. Companies think they care about service; they certainly don’t want to offer bad service. But because we don’t have a clear image of what great service really means, we don’t see the potential that’s being missed. We don’t realise how much mediocre service is costing.


© Flickr/David Tan

All this can lead to veiled aggressive behaviour on the part of the one serving, for example, when the air steward brusquely tells you to put your seat upright (though it must actually have been a previous passenger who left it very slightly reclined because you didn’t touch it). In his or her head, the steward might think:

I have to serve you, but don’t think I like you; I’m only doing it for the money.

If I had any other option, I wouldn’t be doing this.

I’ve got to smile – but inside I’m seething…

I’ve got to pretend you’re right (but I think you’re an idiot).

The customer picks up on the attitude. We’re incredibly sensitive to the difference between a real smile (which we love) and a fake one (which puts us one edge, make us suspicious). The negative attitude around the status of serving seems natural to us. But actually it’s a product of culture. That is: it depends on the images and associations that happen to be familiar to us. Which means it would be relatively straightforward to do a crucial thing: to get a more accurate understanding of the dignity of service and then to increase its prestige. It just means regularly reminding ourselves of some very positive ideas about service. To get this started, we can look back to some high points in the history of service.

Jesus was keen on service:

Christianity tapped into the big idea that service is noble, and not humiliating at all.


In the middle of the 16th century, the Italian artist Tintoretto painted several pictures of a scene from the life of Jesus. Just before they sit down to have the last supper, Jesus gets on his hands and knees and acts as the servant of his disciples, carefully washing and wiping their dusty feet. The point of the story was to say: here’s why this man was so great. He wanted to help people, he saw service as one of the greatest things we can do. And Tintoretto adds to the message by painting a very grand picture of this act of service. In effect, the artist is saying: let me show you this magnificent scene, this heroic act.

The greatest Roman Emperor, Trajan, saw himself as a servant

Trajan (53-117 AD) ushered in the golden age of the Roman Empire, when good government was combined with prosperity and security. His descendants were great leaders who revered his example, culminating in the rule of his great-great nephew, Marcus Aurelius.

One of the characteristic stories about Trajan told how when he was riding to review his troops, he was accosted in the street by a desperate mother whose son had been killed, seeking his help. Trajan was incredibly busy, she was no one very important. The Emperor took the opportunity to put one of his core convictions into practice. He stopped, got off his horse and addressed her case.


He wanted to demonstrate to his followers that helping her wasn’t beneath his dignity: it’s what his position was really all about: the point of all the power and authority is to bring justice to the people: to serve them well. 

The painter Eugène Delacroix was obsessed by this moment. He’s summoning up all the grandeur of the emperor – the banners, the trumpets, the rearing war horse – and focusing not on conquering the enemy or setting out on a great voyage of exploration but on a routine and deeply honourable act of good service. He’s using art to show what we usually can’t see: the true value of quiet acts of kindness.

Luther and the serving maid

In 1520, Martin Luther (1483-1546) published the second of his three major treatises, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. It was an extension of his re-reading of Christianity and embodied his nascent Protestant ideas.


In the work, Luther radically claimed that one can serve God in a variety of ways, not just by entering the Priesthood:

‘Hence I advise no man, yea, I dissuade every man from entering into the priesthood or any religious order, unless he be so fortified with knowledge as to understand that, however sacred and lofty may be the works of priests or of the religious orders, they differ not at all in the sight of God from the works of a husbandman labouring in his field, or of a woman attending to her household affairs, but that in His eyes all things are measured by faith alone . . . Nay, it very often happens that the common work of a servant or a handmaiden is more acceptable to God than all the fastings and works of a monk or a priest, when they are done without faith.’

Luther’s big idea was that Christians could serve God by carrying out essential work, such as looking after the family, labouring and farming. Famously, Luther writes that ‘God is milking the cows through the vocation of the milkmaid.’

This meant that every legitimate piece of work was a ‘calling’ from God; a ‘vocation’. God has endowed each and every one of us with talents that can be used to help one another out. These talents manifest themselves in work: a skilled baker can literally give ‘us our daily bread’, soldiers can ‘deliver us from evil’ and nurses and doctors can heal the sick. In total, then, God looks after humanity through workers. Everyone undertaking these essential tasks is wearing what Luther calls the ‘mask of God’, since God is behind each task. Luther says God wants us to serve one another through work as a means of serving him.


Luther was making a huge point. To do a small service whole-heartedly and well is actually to do a great thing – though its greatness is spiritual rather than material and so is easily missed. It’s not at all necessary to share Luther’s religious convictions to be impressed by his line of thought. There’s a big psychological benefit to doing a simple task cheerfully and neatly – even if it’s only loading the dishwasher so every item is in the right place or tidying the linen cupboard.

Napoleon, the night before the Battle of Austerlitz

The night before his greatest victory – the Battle of Austerlitz – Napoleon went round the tents of his troops, making sure they’d had their rations and that they were settling down quietly. It was a task that was hardly required by the supreme Commander. A minor adjutant would have been fine. But Napoleon was sending a message about the nobility of serving.

In their different ways, these heroes of service are all counteracting the notion that service is what the weak do for the strong. Instead, they are seeing service as something that everyone should be involved in. It’s part of the well-lived life. It’s a noble thing.


An unexpected ally in this campaign is Andy Warhol. He entirely agreed that glamour is the key to raising the prestige of service:

‘They should have a college course now for maids and call it something glamorous. People don’t want to work at something unless there’s a glamorous name tagged to it… Even very intelligent people could get a lot out of being maids because they’d see so many interesting people and be working in the most beautiful houses. I mean, everybody does something for everybody else, and if it weren’t for the stigma we give certain jobs, the exchange would always be equal. A mother is always doing things for her child, so what’s wrong with a person off the street doing something for you?…I’ve always thought that the President could do so much here to help change images. If the President would go into a public bathroom in the Capitol, and have the TV cameras film him cleaning the toilets and saying ‘why not?… The President has so much good publicity potential that hasn’t been exploited. He should just sit down one day and make a list of all the things that people are embarrassed to do that they shouldn’t be embarrassed to do, and then do them all on television.’ (The Philosophy of Andy Warhol)

He thought that the airline industry could spearhead the revolution in the perception of service:


‘Airline stewardesses have the best public image. Their work is actually what the waitresses at Bickford’s do, plus a few additional duties. I don’t want to put down the airline stewardesses. I just want to put up the Bickford ladies. The difference is that airline stewardessing is a new world job that never had to contend with any class stigmas left over from the old world peasant-aristocracy syndrome.’

It’s amazing what glamour can do to raise the prestige of a service job. Prostitution is not, generally, a high-status job. But, in Japan, poets and artist worked to endow sexual services with glamour. They invented the idea of the geisha.


What distinguishes the geisha is the range and quality of the service provided: it’s sexual, but also intellectual and aesthetic. Under this improved description, and supported by intelligent advocacy, a form of prostitution became widely admired – and deeply respectable. The Japanese understood the mechanism for making this transformation in status: beautiful art works and elegant poems.

In an ideal future, the perception we have of service could be very different from what it is today. We can imagine a world in which being someone’s personal servant or the nanny to their children could be a deeply prestigious, highly coveted job. Instead of dreaming of working for Goldman Sachs, the most ambitious college graduates would be anxiously working out how to position themselves as a potential valet or family tutor. It wouldn’t be fake prestige: it would be founded on an accurate vision of the worth of the service provided. Bringing up children well is one of the central tasks of a life. The people who do it well (the best nannies, teachers and tutors) should be glamorous – and correspondingly well paid. The ideal personal helper is managing, correcting and refining their employer’s self-conception. They are making life more effective and meaningful. These are huge contributions and the rightful target of ambition. In the Utopia, service would have the high prestige it deserves.

Two:  The belief that the customer is awful

Sadly, it’s not always hard to come to this conclusion. They often seem to be asking you to hate them. The irritation of the server with the served is entirely understandable. But, it is also potentially disastrous – obviously. The server’s mask slips, a little of their contempt comes through. The manager is dragged in. The customer, whose self-regard has been injured – talks viciously about the company to all their friends. Next time you look there’s a 27-reasons-I-hate-your-business page on Facebook swelling its numbers.

Abandoned Service Station Fair St. Cold Spring, NY

© Flickr/Alexander Rabb

To address this, it’s necessary to engage with one of the biggest (and most productive) questions we can ask: why do other people behave in ways that aren’t very nice?

There are three big answers:

Firstly: In the past, the other person suffered in ways that have left scars. What you see as annoying patterns of behaviour originated long ago as strategies for coping with very frightening situations.

If they are snobbish or pompous – it’s probably because at a formative point they faced grim humiliations. They had to emphasise and grasp after status wherever they could because they felt its lack so desperately. The outer circumstances may have moved on for this individual, but their psychological habits are still desperately fighting the old battles. At the back of their minds they are still warding off a terrible humiliation.

If they get furious over a trivial thing, it’s probably because in the past they really were exposed to a lot of aggression. They coped by bearing their teeth and shouting and making themselves look dangerous – aggression is a very natural defence mechanism. Because the instincts are such slow learners, they end up shouting at you, though the person they are really trying to scare may have passed away five years ago, or be living these days in a small farmhouse in the Massif Central.


