It Is All About The People

I recently returned from a two-week vacation abroad. The trip itself was marvelous; my wife and I were fortunate enough to visit several countries and receive world class service that caused us to emanate gratitude throughout each day. Even now, I am astonished when I reflect on the experience. Which got me to thinking, was it all by chance or something far more intentional, calculated, predictable even?

At one time the buzzword was satisfaction. Recently, the concept of customer experience is more in vogue. As a student of social psychology and human behavior, I have found myself drawn to this research throughout my professional career. Other business leaders including marketing professionals, sales persons, and executives have long been interested in the intersection between psychology and commerce as well. One of the reasons why so many are interested in this topic is there is a lot of money to be made by understanding how people operate. While the enrichment of community is enough for me, the fact is that strong persons and strong communities mean strong financial gains and this often catches the attention of even the most avaricious of scrooges.

Before I go any further, I want to address something important. Some rightfully have a concern about the ethics of leveraging the power of persuasion to close a sale or turn a profit. I share many of these concerns. However, I am convinced that the innate value in customer experience is often more valuable than the primary goods and services originally exchanged.

I will give you an example. Every year my wife and I go to Ruth’s Chris for our anniversary. The food at Ruth’s Chris is excellent quality; there are large portions, they have top grade beef, and the chefs prepare the food with great skill. I have never had a meal there that I did not enjoy, but that is not why my wife and I return to Ruth’s Chris year after year. The service is impressive as well; the servers are personable, yet respectful and every employee is attentive to the customer, but we do not return to Ruth’s Chis year after year for the service either. We return year after year because we know that we will reconnect, laugh together, and have a great time. We go because the experience strengthens our marriage and this is worth more than anything on the menu. Does Ruth’s Chis profit from this? Absolutely. Do they attempt to sell us a more expensive bottle of wine because we are celebrating? You bet, but the experience is invaluable.

I began this post with a rhetorical question about whether or not our experience as we traveled to and throughout Europe was intentional. Of course it was! The trip began with a flight out of San Francisco aboard a Virgin Atlantic aircraft. Although we traveled economy class, we were immediately impressed with the company. The plane was clean, comfortable, and well designed, entertainment choices were top notch, and the service was impeccable. Even when one of our bags didn’t make it through our transfer in London, I never stopped being impressed with this company and here’s why: I was treated relationally with dignity and respect. The customer service representative demonstrated legitimate empathy and worked hard to correct something outside of her control. I have flown with many other companies and I can tell you that I would happily pay a premium for the Virgin Atlantic experience again. This is not an accident. The company has invested greatly in leadership development and creating key performance indicators focused on their customers.

Our flight with Virgin Atlantic was great, but the river cruise we took with AmaWaterways was outstanding. To be fair, these companies had two very different roles in our vacation. Nonetheless, both are the embodiment of service excellence. As a premier luxury cruise line, AmaWaterways goes out of their way to create unforgettable experiences. In this arena, luxury is so ingrained that it has become rudimentary. If you are familiar with the kano-model, luxury and customer service are “basic expectations” aboard AmaWaterways ships. For this reason, they invest heavily in “satisfiers” and “delighters.”

I’ll give you just one example: my wife has many dietary restrictions, which greatly limit our dining options when we away from home. Many companies have graciously set aside options for customers like my wife, but the crew aboard AmaWaterways ships go well beyond simply meeting my wife’s dietary needs. Both times we have cruised with AmaWaterways, the chef and maitre d’ have personally come to our table to ensure that my wife had appropriate options at each meal and that her dining experience was just as exceptional as the other guest’s.

One of the coolest things about customer experience is that the principles can be applied to every industry, not just the obvious ones like hospitality. I currently work in multiple sectors including healthcare, residential property management, and education. Customer experience is important in all of these because the common thread in all of them is people.

A patient and their family expect competent, best-practice medicine when they are in the hospital. The delighter is when the nurse sits at the bedside to comfort and pray with the patient. Apartment residents expect clean, safe units and respectful service. The delighter is when the management company has placed a team within the community whose specific role is to build relationships and live life with others. Students expect to learn about a specific subject and gain the knowledge to pass exams. The delighter is when their professor comes alongside and seeks to understand their unique perspective so that the knowledge can become wisdom. Simply put, regardless of what you do for a job, if you make people your vocation you will be successful. Our entire economy is built upon human relationships, so it is no wonder that when we build humans our economy grows.

