“If there is nothing very special about your work. No matter how hard you apply yourself, you won’t get noticed and that increasingly means you won’t get paid much either.” - Michael Goldhaber, Wired
Question: What is the difference between a distinct brand and a commodity?
Hint: Everything! Most importantly, you. Over the holidays, I went back home to New York City. Right before New Year’s Eve, we received the biggest snowstorm in five years. In my opinion, there are few things as beautiful as NYC (excuse the outburst of patriotism) right after a snowstorm. Allow me to extend my personal thanks to every one who took more initiative than their job required them to and made a difference during the storm! As a professional, regardless of your specific job, everything you do will either add to your success or detract, but everything does count! Attention (or lack thereof) to detail seriously matters.
The snowstorm hit, and my girlfriend and I were trapped. Problem: we needed something to eat, and I couldn't drive two feet because of the snow... forget about driving to the store. Solution: I decide to walk about a mile in the snowstorm to get groceries. Insane? Maybe, but we were hungry. Toward the end of my extremely brisk morning walk, I got to the corner grocery store. There I found a comforting sign: “One dozen bagels for $3.” YES! I entered the store and gave my normal greeting to the person at the register, “GOOD MORNING, how are you?” To which I received a warm and fuzzy response (a stare of total disgust and resentment). I admit I’m a sucker for jovial people, so I smiled back and went to the food counter. There were two employees behind the counter having a conversation about the bad weather and how much they hate having to be at work. Meanwhile, I was waiting patiently. I was the only warm body resembling a customer in the store at the moment, and still I waited for about FIVE MINUTES! The patience I'd had three minutes earlier was being tested. I quietly said, “Excuse me please.” They looked over at me, a bit pissed off that I had the audacity to interrupt. One of them politely acknowledged me with a “Yeah?” “Can I have a dozen bagels, and where do you have hot chocolate?” Response: “Over there,” as they directed me with a head motion and returned immediately to their conversation. “Over there? Where over there? Over in the next aisle? Down the street in the next store? Maybe they keep the hot chocolate somewhere over in Jersey!
Mental note: "Bobby, do not totally and completely lose it!" Deciding that I would not let Happy and Smiley behind the counter affect my emotional state and ruin a great snowstorm, I left to continue my bagel and hot chocolate quest elsewhere.
Customer Service Encounters of the Poetic Kind
I wandered for about a block and headed for another grocery store. As I walk in, I'm greeted with, “Congratulations, you've made it through the snow! How are you today?” ("Who is this girl?" I thought to myself.) “Good morning,” I responded. “Do you have hot chocolate?” “Packets or you want one now?” “Packets.” Not only did she tell me where it was, she came out from behind the counter to escort me to the hot chocolate. I probably looked confused, and she wanted to make sure I got there okay.
After getting my bagels, I decided to grab a cup of coffee (it was freezing outside). She said, “Are you in a rush right now?” I didn’t fully understand the question, but I said “Not really, why?” “Well, we haven’t had many people in here today, so the coffee’s been sitting a while. I can make you a fresh pot if you want to wait two minutes.” (Initiative and consideration, what a concept!) After the fresh pot brewed, I noticed they only had “the pink stuff,” no blue packet sweeteners. “I hate the pink stuff,” I said, (no offense intended to the pink stuff guys) “Do you have the blue stuff?” If she would have told me they didn’t offer blue stuff, I would have been disappointed, but I would have lived with it. Instead she went down the aisle and opened up a box of blue stuff and put it out for me. Was that a huge sacrifice on her part? Not really, but usually I get, “No, just what’s there.” So when she did that, I appreciated it. I also appreciated:
- The toll booth attendant who made a point to lean outside of the booth smiling and shout, “Happy Holidays” with a wave to every car that passed her at the battery tunnel.
- The professional at Starbucks on Broadway who is consistently polite and happy, not to mention takes special care to give me my change faster than usual out of empathy that I needed to catch the subway.
- The rants and raves of my beautiful girlfriend who continually preaches, any chance she gets, about passionately changing lives through the fitness industry and her exhortations about why she’s privileged to lead a great team. She will spend her whole weekend literally obsessing about how to better meet the needs of each trainer in her department (this is just one of the many things I love about her).
- The heart and soul each performer gave in the musical “The Fantastics,” even though they give the same performance over and over again each week out of a tiny playhouse in Greenwich Village. It was my first time seeing the play, and I really enjoyed it!