© Flickr/Raul Lieberwirth

The customer is scared, not mean or bad – though, unfortunately, at first sight, they look mean and bad and not at all scared. If they revealed their distress more obviously – if they wept or looked terrified – we’d behave gently. Yet it really is the same distress, only presented in a misleading and deeply unfortunate disguise. And they are in need of the same gentleness and forbearance.

Secondly: There’s a big problem on their mind. They haven’t told you about it, of course. But there was a very difficult meeting at work earlier in the day. Or they are going through a brutal divorce. Or their dog had to be put down yesterday – their beloved companion for 14 memorable years. Or the Moroccan economy – where they have major holdings – is in crisis. They are distressed about something you can’t be aware of. And it leads them to behave in unpleasant ways. It feels as if it is about you, but it isn’t.

One of the key moves in psychoanalysis is to look at the trouble children have understanding how a difficult mood of a parent isn’t about them. The powerful, natural tendency for the child is to suppose otherwise, to think that, if dad is upset, it’s my fault, when the real cause is he’s trying to shed some weight and not having a second helping of lasagna drives him nuts; or he’s been playing badly at tennis for the last two weeks and it’s getting him down: he feels he’s past it; or he’s having an affair and feels terribly guilty. It’s incredibly hard for the child to understand things when the mood isn’t about them and yet it is happening around them. They have so few explanatory resources to bring to the situations – how could they possibly know what drives the adult psyche? As we grow older, we get marginally better at realising that what’s going on for other people often isn’t about us, even when we’re the nearest object in the environment. But the idea remains fragile in our minds.


© Flickr/Petras Gagilas

Regular reminders of the concept that there are off-stage causes to others’ moods is a huge help in navigating our way through life. Learning not to take it personally isn’t a last counsel of despair. It’s usually a deeply accurate assessment of what is really going one.

Thirdly: The other person is actually quite nice… in parts of their life you don’t get to see. The customer isn’t revealing the whole of their life. It’s natural – but mistaken – for us to assume that a person is entirely as we happen to see them being. The muddled shopper must be, we suppose, befuddled about everything all the time. It’s hard for us to believe that the woman who absolutely can’t decide whether she wants steak tartare or lobster – is assured and decisive when it comes to drafting reports on the opportunities and risks for pharmaceutical companies in the Mexican market.

Consider this picture by the 19th-century French artist Ingres.


It’s a history picture of the French King Henry the Fourth – who reigned a couple of centuries earlier. Here, Henry’s giving a horse ride to his children and having the time of his life cavorting on the carpet. But this wasn’t at all how he usually came across. His people generally saw him as severe and a bit brutish. He ruled, people said, ‘with a sword in his hand and his arse on the saddle of a warhorse’.

A lot of people have Henry IV-like unexpected sides to their character, which tell you a lot about who they really are. The fussy customer works two nights a week for the Samaritans listening to people’s most terrible moments of distress. The guy with the ridiculously loud laugh and the crushingly boring stories runs the best shoe repair shop in Exeter: unrivalled in that city for quality, speed and fair prices. The fickle woman with the posh voice is deeply loyal to her transexual brother and was his main support all through his transition. If you knew these sides it would change your view of who they are. But we just don’t get to see them in service situations.

Good service draws on sympathy. Instead of getting offended by the annoying behaviour of those we serve, we’d be more patient and forgiving. Not because we’re soft-hearted or can’t stand up for ourselves. But because we’d have a clearer idea of what is really going on: I’m not encountering a dreadful person. Just an ordinary person labouring under a fear, a current problem or who isn’t quite at their best round here.

The ideal service company, therefore, wouldn’t be preaching to its employees to smile a lot and rehearse saying ‘of course, madam’ in the bathroom mirror. It would be more focused on presenting its workers with helpful theories of human nature. It would improve service – in tricky situations – and manage staff morale by continually reminding its workforce of some powerful truths about how decent people can come across badly.

Three: The failure to recognise customer anxiety

Service goes wrong when it fails to understand that interacting with a given business is likely to have generated a cluster of anxious feelings.


© Flickr/anton petukhov

It’s a little remarked-upon fact, but every service situation is associated with a degree of anxiety in the customer: the task of a good business is to understand the dynamics of anxiety on top of which it will inevitably sit – and then to take steps to correct and attenuate these. We have an image of a customer utterly confident in their needs and in themselves, just keen to extract great service and move on. But the portrait needs to be redrawn. We come at service situations with a range of worries. Providing good service means asking yourself an unusual question: ‘What are the anxieties that cluster around my area of service – and how can I best deal with them…?’

One might name a new way of serving: Anxiety-focused service. It has two components. The first is the sympathetic, imaginative exploration of the worries that customers might have. Not by asking them – because they won’t, or often can’t, tell you what’s really bugging them. Either it’s something they find embarrassing to talk about or it’s very hard to pinpoint. Instead, imagine you are a novelist and you’ve got a very nice character who happens to be anxious around this area of service. What would be going on for them? (In an ideal world, this form of imaginative exercise would be a main source of employment for novelists – which would in turn deeply help business and the bank balances of authors).

The second is working out how to zap the problem. How can you meet the anxiety and offer reassurance or help? Each industry will have different anxieties to contend with, you need to know your industry-specific anxiety and put in place measures to deal with them. To get this field of business started, we offer some case studies:

I: A customer walks into a jewellery store selling engagement rings

How is he anxious? He knows nothing about carats, he is scared of being thought cheap but also of spending too much.

Zapping the fear: One might have a jewellery store that advertises saying: ‘a ring is nice, but kindness is nicer. We’ll make sure you don’t blow your savings on a symbol.’

And: ‘it would be weird if you knew a lot about diamonds; you’ve had everything else to think about.’


II: Someone stays at a smart hotel

There are so many problems, but here are three:

They eat alone in the lobby restaurant of a smart hotel

– you have no friends, anywhere in the world

– your partner has kicked you out of the room (and quite rightly too)

– you are reluctant to order room service because your partner’s corpse is stretched out on the king size bed

Zapping the fear: A statue in the lobby of a nice person eating alone.


© Flickr/Jim Pennucci

The staff do a training exercise: fifteen reasons why it’s lovely to eat alone…

A short aphorism at the foot of the menu card: ‘to like one’s own company is the mark of maturity.’

They have a row with their partner during the night and they both feel gloomy in the morning

The anxiety is: we’re supposed to be having a nice time here. We’ve paid all this money and we’re a bit miserable.

Zapping the problem: The hotel lobby that has a great art work of a couple arguing in a hotel room.

They know couples are always coming down shamefaced in the morning, sitting sullenly at the breakfast buffet, sipping grapefruit juice, picking distractedly at a pain au chocolat.

You can order coffee triste, which is coffee served with a postcard: 


And the words us too printed on the reverse.

In the morning, alongside a copy of the Frankfurter Allgemeine or The Australian, they slip a little note into the bag hanging from your door handle, containing a quote from Goethe: ‘No one ever understood me; I never really understood other people; no one understands anyone else’.

Beside the mirror in the bathroom is a slogan beautifully-lettered: ‘The only normal people are the ones you don’t know very well’ (Alfred Adler)

A porter brings their bags up to their room. Are you supposed to give them a tip?

There are anxieties around looking mean, unworldly or poor.

Zapping the tipping problem: 


Discreetly near the lift, a small art work, like a Japanese scroll, with the text: ‘You’d tip if you knew how much. You’ve got no change. No need. Salaries are what tips once were. So we charge a touch more.’

III: Someone visits a museum

You fear:

– you will be bored

– you will make a faux pas

– you will be revealed as very ignorant

The museum, however, is very carefully-designed to address a different range of troubles:

You are desperate to find the 19th-century Spanish paintings. So they have labelled a room ‘Spanish School’ and highlighted it on a map, so you won’t by accident end up in the French School. The fantasy visitor (who makes up 4% of the actual people attending)  can be relieved: ‘Oh great… straight on and three rooms to the left, hope they’ve got some Zuberans and a late Goya or two.’    


© Flickr/Pedro Ribeiro Simões

Zapping the fear of being bored – and looking stupid – in a museum

A sign by the entrance reads: ‘Not everything here will be interesting.’

or: ‘It’s normal to get bored around here.’

or: ‘Sometimes, the cafe will seem like the most attractive option.’

IV: Someone hesitates about entering an upmarket clothes shop

It can be daunting – especially for men – to walk into a clothes shop with the idea of purchasing a pair of trousers. In a minute you’ll be telling a stranger about whether a piece of cloth is too tight in the groin area; you’ll be in your underpants shielded only by a thin beige curtain that won’t close properly; they might start measuring your inside leg. Some people don’t mind. But many do. They’ll spend years with a slightly wrong pair of trousers because (though they’re courageous in other areas) they couldn’t face properly talking to the salesperson about the fit.


© Flickr/Philippe Lorenzo

Zapping the fear: Train staff into spotting the shy (usually male) shopper who doesn’t want to be asked cheerfully how their day was. Raise sensitivity to customers who don’t have such a good relationship with their body and want to cry in shops when they see themselves in the mirror.

