Customer Service and The Fisher King

Former Kinko’s Northwest President and serial entrepreneur Mike Fasth recently noted that my frequent references to Kinko’s as a $2 billion company undervalued the company significantly.

“Sure, we did $2 billion in annual sales, but we trusted our coworkers with a lot more than that. We sold a resume copy on nice paper for twelve cents, but that resume might be worth $100,000 per year to the job seeker. Copies of a business plan might be worth millions. Our coworkers carried a lot of responsibility, but we didn’t let that intimidate us. We just did our best to help the customers get what they wanted.”

Had we fixated on the ultimate dollar value of our products, it might have degraded customer service, because we might not have trusted our coworkers with a $100,000 resume.

You actually see this all the time, when companies decide that high-value customers deserve special attention, but the policy becomes an obstacle when, for example, those customers must wait because the manager or specialist devoted to them is busy. Are such policies really designed for the customer?

Naturally, this reminds me of the story of The Fisher King, as related in the film of the same name:

“It begins with the king as a boy, having to spend the night alone in the forest to prove his courage so he can become king. Now, while he is spending the night alone he’s visited by a sacred vision. Out of the fire appears the Holy Grail, symbol of God’s divine grace. And a voice said to the boy, ‘You shall be keeper of the grail so that it may heal the hearts of men.’ But the boy was blinded by greater visions of a life filled with power and glory and beauty. And in this state of radical amazement he felt for a brief moment not like a boy, but invincible, like God, so he reached into the fire to take the grail, and the grail vanished, leaving him with his hand in the fire to be terribly wounded. Now as this boy grew older, his wound grew deeper. Until one day, life for him lost its reason. He had no faith in any man, not even himself. He couldn’t love or feel loved. He was sick with experience. He began to die. One day a fool wandered into the castle and found the king alone. And being a fool, he was simple minded, he didn’t see a king. He only saw a man alone and in pain. And he asked the king, ‘What ails you, friend?’ The king replied, ‘I’m thirsty. I need some water to cool my throat.’ So the fool took a cup from beside his bed, filled it with water and handed it to the king. As the king began to drink, he realized his wound was healed. He looked in his hands and there was the Holy Grail, that which he sought all of his life. And he turned to the fool and said with amazement, ‘How could you find that which my brightest and bravest could not?’ And the fool replied, “I don’t know. I only knew that you were thirsty.’”

The fool just wanted to help the needy person before him. Must business be so much more complicated that that? Great customer service is a human interaction in a business environment, and not the other way around. If you cannot trust your coworkers to represent your business in all circumstances with all customers and prospects, you either hired the wrong people or created policies that tied their hands. In either case, you are the obstacle to outstanding customer service. When we trust and empower our frontline coworkers to solve customer problems directly and immediately, the customers, coworkers and business thrive.

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