Who Decides What is Uplifting Service?


I was relaxing on a flight last month in my usual window seat, happily reading a book with the soft, natural sunlight beaming through the window. A member of the cabin crew passed by and, seeing me reading, stretched out her hand and switched on the light above me. She smiled, and then she walked away.

I was distracted from my reading, and a little puzzled. The extra lighting from above was too bright for my comfort. I like soft, even dim lighting when I read, but friendly cabin crew did not know that. She thought she was serving me well. After she left, I reached up and turned off the light.

We define service as “taking action to create value for someone else”. The question is who decides what is of value? In the story above, the service provider assumed she knew what I would value. She did not check with me first or after. She was well-intentioned, but she was wrong.

The tendency to assume can be a trap for service providers, especially those of us who consider ourselves to be true experts in our fields. “I have the experience,” we may think, “and am in the best position to decide what is valuable for my customers.”­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­

While confidence is a positive trait for any service provider, curiosity about others is even more important. Before making an expert prescription, do we take the time to ask and fully understand? In medicine “prescription without diagnosis is malpractice”. In service, action without understanding can be unwise.

Even if we think we know the situation well from many years of service, each customer (or colleague) is unique. Even the same customer may value something different under different circumstances. I enjoy soft light for reading, but if I am working on my computer I like it bright! Is knowing what worked in the past and doing it again in the present really good enough? Or should we check again with questions to understand what’s valued now?

This idea of understanding first is also relevant for senior managers. It is common for leaders to feel frustrated when team members do not seem to notice or appreciate the incentives and bonuses provided.

But this goes back to question whether team members actually value what has been provided? Are channels of communication open for the leaders to enquire? Do managers assume that monetary rewards are the best way to win team members’ hearts and minds?

This need for curiosity also applies in our personal lives when the receivers of our “service” are spouses, children and other family members. Do we seek regular update about their needs? Do we confirm their current interests? Or do we simply do what we have done before and expect others to be delighted? When there is no shared understanding of what is valued between service providers and receivers, feelings of frustration can arise on both sides.

Stephen Covey’s fifth habit begins “Seek First to Understand”. This is an excellent habit in any communication, and especially so in service. Good advice to apply with customers, colleagues and our family members.

If only the smiling cabin crew member understood that.

Categories: Service Education
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30 Responses

  1. Teresa says:

    Your insightful thinking and article is universally applicable, worthwhile, and helpful. Thank you!

  2. Fawziah Mukhtar says:

    I have in the past also had the honour of the cabin crew switching on the light ASSUMING that it was too dark for me to read but not aware that I was really comfortable and deeply engrossed in my reading material. I have always wondered whether it ever cross their minds that I would have done it myself if I had really wanted the reading light to be switched on in the first place. She meant well though but it was pure assumption on her part as it comes with her training.

  3. Guo Tian Rui says:

    A very well written, informative and interesting article. I enjoyed reading your writeup. Communication is certainly the foundation of valued service.

  4. Ranjini Manian says:

    Very apt advice, I noticed this yesterday with a supporting spouse moving to India from Michigan.We had set up our relocation service for exactly such a customer 17 years ago, and while our first tendency was to tell her what we had to provide, a chat during the luncheon showed she was an individual need to be understood. She is the first customer who has been a surrogate mother after 4 of her own children and learning about this other member of her family was key to knowing her needs. Listening empathetically makes the world go around.

  5. Wee Ling says:

    I found this to be very helpful.Thanks for sharing this with us.

  6. Ann CJ says:

    Thank you for the article. I totally agree we should continuously and regularly check what is valued and not assume. People’s needs are different under different situations.

  7. Andrea says:

    Wonderful article Lai Chun… and it does create pause for thought.

    When in doubt (or even when assuming might be the normal course), communication is always best. A gentle “would you prefer the light on” could have been a nice way to exchange a caring glance, and would not have disturbed your reading. A manager asking his/her team as to their preferred incentive or bonus helps them feel heard and understood. All part of the communication of service. Great advice ….

  8. Derek Matheson says:

    Great Article with Great Insights! Thanks a million!