V: A haircut would be nice, but…

The fear is that the person cutting your hair will expect a long, rambling conversation, or assume you’re interested in football or handbags (when your preferred topics are the decline and fall of the Roman Empire or the challenges of the dairy industry).

Zapping the problem:

– When you book an appointment they say: a lot of our customers like ‘a trappist’; after settling on the cut you want, the stylist isn’t allowed to speak. It’s a service named after a group of monks who were forbidden to speak. (Except in emergencies – if they could see someone was about to inadvertently drink a chalice of of poison they were allowed to say: ‘Spectant, frater! Venenum bibere calicem es’.)


© Flickr/whatleydude

– Or you can have a Victorian: the person cutting you hair isn’t allowed to speak to you unless you speak to them. Unless they realise there’s ratsbane in the coffee you are about to sip.

– Or there’s a conversation menu. Jeremy offers: relationship counselling, the French Nouvelle Vague and rock climbing; Sarafina proposes: the melancholy of travel, origami and preferred masturbation techniques (regulars only). 

Four: Introversion and gregarious service

The ideal of good service has unfortunately been connected with the notion of being gregarious. We have a picture of the ideal person in service: chatty, cheerful and perhaps a little loud.

We should recognise that this manner is only found attractive and enticing by a share of the population. For many, an excessively chatty, upbeat manner is alarming rather than reassuring.

Service works with a mental picture (which won’t usually be very explicit) of what the customer is like: what kind of person are they? What will make them feel comfortable or ill at ease?


© Flickr/Sendmeadrift

The term ‘introversion’ is a relatively recent – and very helpful – invention. It became mainstream through its use in the Myers-Briggs personality Type Indicator, which was introduced in the 1940s and later widely adopted in business. 

It sums up and labels a very common characteristic: being preoccupied with one’s own thoughts and feelings, the desire to be given a lot of personal space, a tendency to feel overwhelmed by the attentions of other people.

But it does something else: the term – and the tests – reveal that this is a very normal characteristic. About 50% of customers will be like this – at least to some extent. And about 25% will be markedly like this.

‘Introversion’ isn’t the name of a problem. It’s a name of a normal way of being.

It’s a challenge because people who work in front-line service situations are not likely to be particularly introverted themselves. (This is a consequence of our natural – but misguided – assumption that to be good at service and selling you should ideally be very outgoing.)

There’s opportunity for a lot more introvert-sensitive service. It’s possible to expand into this underdeveloped market – a market defined not by geography or income, but by psychology. And it’s not exploitation, because often the shy or introverted person would actually very much like to buy certain products, but they are hampered from doing so because of the prevalent technique of gregarious service.

Training in introvert-sensitive service would be inspired by the work of the English psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott.


Winnicott’s tips on service, part I

He talks very strictly against parents who always want to ‘jolly’ a baby along, rather than let it have its own moods. It’s a bit disconcerting at first – what could be wrong with keeping a child jolly? His point is that it’s the implied idea that it’s terrible to be a bit low, or upset, or quiet, or absorbed – in any way not overtly cheery – that does the damage. These low-key states aren’t a problem. It’s OK to feel sad because some things, like a broken toy, the death of a goldfish or being lonely on Sunday afternoon, are a bit sad. So, it’s fine for a customer to be pensive, solemn or quiet. They don’t need their mood lifted.

Winnicott’s tips on service, part II

Winnicott was sensitive to the (unintended) ways hyped-up expectations can get us down. Because we’re uncomfortably aware that we won’t live up to them. Winnicott specialised in problems in families and in his work he encountered many patients who were deeply disappointed with themselves for ‘not being a good mother’ or feeling ‘I’m nothing like the great dad I’m supposed to be’. But he could see that – imperfect as they certainly were, they were pretty good parents. They meant well, they tried, they made mistakes but they did their best in the circumstances, and he came to the conclusion that this was – really – what children needed to encounter. What one really needs, growing up, is not an ideally flawless parent, but a model of how to be a decent, OK, but inevitably flawed individual. What the child needs, Winnicott said, is a ‘good enough’ parent.


© Flickr/heymarchetti

Instead of referring to an ideal, one should help people feel OK about the ‘good enough.’ It’s a move that can be applied widely.

– Rather than tout a product as ‘a great deal,’ they could call it ‘a not too bad offer’; the suit you try on might be praised as ‘pretty much OK.’

– From: ‘there’s a fantastic range of socks’ to ‘we’ve got some moderately decent socks over here.’

– From: ‘you’ll love this’ to ‘this might just be acceptable.’

– Instead of saying ‘have a great day’ – to someone who will (probably) have a disappointing meeting a work, a frustrating commute, a tense disagreement with their partner and have to pay their road-tax bill – one could more usefully wish them a ‘good enough’ day –  a day that will be far from great in all respects. To the more thoughtful person (more introverted, more shy) it will sound genuinely friendly.

Five: Over-commitment to ‘the rules’

One of the more dramatic failures of service occurs when an employee sticks strictly to ‘the rules’, apparently on behalf of the business, but in a way that is maddening to the customer.

At a car-hire desk, the specific car that’s been booked in the system has turned up late and is still being cleaned. But a similar car is free. Yet the employee will tell the customer (desperate to get on their way to a meeting in Slough) that they have to wait forty minutes for the cleaning and checking of the vehicle. All the while, the customer can see the other vehicle sitting there out the window. ‘The rule is, if the car is back, the customer gets the assigned car; it is still on the M4. I could give you the other one.’ The person at the desk knows there’s nothing the customer can do.


© Flickr/Karen Bryan

A passenger with a business class ticket doesn’t have a special express lane card for security screening. (They started their journey, and had all their boarding passes issued at a provincial airport where they don’t have such things.) The attendant has seen a million BA business passengers, but – since there is no voucher – sternly points in the direction of a huge queue.

A mother decides to pay her lackadaisical son’s electricity bill on a small student apartment before the supply is cut off (while the boy is hiking across the Andes and out of satellite range for two weeks). She finds the call centre employee demanding the account password, which – of course – she doesn’t have, because ‘information about the account is private’ – although the malicious paying of other people’s electricity bills is not a recognised crime category.

The customer’s situation is clear. The employee knows they should be given the car that’s free now, let into the express lane or be allowed to pay the bill. But the employees are technically in the right. And they are safe – the customer can’t do anything about it.

Of course, this kind of behaviour is a problem for the company. Offending customers isn’t part of the corporate strategy. But in order to address it effectively it’s useful to start in an unexpected – but always important – way: with sympathy. We should admit that if you are feeling a bit pissed off with the world, it’s very tempting to cause others a bit of pain and hide behind the rules – especially if the people you are hurting seem to have a nicer life than you. It’s not nice, but it’s not strange. If we’re honest, we can probably all admit to moments when we’re hurting and we feel: why the hell should I help you?


© Flickr/Karsten Bitter

It might happen in a domestic setting. Your partner agreed to go out to see a film on Thursday night. But they had a tough day at work, and they’re not in the mood and at the last minute they say they’d rather stay in. You’re annoyed and you milk the situation: ‘you promised – so are you saying now that when you promise something, it doesn’t mean anything? You could have said ‘maybe’ you’d go out; but no, you said you definitely would – and now you’re going right back on your word.’ You’re technically in the right. Usually, if we’re being mean, we’re clearly in the wrong. It can be hard to resist the slightly sinister (but not uncommon) satisfaction of being simultaneously right and mean.

So too with the employee: the customer is squirming, ‘well – fuck them, I’m technically in the right.’ We need to acknowledge that the position of ‘serving’ can be very problematic for some of us. We use the small power we have to cause inconvenience for people we feel resentment towards. We can afford to admit the desire to stop a superior, to get a little safe revenge for the the multiple disappointments of existence. The rule has given us the permission not to be very nice.

One way the ideal company would address this service problem would be to be open about the temptation. Admitting the allure of this kind of situation doesn’t mean approving of it. In fact, acknowledging it is the key to keeping it in check. Being open about the desire sometimes to be mean to others, allows us to look at where the desire has come from. How does one arrive at this position?

What makes someone use ‘the rules’ in a mean way? We can go, sympathetically, behind the scenes of their life. The desire to hurt others is rooted in having been hurt too much oneself.


© Flickr/Valentina Yachichurova

– Once, at a formative moment, they were humiliated and punished for doing something wrong. Then they saw someone else doing the same thing and ‘getting away with it’; it felt so unfair. Never again, if they could help it. If the rules are going to be imposed strictly on them they’re going to make sure the same applies to everyone.

– They are trying to impose (in an admittedly ineffective way) order on a universe that feels chaotic. The news is filled with mayhem and greed, they can’t control their children, their partner, the erratic bus service… But here, at least, they can stick to a clear, precise arrangement.

– Too often they’ve been made to feel that a ‘superior’ person was looking down on them. These were very wounding experiences. They are on the look out for revenge.

These aren’t very lovely things. But they call for sympathy – that is, the recognition that one has similar kinds of strands in one’s own experience. It’s understandable people end up being sticklers for the rules.