Moral of the story: Even in a snowstorm, people have choices. Many people offering products and services act as if they are doing you a favor by allowing you to buy from them. Whether it’s education, technology or hot chocolate and some bagels, my personal paradigm is that since customers have a myriad of choices regarding who they deal with, people should consider themselves privileged and not burdened by customer needs. I cannot fathom that I’m the only one who notices these distinctions in quality of service. If I have to walk an extra block or two in a snowstorm and pay a few bucks more for bagels in order to buy from a store that makes me feel welcome, my choice is pretty clear. Why can’t more people get this? A couple of bucks off for bagels doesn’t give you the liberty to abuse customers. According to Michael Gerber, most small businesses fail within the first five years. Is it entirely due to poor customer service? Maybe not, but it can’t be helping!
But what if I’m not a small business? What if I’m a trainer, membership consultant, front desk person, department manager, etc. working for someone else?
The truth is that you are never working for someone else. You are always the owner of your business. Even if you are the sole employee of that business, you are still owner and CEO of your career. By the year 2010 and into the next two to three decades, we will see an older working population and a substantial decrease in traditional full-time employment (Drucker.P, Management Challenges of the 21st Century). This means that the probability of continual employment by the same company is declining. As the owner of your career, it’s logical to continually focus on increasing your professional value. Regardless of where you work right now or your title, you should consistently be thinking of ways to make your company better. With the employee mentality, the focus is often on “it’s my company’s responsibility.” With the “I am my own company” paradigm, the onus is more on you and what you can give the company rather than what you can get. There are no guarantees of job security anywhere; to suggest there is would be delusional. The only guarantee of employment you have is to continually increase your value and, by doing so, keeping yourself employable. Doing everything you possibly can every day to increase the value of your contribution to your company, or at least your department, looks much better on a resume than “took up space and oxygen for the past 12 months at local health club.”
So what separates someone who is constantly complaining and has set mediocrity as an acceptable standard from the tollbooth attendant who turns something like paying a toll into a cool experience?
The tollbooth attendant has ownership! She has a different focus. She can sit in her booth and complain about her job, or she can be totally excited about the opportunity to make a personal connection and put a smile on the face of every human being who passes through her booth. I have seen some toll booth attendants that are miserable. If the city had to layoff a number of tollbooth workers, who do you think would have a better chance of finding a new job faster? There’s not a huge market for disgruntled, cynical complainers who have an uncanny talent for identifying the unfulfilling aspects of their job.
In every hiring decision I’ve made over the last few years, my criteria have been:
- Sense of responsibility
- Unique personality traits
- Desire to help people
- Willingness to make a human connection!
Knowledge and skill come last because they can be taught.
What is the most important contribution you make at work every day? Why is that important? What can you contribute every day to your customers, company and co-workers from where you are right now? Most importantly, what is unique or distinct about YOU? Every one has something unique and special about them. What is it for you? Do you have a sense of humor that makes people smile? Maybe it’s your ability to empathize and connect with others. You may have an artistic ability for building rapport that enables you to draw out the desires and needs of people better than anyone else. Or maybe you have an ability to see things in an assessment that makes you a master at program design. You may radiate energy that is contagious and motivates everyone around you. Or maybe you have an original style that’s just cool. Whatever it is, find it and draw it out. Work obsessively on developing it. If you don’t know what’s special about you professionally, ask someone (preferably someone who likes you). There is no excuse for not using your God given talents every day in ways that add something to the lives of those around you.
But my boss…
I can’t count the times I’ve heard someone blame their boss for why they can’t do anything! “My boss is a control freak. My boss doesn’t like me. My boss would never let me.” What they’re saying is their boss will never allow them to do more than they’re paid to do, or set excellence as a minimum personal performance standard or achieve anything without permission. How absolutely pathetic, sad and depressing it is to relinquish your power, individuality and integrity to “the boss.” It’s easy to place the blame outside yourself. By blaming the boss, your company, your spouse, political party, the military and global warming for why your personal standards are so low, you’re saying, “I’m not responsible for this.” If you’re not responsible, then you don’t have the power to change your situation. If you have no power, you’re helpless. If you’re helpless, than you’ve spent considerable time focusing on your fears. Basically, helplessness is self imposed. You’re the creator of your own mental paralysis. Anyone who tells you they can’t do anything outstanding at work because of their boss or company is full of ___!! Their boss never put a gun to their head and forced them to accept a paycheck.
They don’t pay me enough to…
Who the heck is they anyway? Your company? Your company doesn’t pay you, you pay you. There are three ways to earn money honestly: salary, commission and profit.
