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How Help Can Be More Valuable than Service

Maybe we should stop talking about serving customers and, instead, talk about helping customers: creating a sense of relationship, eliminating problems, and taking care of what customers need.

Here’s how I got started on the idea of focusing on helpfulness, not service. The italicized text is customer reaction; the bold text highlights service behavior.

Help Wanted

Because I fly a lot, I decided to apply for TSA Pre-Check, and scheduled the required interview and fingerprinting at La Guardia airport. La Guardia is never easy for parking, and there’s construction going on in several of the lots, so when I reached the short-term parking lot near the terminal where my appointment was to be held, of course it was full.

I drove into the closest long-term parking lot, saw the minimum charge of $39, and decided to look for something else. On exiting the lot, I told the very pleasant lot attendant about my problem. She said that if I didn’t mind a short walk, I should try the lot just one terminal away. I circled around, but that lot, too, was full.

Now I was tense. I don’t love driving, even under the best of circumstances, which these weren’t. Plus, unless I found a spot quickly, I would be late — would that affect my application?

You Can’t Be Helped

I was happy to spy a uniformed security guard and pulled over. “Sir, can you help me, please?” His only suggestion was to go inside the terminal and ask “the people from the appointment” where to park. That was it — no information, no idea, and certainly no help. But I had no time to dither. I headed back to the sure thing of a timely spot at $39.

But there was no spot available! I drove around the lot several times and was on the verge of praying when I saw a group of spots with orange cones near them that had been blocked off just minutes before. With great relief, I parked, and practically jogged to the terminal to get a gate check so I could pass through security to the TSA Pre-check area.

Help Available

All of the counters had long lines. At the farthest counter was a man working at a “closed” ticket desk. I trotted over and asked if he knew where I could get a gate check for a TSA Pre-Check appointment.

He started telling me what I had to do and then, suddenly, interrupted himself with the magic words, “Hey! I can help you with that!” And cheerfully and kindly, he did. With many thanks and smiles on both sides, I headed for security.

The appointment itself was perfunctory. Happy to have accomplished my purpose, I walked back to the parking lot to hand over my credit card for the $39 charge.

Dedicated to Helpfulness

I was interested to note that the orange cones were now blocking most of the group of spots where I’d parked. As I started my car, a man in an orange vest walked toward me, and when I pulled out, he moved the cones to block off my space too. I realized that my spot hadn’t just materialized earlier! Someone had noticed that I needed it and made it available.

Feeling grateful, I pulled up to the payment booth. The pleasant attendant was still there, and was surprised to see me. I laughed and told her it was better to pay too much than to miss an appointment. “One minute,” she said, and made a phone call. “I talked to my boss,” she told me after she’d hung up, “it’s only $8” — the price for short-term parking.

She was clearly happy to have done this kindness, and I was happy to accept. As I merged onto the Grand Central Parkway, I thought about the progression from “That’s your problem” to “I can help you with your problem” to “There’s no problem, I’ve handled it!”

Would your service employees feel happier and prouder and take better care if they thought of their purpose as helping rather than serving? And would you rather be served or helped?

Onward and upward,


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