Sympathetic understanding has a transformative effect. It doesn’t blame the individual for having had these experiences. But it reveals the way their current behaviour doesn’t really help.

– It was horrible to see someone getting away with something you were punished for. But it wasn’t the customer who got away with it (It was Jacqueline McFarlane of flat 5, 137 Acacia Avenue, West Solihull).

– Sticking to the rules won’t actually compensate for the messy cupboard under the stairs.


© Flickr/Michelle Gow

– It wasn’t this customer who laughed at your shoes (it was a brattish guy who now has a young daughter with a speech impediment).

If you admit you’re taking out your own troubles on another person, you can get more alive to the fact that this isn’t the person who hurt you. They’re just the nearest available target.

The company can also be up front about the danger. They can say:

We’ve put in place a lot of rules and procedures which are designed to make things easier for everyone. The rules will give you some power over people at tricky moments in their lives. And we understand that sometimes you’ll feel tempted to abuse them in this way. But please don’t.

We want you to be flexible. The most important thing is to help the customer. If that means leaving a box unticked or changing slightly the way something is done, that’s fine. The standard procedure isn’t set in stone.

The key thing the astute service provider is doing here is recognising how tempting it can be for an employee to offer bad service. To get great at providing service, the company needs to work with an accurate view of, and constructive sympathy for, the crooked timbers of human nature.

Six: People haven’t served you enough

It’s not a cause of bad service that leaps to mind; but a standard reason service goes wrong is that the server hasn’t themselves had enough experience of being treated well. There hasn’t been enough good service coming in their direction.


© Flickr/Doug Geisler

An employee has been gradually getting more and more brittle around customers. In the canteen they get into the habit of mouthing off about the dreadful characters they have to deal with. Then they snap. A customer complains that the olives are green, not black; a guest harangues them because the bells are ringing for a wedding in a nearby church; someone gets annoyed because of the unusually high credit card surcharge (as if the sales assistant had themselves instituted this arrangement). The employee snaps. They shout. Or they rush off weeping. They calm down later, but they are dreadfully ashamed. They feel they’ve become a grumpy, short-fused person. They blame themselves for letting it get to them. They feel, frankly, a bit shitty.

The employee who suddenly loses it is a problem for the business – and is a problem for the employee themselves. But addressing this issue means understanding it.

We should start by seeing that service requires us to step outside of the needs of our own ego for a while. We have to stop thinking about what we want, and think about what someone else wants. In short, service requires us to be generous.

But the ability to be generous is not a fixed, stable feature of anyone’s character. When we’re generous, we’re drawing upon our generosity reservoir. Like any reservoir, if the supply doesn’t get topped up, it runs dry. When our generosity has been demanded more than it’s been topped up, we get crabby and upset. If pushed, we break. But we’re not bad people. We’re just people whose inner supply of generosity hasn’t been filled up quickly enough to cope with the demands that are being made on it.


© Flickr/Micah Esguerra

We suffer from depleted reservoirs of generosity – but, unfortunately, we don’t easily recognise that we do. Instead we blame ourselves. We feel it’s our fault for snapping when a more compassionate and helpful interpretation (such as might be offered by the ideal friend who, alas, isn’t always to hand) would be to say: of course you snapped – you’d been run dry. You’d been nice to tricky people all day – actually all week – and practically no one thanked you. You’d been asked for too much, when the world wasn’t supporting you enough.

What’s needed is a regular exercise of taking a generosity-reservoir audit. What’s the current ratio between you being nice to others and others being nice to you? If the balance is very much on demand over supply, you can be sure a problem is building. Recognising this isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of maturity. In exactly the same way that it’s grown up to admit that one is spending more than one is earning, or not getting enough sleep.

The generosity reservoir is topped up by a lot of things. Physical nurture helps. If you get a good night’s sleep, if you’ve had a healthy breakfast, if you’ve walked to work across a park (rather than battled into a crowded, delayed train). There can be a self-nurture in contemplating a tree or the sky.

These good physical things build up our inner reserves and allow us to put our own inclinations to one side and be nice to others – for a while. But just as much – or even more – the generosity reservoir is fed by psychological nurture.


As a child one might – ideally – have been held and comforted. Another person – infinitely bigger and stronger – was always saying how lovely and nice you were; your troubles could be soothed by a few kind words, a grazed knee gently cleaned and tended; your fears (of the dark, of the neighbour’s dog) would be dispelled by this person’s presence: you knew they would protect you and keep you safe. But now you are big and hairy, your mother isn’t around much and she doesn’t really understand your work anyway.

Through history, cultures have created substitute mothers to take up the task of psychic nurture – and renew our capacity to be generous to others.


The Catholic Church cast Mary, the mother of Jesus, as a universal mother. Someone who would be there to listen, understand, console and comfort us no matter what our problems and irrespective of our age. We might grow a beard or wear high heels but she would remain the same: unfailingly loving and tender. She was a permanent stream feeding the reservoir of generosity – because she was generous to us, we could afford to be generous to others.


The figure of Guanyin played a similar role in Buddhist thought. She is the one who listens, offers comfort – and psychic nurturing – by hearing our troubles with infinite understanding. No problem was too big or too small to be heard compassionately.

Such figures take very seriously the need for a maternal function; they emerge from a realisation that to cope with the pressures of life we need to feel understood and appreciated by someone, especially if many of the individuals we have to deal with (and serve olives to) conspicuously fail to treat us tenderly. 

The role they play is important. But there’s another option, if we find it difficult or impossible to believe in them. We have to become our own mothers. It’s not a warped fantasy of genealogy; and it’s not suggesting we literally start to resemble our own mums. The idea builds on a key fact about the mind. There are different aspects to our complex selves. There are ways we can be more childlike (more demanding of attention and help) or alternatively, there are moments when we adopt a more maternal attitude towards ourselves: we treat our own troubles and failing with kindness (just as a very nice real mother, or Guanyin) might. We tell ourselves the more supportive and compassionate stories about who we are. We remind ourselves that – in fact – we are decent people, a bit under pressure, of course – but well-intentioned. This side of the persona is quick to recall our strengths, to take the edge off self-criticism, to give our weaknesses the most charitable interpretation – and broadly to coax the ego back into shape.


© Flickr/Garry Knight

We’ve developed a suspicion of self-love based on (actually quite rare) cases where people are much too pleased with themselves. But almost inevitably our problems run in the opposite direction. The averagely decent human being is an expert at self-criticism and hesitant around appreciating their own merits. We’re not normally very good at replenishing our own reservoir of generosity.

The care of the self means adopting a higher level of kindness towards ourselves – in the inner dialogues which dominate existence. The normal running commentary goes like this: ‘you fool, you’ve stuffed up again, why are you so weak and easily upset; you made a complete fool of yourself over the olives; it’s just like that time you started crying when Janine pointed out you’d let everyone down; pull yourself together you stupid weakling.’ So we approach any genuine problem from a position of shame and disappointment. The maternal (Mary, Guanyin) voice has a very different line: ‘It’s a pity, you were trying, you always try so hard; it’s all right, it will pass; last week you handled that little disagreement with Marcus so well; you’re going to mange this time too; one cold day doesn’t mean it’s winter; you are such a good person at heart; and part of what’s nice about you is you worry you’ve let others down. So, it’s going to be OK. Deep down, you’re fine.’ The supportive words start to restore self-respect. They re-equip us to be a little more accommodating and generous to others. We can cope with their quirks and self-absorption, because we’re more secure in our sense of self-worth.

This is pointing to a key task of management in service-oriented companies. If you want your staff to provide good service, you have to replenish the reservoir of generosity in each of them. You have to be nice to them, if you want them to be nice to the customers. Encouraging self-nurturing in employees might be as – or more – important than getting them to read extracts from the health and safety manual. The point isn’t focused on external celebration, like giving an employee a cake on their birthday (though that’s not a bad idea). It’s more about being, at key times, like Mary or Guanyin, to the staff. You can’t make the problem go away; you can’t make customers be more polite or more considerate; but you can show you are tenderly aware of the pains of dealing with their concerns and deeply appreciative of the generosity it takes to keep on being nice to people who aren’t very nice back.

Seven: Expectations are violated

Service goes wrong, and customers get upset, when expectations are not met.


William James – the brother of the novelist Henry James – defined the problem:

Happiness = result – expectation

If what you get is better than you expected, you have a positive experience.

If expectations are on the low side, the customer may be delighted by quite minor, but charming, levels of service. You mislay your ticket for a multi-storey car park and have to get the manager to help you. You’re expecting an awkward encounter: they’ll be irritated, you’ll be embarrassed. They turn it into a joke – it happens all the time, it’s not a problem at all, make a wry comment about the difficulty of trying to keep track of everything. You’re charmed. It’s still an ugly environment and it’s not cheap, but you feel a warm glow towards the place. In the future, you always park there whenever you are in the area (though there are two other car parks that are just as convenient).

But if your expectations go above and beyond what you get, you feel disappointed and frustrated. It’s not the absolute merits of the service itself that is decisive: it’s how this stacks up against the picture we’ve formed in our heads of what it’s going to be like. This mental picture – or ‘expectations’ turns out to be a crucial element in the customer’s experience.