If you receive a salary, then you agreed to it when you were hired. The agreement wasn’t that you’d do a lousy job for your current salary and start taking responsibility for results when they adequately increased your pay. The most successful people in the long run are probably those who take a job for what it teaches, not just for what it pays. Until you can answer the question “How exactly is my company a better, more profitable place by having me on the payroll?” you don’t deserve to be paid more.
If someone is paid on commission, a low paycheck is the direct result of low productivity. In this form of compensation, you decide how much you get paid. Profit, which I consider investments, residuals and royalties, etc. is also based on your initiative. Ultimately, there are three choices to any situation: accept it, change it or leave it.
This industry has grown tremendously in the past few years. In the next few years, it will grow even more, raising the bar for qualified trainers. The opportunity created by this growth is greater credibility, career choices and earning potential. The challenge is that having a reputation for knowing your stuff will no longer be a distinguishing quality. The growth increase of the fitness industry has lead to greater competition. Therefore, there will be many highly educated trainers competing for clients. If a trainer doesn’t own his or her information, they will be obsolete. More than half the working trainers in this country do not have a degree or nationally recognized certification. Individuals who have been training people and not taken the ethical responsibility to continue their education are about to have their world rocked. You will need more than the ability to assess, design, instruct and modify programs. The ability to design programs that are safe and effective is the minimum (barely) criterion.
If you’re reading this right now, that means you have an interest in professional growth, and this means you have the potential to be a beneficiary of the changes that are occurring right now.
A commodity can be defined as a mass-produced unspecialized product or service. There are over 14,000 health clubs in the US. In addition, there are literally hundreds of thousands of personal trainers in this industry. So with an overwhelming availability of services through the fitness industry, the only thing that separates you from anyone else is specialized knowledge and your ability to make an emotional connection. People are emotional by nature. All decisions we make regardless of the logical rationale have emotional intent behind them. Someone once told me that customer service was about being friendly and enthusiastic and meeting and exceeding expectations. That is not going to make the difference anymore. Customers demand at least that. Customer service is about changing your paradigm so you can do things that customers are not expecting. It’s about adapting the attitude that customer service heroism is integrated into your molecular structure and not allowing yourself to fall into “it’s not my job” syndrome.
Here’s and example from an employee's experience at Nordstrom:
He heard dozens of stories about heroic customer service: the Nordie who ironed a new-bought shirt for a customer who needed it for a meeting that afternoon; the Nordie who cheerfully gift wrapped products a customer bought at Macy’s; the Nordie who warmed customers' cars in the winter while the customers finished shopping; the Nordie who personally knit a shawl for an elderly customer who needed one of a special length that wouldn’t get caught in the spokes of her wheelchair; the Nordie who made a last minute delivery of party clothes to a frantic hostess; and even the Nordie who refunded money for a set of tire chains, although Nordstrom doesn’t sell tire chains. - Collins & Porras; Built to Last
Ask yourself, “What can I do today that will create a unique, beautiful experience for one of my clients/members?” Harvey Mckay developed the “Mckay 66.” This includes over 60 pieces of personal and professional information about each of his key customers. Do you need over 60 pieces of information on every one of your clients? I don’t know. But get as much information about them as you can and use that information at every opportunity to make a personal connection. Send thank you cards, birthday cards, anniversary cards and congratulation cards (for promotions, newborns and personal successes) etc. Hand write every card. It shows that you took the time and consideration to individualize it. Partner with your clients. Find out what their interests are. Listen carefully to them. When you come across information that may interest your clients, send it to them with a personalized note. People are inundated with advertisements and marketing schemes every day. Distinguish yourself by consistently doing things for your clients that are considerate and classy and don’t ask for anything in return. This shows recognition and appreciation for them. Unfortunately, we don’t always get the recognition we want and need. Your clients may not expect appreciation and recognition from their trainer, but the majority of them will notice and appreciate it.
Think creatively. Remember the tollbooth attendant in NYC? She made me smile and I remembered her. What can you do each session that will make it a notably positive experience?
I remember a club that used to give customized shirts with their slogan to every personal training client. They would even send personalized gifts home. They would send meticulous, personalized invitations to their members to attend private parties at the club. The ambiance was exquisite. The food was unbelievable. The service was peerless. Granted, stuff like that requires a considerable amount of initiative and attention to detail. Not every business does stuff like that, but that’s the point! If you want more than average results, don’t model yourself after average businesses.
“The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.” - Michelangelo