A few months ago, my fiance and I were flying home from Los Angeles when our airline did one of those nonsensical things that drives customers crazy: They gave us separate middle seats. Not only would we both be scrunched up between strangers, but we also would not be able to work on our fast-approaching wedding like we had planned. The flight was unsurprisingly over-sold, so our last hope was for a friendly gate attendant who could put some sense back into the situation.
The crowded seats and harried staff at our gate in LAX dashed those hopes in an instant. We still approached the counter and asked if there was anything they could do, but the attendant barely gave us a glance. She punched some codes into her computer with the rat-a-tat typing of someone who did not have time for this and told us grimly that she would call us if anything turned up. So much for that friendly gate attendant idea.
Ten minutes later, though, she paged us moments before departure and handed us two fresh boarding passes that were not only together, but had extra leg room to boot! We tried to express our gratitude, but she was already off doing other things. We didn't even catch her name.
Comfortable airline seating is hardly a basic human need, but this experience has stayed with me as an example of the power of a truly helpful act in a service situation. This woman's plate was over-flowing in that moment, and her job would have been just as complete had she told us nicely from the start that there was simply nothing she could do. Yet she found a way to help us anyway. Why?
Adam Grant, a researcher at the Wharton School, might argue that we stumbled onto a "giver" at work. Through his own studies and others, Grant examines the role that our "reciprocity style"— how we tilt the balance between giving and taking in our relationships—plays in our success and well-being. Givers like to dish out more help than they get, takers like to claim more than they offer, and matchers aim for equity and balance. Grant then asks whether givers can still be successful even if they devote valuable time to other peoples' needs.
The answer, as with most things, is that it very much depends. There were plenty of helpful doormats in the studies Grant reviewed. In doing nice things big and small, these individuals often sacrificed their own productivity, reputations, and even their salaries. But there was another group of givers at the top of the ranks in each of those groups who somehow managed to find the time to help others while still following through on their own plans. How did they do it?
By being what Grant calls "otherish" (or "smartly helpful," as I sometimes think of it). Instead of selflessly playing the hero, dropping everything they had to do the moment someone came calling for help, the givers who succeeded found ways to offer what they could in ways that worked as well for them as they would for the people they were helping. Sometimes that would mean postponing to a better time or grouping people with similar requests. Sometimes they would see if someone they previously helped could pay it forward and assist someone else. And sometimes it just would mean saying no to things they were not uniquely suited to offer.
Our gate attendant in LAX found her own way to be otherish. Her to-do list was a mile long, and her time was running out. To stop and greet us much more warmly—as her customer service training surely told her she should do—would have taken her out of rhythm and risked our scheduled departure. So instead she traded the false cheer that service representatives so often try to muster for instead getting us what we actually wanted. The reward was two extraordinarily satisfied travelers and a full flight that managed to leave right on time.
With so many of us now working in the service industry (PDF), whether on the front lines like that gate attendant or in the boardrooms frequented by so many consultants, Grant's work is a reminder that adding value for our customers or clients does not have to mean big sacrifices for our own organizations. In order for that to hold true, though, we need to move beyond friendly smiles and cordial greetings to understand our customers' felt needs, finding a way to meet them without sacrificing our own. Of course pleasantries and politeness are important, not to mention just plain nice to give and receive. But when they sometimes come at the expense of the underlying service, the customer and the company are both likely to lose. It is not enough anymore to say the customer is always right, nor even to start a mission-driven enterprise. To succeed in today's marketplace, it is time we all got much smarter about actually helping those we serve.
Reb Rebele, MAPP, works with individuals and organizations trying to understand and apply research that can help improve the design of work and life. You can find him on Twitter @rebrebele or LinkedIn.