High expectations around comfort: Luxury

One big strategy, in the face of expectations, is to meet them, or go beyond them. The concept of luxury suggests that your high expectations will be fulfilled.


‘A truly unique and bespoke travel experience, delivered with complete discretion and limitless hospitality – The Residence by Etihad.’

It has been created by leading interior designers and hospitality experts who understand the discernment and sophistication expected by the private traveller.

The hope is to raise expectation in the market, so your competitor’s offerings will come to seem unimpressive. In comparison with the Etihad Residence, people come to feel that are roughing it in BA first class. But it’s a dicey undertaking. Because if expectations are raised very high, even a tiny mishap (the champagne is the wrong temperature, the entertainment system has a glitch) can lead to high levels of disappointment.

It’s the William James tragedy: you are judged against the hopes and fantasies – the expectations – of the customer, rather than the reality of your achievement.

For Etihad – and many others – very high quality service (or luxury) is understood in terms of physical comfort: no one will disturb you; you won’t have to wait, you can stretch out, you can eat the most delicious things, drink rare wines, watch films on a large screen, have a shower. It’s the dominant conception of luxury around service.

High expectations around meaning: Adventure

What counts as luxury will, of course, depends on the kind of activity in question. For instance, Alpine Ascents – the most successful mountain adventure company of the last decade – is classed as a ‘luxury’ service provider because it offers a plentiful supply of oxygen and good access to doctors.


© Flickr/Dru!

Unlike airline companies, Alpine Ascents tries to make the consumer’s expectations realistic: they are very worried about people having high hopes that in reality, can’t be fulfilled. This has worked well because their customer satisfaction ratings are extremely high.

– You have to be in very good physical condition, if you’re not, you can’t do the climb, no matter what you pay.

– Instead of seeing luxury in terms of ‘we’ll do everything for you,’ Alpine Ascents aims to teach its clients greater levels of confidence and self-reliance.

– Alpine Ascents aims to get its customers to appreciate the beauty and grandeur of the mountains.

We wouldn’t normally get excited by the idea of getting up at 2am, eating only instant nutrition bars, having a headache, getting very cold and struggling to force oneself to overcome fear and to keep going in spite of exhaustion: which are standard aspects of the experience of climbing a very high mountain. What Alpine Ascents and many other companies are trading on, however, is not simply the customer’s realisation that it will be like this – so they are not horrified by what actually happens when they get up towards the peak. The key factor in expectations here is not just realism. It’s the idea that the experience is valuable, meaningful and worth it. It’s the expectation that ‘I’ll do all that hardship stuff and have a truly great time.’

The idea of expectations, therefore isn’t just a tick list of specific features, or details you think the service will include. More importantly, it is shorthand for ‘what I think will make me happy’ in this part of life. And what companies like Alpine Ascents remind us is that we don’t only think that physical comfort will make us happy, we also believe that effort, risk, even hardship experienced in the right cause can be the path to happiness. We intuitively understand (though we easily forget around service) that happiness is as much about meaning and a sense of purpose, as it is about comfort.

Where expectations come from

Expectations are not a permanent fixture: advertising influences our expectations, as do many wider features of the cultural landscape. It took a very long time for climbing a mountain (and embracing all the hardship this entails) to be attractive to the consumer.

In the 18th century, for example, mountains were not on the tourist map of Europe. The highly lucrative industry focused (to an extent that might now strike us as astonishing) on visiting Roman ruins. Mountains simply didn’t figure in this scheme of good travelling or the well-lived life.

But by the start of the 20th century, mountains had become one of the most fashionable and sophisticated destinations. The change in attitude was brought about by poets, artists, philosophers and novelists.


Caspar David Friedrich’s contribution wasn’t limited to showing people what such places might look like: expect to see crags and ridges of mountain chains. Rather, what he was doing was suggesting – arguing as passionately as he could visually – that such were the places where you could find the profound, most important, most exciting human experiences. This, he was saying, is what you need. Yes, it might take a long trek to get there, your fingers will get cold, you’ll feel dizzy at these heights. But it’s worth it. Because this is one of the key experiences of life. 

Caspar David Friedrich wasn’t formally employed by an advertising agency but, in effect, he was producing material for the Alpine Ascent account. So today, people relish sleeping in a small tent in a blizzard, breathing oxygen from a tank; feeling exhausted isn’t an objection, it’s part of the experience. An experience people would have paid to avoid is now a lucrative market. Not because it’s now ‘nicer’ but because expectations have shifted.

The real driver of expectations is a vision of happiness – that is, of the good, meaningful experience that is part of the well-lived life.

The aim of all service is to make the customer happy (or at least help them flourish) around some particular area of existence. So, good service in a plane is the kind of service that helps you thrive on a journey; good service in a hotel delivers the kind of help that enables you to thrive away from home.

The provision of physical pleasures and the reduction of irritants (that is, the things that are typically associated with luxury) is one natural contribution to our well-being. It’s one kind of assistance we might need in order to thrive around some area of activity.

The larger set of ‘eudaimonic needs’ (that is, things that help us flourish) includes six other factors:

– independence or self-reliance

– sense of competence

– self-understanding

– sociability (the feeling that others are in this too, that we are understood)

– resilience (our capacity to cope with setbacks)

– a sense of adventure

We need these things in order to thrive. And without them, it will be very hard for us to feel we are having a great time (even if the pillows are beautifully fluffed and there is a careful selection of winter fruits to hand).

Every business can ask itself what other needs (in addition to ease and comfort) it could be helping its customers with.

Case Study: IKEA

Given the right picture of what they are doing – the right expectations – people can come to love all kinds of things, that ordinarily we would imagine would be off-putting.


© Flickr/Don McCullough

IKEA have been one of the leading exponents of this move. At first sight, the idea of being told that you have to assemble your own bed feels like an affront. It’s degrading. Instead of being the customer, you have been co-opted as part of the workforce. You are too mean, or too poor, to buy an actual bed. You have to make do with just purchasing the raw materials out of which you will have to construct it yourself.

What IKEA did was offer customers a very different picture of what it means to assemble your own furniture. That is, they fostered a different set of expectations, drawing on powerful ideas about self-reliance, an egalitarian spirit, a sense of the charm of Swedish modernism. When you are bolting the bits together you don’t feel resentful. You enjoy being this kind of person.

That’s why it’s so important for them to emphasise their Swedishness – serving meatballs and gravlax in the cafe, having weird sounding names for things (the BÖRJE chair, the ALÄNG table lamp) and to put pictures and insert mini bios of their designers in their catalogues. Henrik Preutz and Ebba Strandmark are there to promote an idea of an attractive kind of person: one who likes assembling things themselves, whose doesn’t feel it’s in any way degrading to push a vast cart around a warehouse, someone who has no status anxiety.

IKEA don’t have to do all the work. We already have some very positive – though perhaps latent – associations with self-reliance (and putting together your own bed). In fact, this is a major theme of one of the great American books, Thoreau’s Walden, which tells in enchanting detail of the two years he lived in a little hut (which he built himself, in the ideal IKEA spirit).


The furniture Thoreau assembled: early advertising for IKEA

Thoreau was the ideal customer. He did not assemble his furniture himself because he was short of money. He was glad to get it cheaply, but there was another big thing in his mind. He wanted to do it himself. He liked the idea that he had put something of himself, his own effort and ingenuity, into the things he lived around. That’s what ready-assembled furniture couldn’t give him.

IKEA, of course, was seeking profits. They worked out it was more profitable to get the customers to do some of the labour themselves. They could increase their margins by storing everything flat-packed in their warehouses. But the key insight was that customers would assemble the furniture not simply so as to save money, but because they liked doing it. The service IKEA offered was an attractive vision of the self as a furniture assembler – with this as a part of a nice, comfortable, interesting life. The power of IKEA depends on the fact that they have tapped into an important truth about life – and then organised a very efficient business around that.

Case Study: Airbnb

Airbnb has revolutionised the travel industry by changing people’s expectations in a couple of key ways. Around: how you might feel about someone else staying in your place (which unlocked supply) and how you might feel about staying in someone else’s place (which unlocked demand). 

Airbnb helped make accommodation cheaper. But their proposition wasn’t just about that. They were also arguing that other people are generally very trustworthy and that you too are trustworthy. The expectation shift here is profound and intimate.


© Flickr/Effie Yang

Central to the service is a vision of happiness around travel. They’re making the case that in order to travel well and have a good time, your attitude, your independence and your curiosity about meeting new people are important. And their service taps into these aspects of you – in ways that the traditional idea of the hotel does not. Airbnb is offering a lower level of service in some areas: they don’t provide room service or valet parking, there’s not going to be someone in a tailcoat to open the door. Rather than solve the problems around getting a sandwich at 3am, parking your car and opening the door, Airbnb concentrates on addressing a different range of issues that are equally relevant to having a good holiday (and maybe rather more relevant). They’re connecting you with the more trusting, more generous, more confident, more self-reliant – which makes for a better trip.