I will close with a quote from our ship’s captain because he said it best on the last day of our cruise: “All this luxury really means nothing; after a while you get used to it. The crew is what you will remember.”

Work Hard, Rest Hard

I have worked in healthcare long enough now to see my fair share of burnout and compassion fatigue. It is difficult to watch talented, compassionate caregivers lose their edge, wither back, and harden their shells. Especially since it’s preventable. A few days ago I facetiously posted on my Facebook wall about how doctors had discovered the proverbial fountain of youth in basic diet and exercise, but that the general public rejected it because it didn’t come in a pill. I think it would have been funnier if it wasn’t so true. It is remarkable that even minor changes in these things really are the most effective way to not only prolong life, but to make it better as well.

The same is true with our emotional and spiritual health. Even the smallest adjustments can exponentially improve our wellbeing. Multiple studies have revealed that mindfulness and meditation can help reduce anxiety, tension, and depression, control metabolism, and lower blood pressure. Research also demonstrates that we can improve our attention, memory, conscious perception, awareness, and overall functioning. Virtually all the literature supports the position that peak performers are able to achieve wildly ambitious feats largely because, in addition to working hard, they rest hard. In other words, if your team isn’t a top performer, it might not be because they don’t work hard enough. It very well might be that they haven’t developed or been allowed to practice the skill of respite and self-care.

The crazy thing is that this is not a secret! There are books upon books about this stuff. And it’s not because folks don’t have a methodology either. There is a multibillion dollar industry around how to take good care of yourself. Just try and count the number of blogs, books, DVDs, articles, and audiobooks on the topic. At our hospital the leadership team has offered an entire room specifically for the practice of self-care. They know the cost, both financial and human cost, of burned out Team Members. So, why is it still happening? If it’s not an education or resource problem, what is it?

I think it’s a cultural problem. I think that our poor self-care is merely a symptom. The disease, if you will, is embedded in our ethos. Westerners are largely independent. We take great pride in hard work, pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, and blazing the trail. These values have become so important to us that we have social pressure to always be on, giving our all. We simply don’t celebrate rest. We barely celebrate innovation or creativity that make things easier. I’m convinced that if the pulley was invented in the United States today the poor inventor would be run out of town for trying to cut corners. We have very little empathy for struggling persons and we give badges of honor to individuals who martyr themselves and their families under the banner of hard work.

I know because I’ve been there. When I was in grad school the second time, it was not uncommon for my schedule to be full from my 4:30 wake up to my 10:00 bed time. Each week I ran nearly 25 miles, worked more than 40 hours, was at my internship for 10, attended several classes, completed my coursework, stayed engaged with my faith community, and remained a devoted husband and father. It was rigorous to say the least and I am proud of how hard I worked in each of the arenas to which I had committed. Most of the time people would affirm my efforts and applaud all that I was able to dependably accomplish, but every once in a while they would ask how in the world I had that kind of energy. I was always happy to share that it wasn’t magic and it certainly wasn’t that I am any more special than anyone else. I was excited to let them know that it was intentional self-care and boundary setting.

What my peers often overlooked was that my early wake up time was to exercise in a supportive, encouraging community. They might have missed that I kept a regular coffee appointment with a good friend who would attend to my challenges and pray with me before I went to work. They probably didn’t know that I was listening to inspiring, informative audiobooks during my 30 minute commute or taking that time to quiet my mind and pray. Surely they missed my daily commitment to 20 minutes of meditation and scripture reading. I religiously practiced self-care as if my life depended on it because, quite frankly, it did. Everything in my life that was not moving me toward my goals or was preventing them from being realized, was reduced or removed; I didn’t watch TV, I ate well, I took out toxic things, and I invested in relationships that were empowering.

When I tell people about the importance of self-care they kind of chuckle. Some will take it to heart and others will put it into practice in their own lives, but far too many roll their eyes and get back to the grind as quickly as possible. I hope they make it, but I know some of them will not. I don’t think we will have an award for “most well rested” any time soon. For now, the reward will have to remain uncelebrated mental health and longevity. However, I do hope that we can feed into a culture that honors others who honor themselves and make space for self-care. Perhaps we will slowly see a shift where hard work is in balance with hard rest