We describe a service provider as either good or bad, caring or apathetic. And those qualities go to the heart of our own experiences of being served as positive or negative. For example, we wait a long time to be seated at a restaurant table, are provided a mediocre meal delivered by indifferent servers. Naturally, we reach a conclusion: It all stinks.
In this model, service providers “do” their service to us and we have an experience they cause. It’s roughly the same whether it’s a waiter, Uber driver, coach, doctor or barber. The service delivery goes in one direction: From them to us. Our only active role is to hand over money. Of course, our assessment goes in the other direction: They serve us, we evaluate them.
But maybe this isn’t the whole picture. There’s another version that gives us immense power over the quality of service that we receive.
Let’s go back to the restaurant. In my experience, having waited too long for a table, I am annoyed. Fifteen minutes later, when finally seated, I am simmering with rage. The server arrives and starts to say something, but I curtly respond in a single phrase without looking at the menu. “We’ll order everything now”. I give our order in as few words as possible, my tone tinged with ice crystals. And while I am silent about my specific complaint I am definitely telegraphing anger (yes, I have a passive aggressive streak apparently).
After about 20 minutes I notice the table to my right. They are in personable conversation with Tony, the server. I only learned his name from eavesdropping. Although they were seated well after us, they have a basket of bread and are thanking Tony for their second round of drinks.
They got bread and a second round of drinks while I am looking at an empty glass and bare table!
How come they got so much better service?
As it happens, when Tony first came to our table, he had begun to give us his name and show us the specials. We were busy and preoccupied with our interrupted conversation and simmering annoyance. Instead of hearing his information or his offer of fresh-baked bread, I had interrupted him with “Can we just get a couple of house reds and the Salmon?”.
Although our table’s party and the one next to us are in the same place, being served by the same server, at the exact same time, we are having markedly different experiences.
My expeirence is of a fiasco: a long wait, terse service and unremarkable food. My dining neighbors have the opposite experience: An engaging server, attentive service and a terrific special from the kitchen.
Whose experience is accurate? Well, both.
A meal out is an easy target for this kind of analysis. It’s obvious that my grumpiness colored the experience in ways that were not related to the server’s skill, the food or establishment. But the same thing happens in every service experience. None of them are one-direction transmissions. They exchange more than activity for money. In fact, the phenomenon could best be characterized as a dance. That dance can either be one in which the partners look past each other into space, absently marching side to side, or stare into each other’s eyes, anticipating every move and gesture to create a breathtaking symphony of movement.
An act of service is created by both people.
This may seem like a superficial point when we think about a meal out (although restaurant owners and servers would certainly disagree), but it becomes a more profound reality when we think about activities like coaching, training, teaching, mentoring, or caregiving.
If you engage a coach to work with you on your business performance, and then arrive at your sessions prepared to be a mere vessel into which the coach is to deposit some wisdom that will amp your results, you will be disappointed. You will come away believing you have a poor coach –and you will be right. Your coaching will be proportionally as valuable as the preparation, thoughtfulness and energy you put into it.
If you are a coach you have experienced both scenarios –the waiting vessel and the proactive coachee. If you have a coach, you likely learned this lesson.
But consider the experience you have with a doctor. In that setting we assume that we are simply the willing subject, and that the physician will observe, test and assess to diagnose and heal us.
But the difference between looking the doc in the eye, answering fully with context, background and texture can be the difference between a diagnosis and a litany of wasted and expensive tests. The degree of authenticity and presence you both express will alter the interaction, with direct impact on your wellbeing. When you and the doctor have a human to human, full conversation, your body takes notice. Your blood pressure drops, breathing slows and anxiety wanes. You think of details you didn’t initially recall and the doctor spots something unusual in your pupil, reflex or manner that is a hint to something more important or illuminating. All of this from a conversation.
Think of service in a thermodynamic model. When you push hard against a wall your energy is depleted into sweat, lactic acid and friction. The wall is implacable.
When you push against a dance partner who moves with you responsively your energy creates a living piece of art. Your partner and you are co-creating this experience. And so it goes in every service interaction.
How can you be guaranteed great service? Dance.