* * *

Alpine Ascents, IKEA and Airbnb are examples of service companies that have built great commercial success on the back of educating their customer’s expectations, which means they have promoted a particular insight into what can make us happy. The core move is that they are not only relying on the traditional luxury conception of happiness as physical comfort. That’s not wildly wrong – because physical comfort is a contribution to happiness. But there are many other factors that contribute as much to the flourishing life, like self-reliance, trust, a sense of adventure. Being helped to develop these aspects of oneself is a true service.

All service aims at making the customer happy. But service has typically focused on only a few of the things that could contribute to our happiness. Educating expectations really means helping us see how things we’ve not paid enough attention to can make a big contribution to our lives.

Thought experiments

As a thought experiment, we could imagine this move being made in other service areas.


In an advert for the Park Hyatt chain, George Clooney has to wait five minutes to check into the hotel. But he’s not seething. He knows patience is a virtue. He understands that sometimes things just do get a bit busy. He’s being mature about it. He looks at the little vignettes of life going on all around. The wise man is never bored, because the world is endlessly fascinating.

© Michael Vlasaty/Wikipedia

Even very well-run hotels are going to face such issues – at some point, three people are going to want to talk to the concierge or eight people need taxis at the same moment. In theory, all this could be solved with more and more staff. But this would lead to the hotel being in a different price bracket. The point is, being a mainstream luxury hotel still involves lots of little problems. The hotel is promoting the idea of the mature guest who is well able to cope with these minor irritations. And who knows that instantaneous perfection is not the key to happiness.


British Airways could promote the important virtue of not letting the unavoidable get you down. In economy, there’s a nicely dressed, modestly attractive woman squashed between two over-sized men. Then there’s an announcement that (through no fault of the airline) they’re going to have to wait on the tarmac for an hour and five minutes. She doesn’t roll her eyes or let out a long sigh. She’s going to be fine. She takes out a well-thumbed, much annotated paperback copy of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and starts reading, there’s just the tiniest smile on her face. She is being perfectly British, perfectly British Airways. Their slogan: Rise Above Everything.

Later, she’s standing waiting to use the loo. A steward is passing with a tray and suddenly the plane lurches and the tray falls spectacularly to the floor. The stewardess is embarrassed and makes frantic apologies. Our nice woman bends down to help and gives a warm smile: you mustn’t worry, these things can’t be helped. It’s perfectly all right. She puts a little carton of orange juice back on the tray. The best people fly BA.

British Airways Concorde First Class Lounge Heathrow Terminal 5

© Flickr/Gary Bembridge

Wise patience and a stiff upper lip are real virtues. That is, they really do assist you in leading a happier life. The company that fosters them in their customers is doing those people a big service. They are getting more directly to the true goal of all service: the happiness of the customer. They are not excuses for sloppy service: the point is that unless we buy a much more expensive ticket (or, ideally a private jet) travel just is going to involve a range of difficult experiences. Helping us cope with those is a genuine and important service.

At the top luxury end, the airline company might compete with Etihad not by offering an even larger bed or greater water pressure in the private shower, but by widening the range of needs that it addresses. Instead of just concentrating on the luxury of comfort, it could address other (currently sidelined) needs we might have around travel:

for accomplishment: you can sit in the cockpit during landing or – under careful supervision, flick a switch that’s part of the sequence for engaging the autopilot, the pilot gives you a quick lesson.

for sociability: have a cocktail with an interesting, distinguished or just rather lovely person on board.

for participation: take a brief call with a board member, or the head of marketing, to discuss your views of the company and the key challenges of the industry.

Tea at the Ritz

The tea service takes certain problems very seriously. Great attention and skill has been devoted to ensuring that the sandwiches while very thin are not soggy. They’ve worked out how to keep the teapot hot for half an hour and what the ideal density of tables is – you don’t want to feel crowded by others, but it’s nice to sense that other people are around: you can see them and they can see you.

The Ritz does these things very well indeed. But other needs go unaddressed and are not yet on the agenda as things that good service can and should address. They are not rare needs or preferences (such as jam made from Californian Olallieberries). They are some of the main obstacles we might face when trying to have a sociable afternoon.


© Flickr/Herry Lawford

Having one’s melancholy acknowledged. One customer out of three is probably feeling a bit melancholy. It’s not that some terrible disaster has befallen them, they are just struck by the brevity of life or are conscious of how many opportunities they have let slip or they feel more acutely than usual how hard it is for people genuinely to understand one another. These are not problems to be solved, but perceptions to be acknowledged and perhaps shared.

What good service might include: the demeanour of the waiter allows you to feel low-key, a bit withdrawn into yourself; they are not trying to jolly you along. An existentialist notepad and a set of psychoanalytic pencils is included as an item on the menu (i.e. something you might very naturally like to have at this time, just as you might also like to have a slice of cake).

The difficulty of conversing interestingly with people you might not know very well. This is a major social need, but we are left entirely alone with it at the moment by the service provider. You are expected to bring your own conversation. In the future, this omission might look as strange as it would today to expect customers to bring their own milk, or their own tables with them.

Good service could extend to: an elegant conversation menu card is placed on the table as a matter of course – looking at one of these is not an admission of failure; here it is regarded as a wise and sophisticated thing to do. The hotel has a conversation code, just as – at the moment – it has a dress code: men are currently required to wear a tie and a jacket and jeans are barred. Equally, it could include an introduction service: you will be very nicely introduced to another individual or group.

The aim of the company is to edge us towards a good set of expectations – that is a vision of the kind of help we’d ideally like and would benefit from getting.

Eight: Trouble with details

Service goes wrong when a detail is neglected that, unfortunately, has a big impact on the customer’s experience: an assistant seems aloof; the mini-bar fridge hums in the night; the toast is cold. 

Daily life is filled with disconcerting examples of little things that have big consequences. You meet your partner in a bar after work and you start to mention that you’ve had a rather difficult day. They listen for a minute and then say in an off-hand manner: ‘poor you. Listen, you know the Jaguar XE, it’s now in production.’ You are deeply wounded. The problem is all in the details: it’s that when they said ‘poor you’, they were looking at their glass. And you are quite interested in the new Jaguar marque, but the timing was a problem; they didn’t pause between ‘poor you’ and mentioning the car. Two seconds would have been enough.


© Flickr/Guian Bolisay

You seem to be upset by the tiniest things: your partner’s inferior rectus eye muscles momentarily contracted; they didn’t take a breath mid-sentence. It can all seem out of proportion.

But we can understand why. These details carry a large meaning: your partner doesn’t seem to care very much about what happened to you during the day.

Or, someone doesn’t put the cap back on the toothpaste tube and it starts to drive their partner wild. It’s a small thing in itself but it means: this person is negligent and sloppy – right across life. The toothpaste is just the point where a bigger problem comes into focus.

In a commercial service context there are three issues around detail:

– noticing detail

– understanding why a detail matters

– being selective about which details to focus on

Let’s look at each in turn.

Teaching sensitivity

Daily life desensitises us. We’re in a hurry; there’s so much noise, dirt, so much evidence of human sorrow – we start to shut it out. We stop noticing. It’s a very understandable form of self-defence. But this means that sometimes we’re not sensitive enough. We need to be re-sensitised to certain things.

Around service, the challenge is sometimes to get the staff to see and feel the importance of details which they usually don’t notice or especially care about.

Essentially, a detail is something that’s easy to overlook. So, in order to get good at dealing well with detail, we need to get into the habit of paying attention.


We wouldn’t usually pay a lot of attention to the visual details of a bunch of asparagus. But Manet was very sensitive to the attraction of the lilac tips, the white flesh of the stalk, the nice contrast with the bed of green leaves and the charm of binding them with thick golden-brown twine. 

Manet has directed a lot of attention in an unusual – but rewarding – direction. And when we’ve seen him do this, we start to get more sensitive ourselves: we become more attentive. We notice more details. We become more alert to the ways something can be more – or less – attractive.

Comedy can do this too. For instance, it’s not very normal for people to think about how they stand – it’s not something modern culture tends to pay much attention to. But how an assistant or a waiter stands can make a big difference: without realising it, their posture communicates something to the customer.


18th-century portraits like this one showing an English aristocrat and his dog on holiday in Italy don’t literally show the ideal way to stand when serving someone a glass of orange juice and an almond croissant. What they do is sensitise us to the way posture is a form of communication: a language. They do this by showing us a posture that’s so unfamiliar that we can’t help noticing it. Through looking at an extreme case, we notice the relevant elements: the title of the head, the distance of the hands from the body, the alignment of the feet. It’s a vehicle for promoting sensitivity to detail.

What a detail is doing

In art and architecture, the role of the detail has long been taken very seriously indeed.

The Parthenon, at the summit of the Athens Acropolis may well be – despite its ruinous state – one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. Certainly, it is one of the most influential.


Tiny details make all the difference

But the source of its visual magnetism isn’t at first obvious.

The base on which the temple stands – for instance, isn’t actually flat. It curves very gently down from the middle. You’d not notice (unless you tried to lay a completely straight 20-metre iron bar on it).

The columns lean slightly towards the centre – again you can’t easily tell.