  9. Vimal says:

    Thanks for a thought-provoking article. My own views are as follows – on many occasions, asking questions as a means of understanding what constitutes “value” to the other person is not only necessary but essential. The polar opposite of that would be to “assume” and the worst possible manifestation of such an assumption would be when we take others for granted. YET, there are also occasions when “asking” is plain irritating, not to mention an interruption. In the example above, if you had been engrossed in reading and interrupted by her asking if you would have liked more light, you might have found her an interruption…and perhaps irritating. I can just as easily be the kind of person who says “Obviously more light is nice! Do you need to ask?!”. So where would we draw the line? I think the solution lies not in preaching to the service provider, but to focus on the attitude of the receiver. We all know such actions (as described above) are well-meaning. So appreciate that thought behind the action, instead of the action itself. And finally – if we truly ONLY focus on asking people what they value, we lose that “edge”; the “edge” of innovation, the “edge” of enlightened foresight, the “edge” of true selflessness. Leave that sliver of space for individuals to exercise reasoned, enlightened or inspired initiative…and you never know, for someone may surprise you with something you never even knew you valued!

  10. Sanjay says:

    Very enlightening… Unknowingly, we decide for our teams and our customers w/o asking what they value.. Thank you for sharing

  11. P.Kitemu says:

    Wow, quite interesting. This is an indication that we always think we are “wow-ing” our customers only to be shocked that we are annoying them. The customers know what they want. ASK them.

  12. Cavita Mehra says:

    So true, so often we take things on face value & assumtions & not taking that little extra effort first, actually if one needs it or not.
    Going the extra mile should also be related to customer needs & understanding to creat that MAGIC!

  13. Aki Kalliatakis says:

    Spot on, Lai Chun.

    There are so many examples in business where these “helpfulness” assumptions get companies into all sorts of trouble: waiters pouring drinks on your behalf resulting in a glass of lifeless flat colddrink too full to move to your lips without spilling, bank managers who think we all love to be migrated to automated ways of doing business with them, IT firms “cleaning up” your hard-drive so that old information goes missing, car hire companies upgrading your booking to give you something you didn’t ask for, software companies bundling in a whole bunch of stuff you will never use, car repair garage’s washing your car at the end of a service even though you spent half an hour doing this yourself just last weekend, and so on. I agree with Andrea when she says a simple question asking permission would be great. However, in some cases staff even get defensive and hurt when you politely challenge them on their actions.

    It’s the “Platinum Rule” again: don’t do unto others as you would have them do unto you, but rather do unto others as they would prefer you to do unto them.

    Main cause of these poor assumptions is probably standardised, inflexible, and uniform systems and promises that are trained into staff as if the one- size-fits-all strategy is still relevant. The age of mass production and mass marketing died a long time ago.

  14. Lincoln Davis says:

    The cabin attendant thought she was anticipating your needs. The ability to anticipate needs is often used to differentiate good service providers from great service providers. However in this situation its more of a personal choice and if she has just said “Would you like me to switch on the light for you Mr Lai Chun or are you fine?” you would have been very impressed I am sure.

  15. paul says:

    Vimal has taken the argument to a whole new, interesting, but sublime dimension. While leaving a sliver of space to tweak and experiment may lead to breakthrough thinking and service, I believe when two people are involved, it’s always good to err on the side of asking.

  16. Michael Wei says:

    Exact, what we did and succeeded yesterday may not work today. Customer’s intrests and expectations do change over time, so it becomes challenging to be able to always keep up with it. One good example is Apple, they invested so much on innovation and becomes a leader to lead customer’s intrests, needs, surprise customer and exceed customer’s expectations.

  17. Wong says:

    Excellent lesson on making wrong assumption !

  18. bktan3 says:

    Yes, Lincoln, thanks!

    Just a little additional step will make all the difference and it becomes a win win situaton.

    Lincoln Davis :The cabin attendant thought she was anticipating your needs. The ability to anticipate needs is often used to differentiate good service providers from great service providers. However in this situation its more of a personal choice and if she has just said “Would you like me to switch on the light for you Mr Lai Chun or are you fine?” you would have been very impressed I am sure.