The details exaggerated: in reality we can hardly see them

Such details can sound a bit obscure. But they are what make the building appear effortlessly poised, balanced and serene. Less accomplished architects didn’t realise that such details could make a big difference.

The same move (attending to a detail which helps produce an important overall effect) can be seen at work in a modern service context.

– A great chef adds a little parmesan to the sauce, you might not know this. But you love the effect. The fish somehow seems more savoury than usual. They did a little thing – they grated a few grams of cheese – but it made a big difference. 

– A medium-sized accountancy firm might put very good art on the walls of the rooms where they have meeting with clients. They haven’t spent much money on them: they’re just some elegantly-mounted photographs (from, perhaps, X’s series: the life of accountants). It’s an eloquent detail. They are deftly signalling that they’ve got a good perspective on the world of tax law, returns, investments and asset management. Money is serious, of course, but it sits within the larger issue of getting one’s life to go well. This detail says: ‘We might be talking about the taxation aspects of renting out your holiday cottage in Cornwall (it might be best in your circumstances to set this up as a small business) but we haven’t forgotten that you are a human being.’


© Flickr/PortoBay

– A sales assistant in an upmarket clothes shop has a way of asking ‘can I help you?’ that feels both genuine and friendly: the tone in which they say these words is minutely different from a colder way of speaking. It’s a tiny difference, but it’s showing that here is someone who is really on the side of the customer, who has their best interests at heart. The detail is tiny but the meaning, for the customer, is large.

– The smile of the person at the check-in desk could make up for having to stand in a queue for fifteen minutes to reach them.

The good service company works back to the detail by first understanding the important effect they are aiming at. Then they work back and ask themselves what little things that effect depends on. They don’t just randomly seize on some little thing and try to get that perfect. Their attention to this detail is motivated by a big ambition.

For the same reasons, though, getting a little thing wrong can have a big effect.

– In a cafe, the music is a little too loud: which implies that this isn’t a place to think or read or have a conversation. You can ask for it to be turned down – but the problem is they didn’t notice it on their own.


© Flickr/Thomas Hawk

– In a smart restaurant, the waiter hovers. There’s a major difference between keeping an attentive but discreet eye on how a diner is doing and being intrusive. It could make the difference between great and terrible service. But in physical terms we might only be looking at small details here: the distance the waiter is from the table; how relaxed they seem; whether they glance or stare. Hovering has a bigger, and negative meaning: lack of confidence. Hovering says: ‘I don’t know how to look after you.’

– An airline prides itself on making announcements in six languages, a little touch designed to show their cosmopolitan character, but by the time they have interrupted your viewing of House of Cards for the fifth time to explain in Russian how to fasten a seatbelt, you are getting desperate and wish that anyone on board who can only learn to ‘clip it in as shown’ in this one language – despite it’s being mimed multiple times already – would simply disappear.

– A car is designed in such a way that you can’t see the speedometer when you turn the steering wheel. It irks you all the time and – despite liking a lot of other things about the vehicle – you go for another make next time round. It’s a tiny thing, in a way: but it’s just cost the manufacturer your loyalty.

Which details to pay attention to

For a long time, artists were preoccupied with attending to every detail of appearance. If you asked them which details it was most important to get right they would say: ‘all of them’.


The English artist, John William Waterhouse (1849 – 1917) for instance, was typical in his attention to detail: he was precise about the creases of the neck and the shape of the cheekbone; he carefully noted every strand of hair.

By contrast, Matisse can seem terribly negligent.


But we don’t look at Matisse and think: what a careless guy, why didn’t he pay proper attention to her hair? He hasn’t even bothered to give her nostrils, or complete the outline of her eyes.

Matisse wasn’t being shoddy. He was very concerned with some details: the angle of the head is really important, the position of her mouth is perfect, though it’s defined by only two strokes of the pen. The way her hair curls over her forehead is delightful, though it’s been presented with the greatest possible economy.

He could afford to be selective – he could be economical – because he knew what he was aiming it: an effect of flirtatious sweetness, which actually doesn’t require much attention to every strand of hair or the shape of her cheekbones. In effect, he asked himself which details he likes. He finds this person’s face charming and he wants to identify the key factors. It’s not just everything about her face that’s sweet. 

The two, closely-connected moves that Matisse brings to our attention are:

– be selective about which details to concentrate on.

– select the details that matter for achieving a particular goal or effect. This move can be applied in various service areas.

Details of service for a serene hotel

– The staff are pleasant to talk to, but sometimes they will be a bit inefficient – they might read a book during a slack period. The relevant detail here is being rounded, natural and interesting, rather than focused on achievement. This has a calming effect. 

– They don’t have fridges in the rooms (there are very few things that need to be kept below room temperature in a bedroom), instead they have silent cooler boxes. 

– The artwork is beautiful and tranquil.

– The selection at breakfast is quite limited; they concentrate on perfect fruit juice and exceptional scrambled eggs.

– The films and content on the in-room television system are selected for their ability to provide calm perspective.


© Flickr/Bryn Pinzgauer

– Nicely-shaped rooms: simple shapes, harmonious proportions.

– Minor blemishes are tolerated: painting peeling from a bathroom ceiling or a cup-stained sideboard – serenity means not fussing too much.

Details of service for a clothes store that welcomes nervous men

– The changing cubicles are quite large, they have doors that shut; the assistant knocks.

– The floor area is arranged so the customer can see themselves in a full-length mirror, while remaining inconspicuous.

– The service staff are not terribly well-dressed.

– Works of art and the manner of the staff encourage one to feel melancholy around clothes: it is so very unlikely you will get exactly what you want; and even if you do, you will never look the way you’d like.

Details of service for a restaurant that helps families eat together

– The children’s menu is as carefully thought out as the adult one, paying very close attention to what children will eat: chicken served with a square of cheese and a dollop of ketchup exactly in the middle.


© Flickr/Jon Siegel

– The restaurant has house ‘rules’ for children, which are strongly (but tactfully) promoted by the staff, which (like the ideal school) takes some of the burden off the parents.

– Staff might not be perfect at waiting (they occasionally muddle an order) but they are selected for their very good way with children. 

– Conversation exercises to engage a family as a whole.

Nine: The art of apology is neglected

Inevitably around service things sometimes go wrong. The plane is delayed. The scrambled eggs are watery; the car-hire company has mixed up the booking; the architect has misunderstood a point you’d made clear.

When service goes wrong we want a couple of things to happen. 

One: we want the problem solved.

Two: we want an apology – we want people to recognise how painful this problem has been for us.

But companies often overlook the importance of saying sorry because they are focusing their efforts on trying to solve the problem. And because they fear that apologising opens you to attack: you are admitting you are wrong and people will make you pay.

Saying sorry isn’t an excuse for poor service. Even very well-run service companies will make mistakes; it’s how you handle them that matters.

A good apology has two key components:

– It demonstrates empathy: you put yourself in the shoes of the customer and identify with their suffering, frustration and anxiety.

– It explains without being defensive.

(The art of saying sorry is one of the ways commerce is like the rest of life: things we learn around work can help us.)


How a problem is announced suggests how the provider is imagining the customer.


© Flickr/Luis

You are overseas and try to use a cash machine. For some reason the machine can’t help you – maybe they are out of cash or maybe the satellite connection between Verona and X (wherever VISA do their central things) has momentarily failed. The machine flashes you a terse announcement:

You have been denied access to this service

The curt refusal would make sense if you were trying steal some money. It sounds like a committee has sat in judgment on you and run a red line through your name. The announcement imagines that the customer is up to something disreputable. It’s very anxiety-provoking to be seen this way.

Instead the bank could announce:

We’re really sorry. There’s a glitch somewhere – we don’t know why. But we do know how maddening this is.

Very occasionally they will flash up this cheerful, kindly message to an identity fraudster. They could calculate the odds: 3,095 deeply anxious customers v. 1 gleeful (but not actually any the richer) fraudster. It’s a risk worth taking.

This apology is in effect saying: you and I are on the same side. We’d all like this service to be good. And, unfortunately, it isn’t right now. We’re remembering what it is like to be in your situation. We, too, have had moments when the cash machine wouldn’t accept a card. We weren’t trying to defraud someone. We were just people in a hurry being frustrated by a technical problem. We know that’s what you’re like too.

Apology as explanation

In 19th-century England, the rising start of the national Anglican church was a man called John Henry Newman. By his late thirties, he was the most influential figure in the Church of England. He was particularly admired for his harsh attacks on the Roman Catholic church – seen, in those days, as the natural enemy of the English church.

When he turned forty, he changed his mind. He decided that, after all, the Catholics were right. He swapped sides – and became the leader of the Catholics instead.


He embarrassed and upset his friends

Of course, he caused huge offence to a large number of people. His friends felt betrayed. A lot of people were very angry with him.

He responded by writing what he called an Apologia. It’s the autobiographical record of the experiences and ideas that lead him to swap sides. He didn’t just confront people with a brute fact: I used to agree with you, now I think you’re wrong. He told the story of the small steps that took him from where he had to been to where he was now. 

An apologia is like an apology – but there’s one key difference: you don’t think you’ve actually done anything wrong. You know that other people are very upset. And you take their hurt and annoyance very seriously indeed. You’re not surprised they are angry – though you believe that if they knew the whole story, they would be much more forgiving and accepting. They might even come to share your point of view.

An apologia is an explanation that engages with how upset and annoyed other people are.

The situation Newman found himself in is familiar in a commercial service context. The customer is unhappy and upset. The company maybe isn’t actually to blame.

This happens a lot around the rail system.


© Flickr/Nana B Agyei

At the station, the train operator flashes up the stark message:

The 11.30 to Bristol Temple Meads has been cancelled.

The frustrated passenger crowded on the platform has a picture of the rail company: they are lazy, they make dopey blunders, they don’t care about the passengers. The delay is entirely their fault; if they were more competent, this wouldn’t happen.

From the point of view of the train operator, it all looks very different. The delay has been caused by something the rail company has no control over: wet leaves are sticking to the rails and reducing traction and making breaking difficult. It’s so bad they are going to have suspend the service and send in a special vehicle to clean the tracks.

If the train companies were to say more about what is going on, their first instinct might be to show their irritation. They could be tempted to broadcast a message like this:

‘It’s the leaves, not us. Why can’t you understand that? Quit complaining.’

What they need to do is undertake an apologia: an explanation that’s specifically geared to acknowledging and diffusing the anger the passengers feel.


© Flickr/Hope Abrams

Britain has lovely trees; it’s a great thing about this country. We’ve all had moments when we’ve been touched by their beauty and quiet dignity. But trees cause difficulties too. In October and November, when the leaves fall, it often rains; inevitably, damp leaves end up on the rails.

When trains run over them, the pressure of the wheels make these leaves stick very tightly to the top of the rails. A kind of slippery leaf coating builds up on the track and the trains can’t break properly. So the line has to be cleaned. We used sand, a special citrus-based cleaning agent to remove the build up.

The deepest form of apology is to share with another person the real nature of the task; to say – ultimately – we are trying to do this fascinating thing. We’re trying to provide a reliable rail service in a country that loves trees and woodland. It’s one instance of a huge civilisation-defining task: how can we have beauty and efficiency at the same time? Unfortunately, aiming at both these things means that sometimes there are going to be difficult moments. This is one of them. We’re really sorry it is your journey that is being messed up today. We know that’s maddening but we hope you’ll bear with it.

They aren’t simply saying, we’re very sorry. They’ve got a bigger ambition. Like Newman, the rail company is offering an apologia: an explanation of what is really going on. They are trying to lead the customer from their suffering to an understanding of the bigger issue that’s at stake. In the belief that understanding will soften the irritation.

How much inconvenience people will put up with, in the name of a grand cause:

On the 18th of June 1940, Charles de Gaulle made a radio speech from the Broadcasting House in London.


We’ve made a lot of mistakes but we’re going to keep trying

France had just been invaded, the army was in disarray. He himself had fled a couple of days before. He admitted many mistakes had been made. He was asking for the support and loyalty of French people everywhere. He didn’t have much to offer them. He couldn’t offer people security or a salary. Nevertheless, many thousands of people instantly responded. And we understand why: eventually they were going to recover their country and restore its honour.

‘Mistakes have been made, there have been delays and untold suffering, but the fact remains that there still exists in the world everything we need to crush our enemies some day.’

De Gaulle understood that people are motivated by many things and amongst the strongest motivators is participation in a great project.


One day we will make it here: the grand cause justifies the pain and the effort

De Gaulle represents the extreme version of a general, widespread point. Human beings are remarkably good at putting up with difficulties if they believe the cause is worthwhile: parents get up in the middle of the night to feed their babies and life-boat crews will face appalling seas. Or, in sport we’ll make ourselves keep running to complete the half-marathon or get up at five in the morning to perfect one’s backstroke when the pool is empty. They all point to the same psychological fact: it’s not being uncomfortable in itself that bothers people; it’s the feeling of having to put up with inconvenience for no very good reason.

Ten: We don’t understand what’s good about good service

We tend to think that the range of things that can be learned is quite limited. You can learn to polish silver or to carry a tray or make a safety announcement. But you can’t learn to smile warmly or be more empathetic.

One of the reasons service goes wrong is that it isn’t ambitious enough around the idea of education. We don’t spend enough time studying role models of good service. In the past, religions made great use of this move. They’d encourage people to think a  lot about what an ideal role model would do in particular circumstances. Christianity, of course, was always asking people to think about what Jesus or one of the saints might do or say at challenging moments. There were many images of the charitable actions of St. Francis of Assisi – for instance, of the time he gave away his spare blue cloak.


A reminder of how you might ideally treat others in need

The basic principle is a general one: we can learn to do things better by paying close attention to what the best people are doing and understanding what it is they are getting right.

One of the best waiters in the world is Stefano Lombardi who works at the Hotel de Russie, near Piazza del Popolo in Rome.


He is dignified

Dignity might not be the first word that comes to mind when we think of the good server. But what it means is that the server’s self-respect isn’t on the line. They’re already sure of their own worth. So they don’t need to prove it to the customer. Stefano behaves naturally. His politeness is never forced or fake.

Stefano remembers the humanity of those he serves

He knows that someone might be a bit down, that life has many difficulties that a caffè freddo cannot solve. So he’s not attempting to ensure that his customers are jolly and bright all the time. Rather, he’s attuned to their mood. He might be serving a quail-egg omelette and yet signal with a wry smile that – after all – it is only an omelette. And no matter how nice or exotic it is, it cannot repair a damaged marriage or undo a deal that’s gone sour or bring a father and son closer. He’s not pretending it can. What you feel, as he gently puts the plate down, is his discreet sympathy. It’s not anything he says. It’s what he’s thinking.


© Flickr/Stijn Nieuwendijk

‘When I look at some of the people who come in here, I think, there’s a nice person who is having a rough day. Maybe they just want to be quiet; maybe they want to forget their troubles for a little while. Maybe they just need someone to treat them with kindness after a few too many bruising experiences. I’m always alert for the little signals that show me what’s going on for a customer. I never judge them. I never badger a customer. I don’t suggest: would you like this, or why don’t you try that, until I’ve got a sense of what’s going on for them.’

He treats each customer as an individual

Plastic or robotic service means treating all customers in the same way. The server wishes the person a good day, not because they wish this specific individual a good day, but because they say it to everyone.

The ideal service company would have a statue of its version of Stefano in their head offices. New service staff would be told stories about him, and maybe they’d get to meet him one day. They’d be encouraged to ask ‘what would Stefano do’ in tricky situations: when a customer is complaining unreasonably; when you’ve made a slight mistake and want to apologise; when a couple is lingering too long at a table when they’ve finished their meal; when a customer is making too much noise.

The single most important secret Stefano possesses, however, is his conviction that what he does matters.

‘Being kind to other people is one of the central tasks of life. Good service means, in effect, kindness: understanding what another person needs, treading delicately when you find a sore spot. I may only be bringing them a cup of tea or a glass of prosecco. But it represents something universal: cheerful generosity.


Getting good at service involves creating the right internal culture in a company.


© Flickr/Jazz Guy

On the second Saturday of April each year, people in New York with Scottish ancestry dress up in kilts and tartan socks, play the bagpipes and parade up 6th Avenue (starting from W45th Street).

They are teaching themselves ‘Scottishness’. The rest of the time they might be taxi drivers, investment analysts, stay-at-home parents and high school teachers. But for a little while they are reconnecting with and strengthening this particular part of their identity. The people who established the parade had exactly that in mind. They were acutely aware of how easily a sense of national identity could get eroded in New York. So they set out deliberately to encourage it.

They are picking up on a basic fact about people: we are usually very open to suggestions about how to behave. In an art gallery, we move more slowly, we talk quietly, we feel very respectful towards authority. We are highly responsive to environmental cues about how to behave. The organiser of New York’s tartan march don’t leave the environmental signals to chance: they have particular songs, stories, poems, special clothes, food, musical instruments, flags. Each item operates with the same core conviction: certain things that go on outside affect what goes on inside us. The kilts, haggis, bagpipes and feathered caps are all used in order to promote a set of emotions: pride and loyalty. They get people to feel Scottish by surrounding them with signs of Scottishness.

Corporate identity is fostered using the same mechanism. The company can foster a culture of good service by marshalling a helpful set of signals:

© Psalm Tours/Wikipedia

The CEO shows their own dedication to service. The CEO happens to be running the show; but they believe in the dignity of the service the company offers. They can still serve, occasionally. Service isn’t something you get promoted out of.


© Flickr/Samuel King Jr

People feel proud of their uniform. It’s not just for work.


They tell the stories of their origins, their triumphs, their failures, their rivalries and the plans that didn’t always work out.

The ancient Greek poet, Homer, told the stories of the corporation he worked for (the alliance of Greek city states); the songs were educational – they told the next generation – or intake – about admired habits and attitudes.


© Nasa

They promote a sense of mission. They are not landing people on the moon, but they are doing something genuinely important. Looking after other people is one of the great human projects – religions and ethical systems have been built around it. It’s no less important than shooting rockets into space.


They use art to show who some of their heroes are


They believe their anthem

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