  19. Amal Al Zubeidy says:

    You hit the nail on the head. Service providers need to look at things within the context of the people they serve; would this add value to them or not. What’s important for me might not be important for someone else.

  20. Dan Haygeman says:

    What a nice number of reflections on a provocative article by Lai Chun. I don’t like to be interrupted when reading. . . in fact I’m enough of a controller that I don’t like people to ‘mess with’ me at all . . . unless they offer and I accept or I ask and they agree.

    Now the only other piece I see here is that I think that service works best as a partnership. (I recall Ron Kaufman) pointing to that a few posts ago. As a partnership, how about if I adjust my mood from one of offense (which is where I’d start with the flight attendant who messed with my lighting or interrupted me with the superfluous solicitation to have him adjust my light) and gently in the moment indicating that I didn’t want the light changed?

    How about if I mentioned it next time I got up to the restroom?

    OR. . . how about if I let it go and look in my life for other places I should be ‘Declining’ or ‘Accepting’ offers from people or companies with whome I DO have a relationship longer that this flight. . . since, after all, my offense usually points beyond what I think offended me. . . though I’m quite certain that I am the only one for whom this is true.

    Happy New Year!

    Dan H.

  21. Shabbar Suterwala says:

    Truly said, that you need to diagnose before you prescribe..! As the author mentioned that, he was at the window seat and a beam of light was beaming in…. so it was needless to switch on the light on.

  22. Bobby says:

    I would agree to Vimals thoughts. An action can be interpretted in a positive or also in a negative directions. A good thought of supporting the customer is not acknowledged due to a valid reason. But the same action could probably have been valued by another customer.
    Also the possibility of enquiring before taking an action, could lead to a positive or negative thought.
    Do we really need to make things so difficult or complicated? Everyone has their individual opinions, but I believe that recognizing the Service Providers intentions will make a positive impact.

  23. Naresh Vassudhev says:

    Bang on. We need to ask act and reconfirm. There are many times when you may think that your service is great but the receiver will actually have decided that it was just not good enough. Ron, I remember the example you once gave
    in one of your training videos – Its the customer who decides if the hair cut was good and not the hair stylist however much the hair stylist might think that the hair cut was great!!
    We need to be reminded continually, and thank you Ron for that, as otherwise every time the “I” will overpower the “you”.

  24. Anand says:

    Very good article. Obtrusive service or over service can kill the service. You should hear this from Mr P R S Oberoi, Chairman of The Oberoi Hotels & Resorts and Trident Hotels. He ensures that his hotels’ team are trained to understand the subtle difference of good, warm service and intrusive over-service.

  25. Nonong Noriega says:

    Boils down to profiling the customer well enough before taking action. It is he who decides what pleases him, In all relationships. the most well meaning and proactive approach does not necessarily result to satisfaction from the receiver. If we are to care, we have to CARE ENOUGH to ASK.

  26. Ng Lay Guat says:

    Hi LC,
    Nice piece. I totally agree that we must never assume. What worked in the past may not work in the present time!


  27. Dhammika Kalapuge says:

    Hi Ron,

    Fantastic article. A little act but goes a long way. We often experience such things at times it creates an annoyance. The ‘intention’ on the part of the service provider may be good, but the action is ‘bad’. In such circumstances as you have mentioned service provider got to be ‘curious’ .

    I had a similar experience last afternoon during my lunch break at a program. I carried a bottle of water, which was used half, to the restaurant of the venue. I left in on the table to consume the right quantity as and when I feel like and bring the rest of the water bottle back to the class for consumption as I treasure water as a valuable resource which we should not waste. During my stay there at the restaurant, within a period of ten minutes, three stewards walk up to me and try to pour the water off the bottle to the glass without my permission. Every time I had to stop them doing it saying that I will do it myself as and when I need it.

  28. Oscir Zancan says:

    Ron, very useful and smart article. Customer voice is always the best voice to have and provide a better service.

  29. Joo Ling says:

    Very enlightening article. Yes, on many occasions, we assume we know what is best for our fellow man. We should always pause and ask, not just assume.
    Thank you Lai Chun.

  30. Emily says:

    Very good and useful article. Enlightening! Thanks for the insights!.

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