Emory Report
June 8, 2009
Volume 61, Number 32


Emory Report homepage  

June 8, 2009
Putting others first a trait worth nurturing

Ted Willi is an information specialist in Emory Health Sciences Library.

Volunteering to serve in a soup kitchen, joining the Peace Corps, helping your neighbor pull his ox out of a ditch — these are examples of service to others. Hotel and restaurant hostesses and waiters have “customer service” jobs, but it could be argued that every person in every job is working in customer service: a university president — the top-level administrator— ultimately serves all the students, faculty, staff and alumni of the college; a janitor working through the lonely hours of the night creates the bright, clean welcome that greets visitors to the building the next day.

Everyone can enhance their job performance by adopting a service attitude. This does not mean subservience, or subjugation, or slavery, but a quality of mind that values the opportunity to help others.
Have you ever met a shopkeeper who was so outgoing, helpful and appreciative, that you thought to yourself: “I’ll definitely come back?” What was their secret? They took the time to care about you as a person.

Too often we conceive of our jobs only as functions to perform, rather than as opportunities to serve the actual lifeblood of an organization: its people (customers and employees both).

With a service attitude, the software engineer will think about the average Joe before launching a new 15-step payment system, the cafeteria server will have patience while Jane decides between the “Chef’s Surprise” and the lasagna, and the medical records clerk will carefully file the documents, knowing that quick retrieval later could save a life.

Remembering to put people first is a trait of character worth nurturing. Organizations with a good business plan and good employees still need one thing more to ensure success: making customers feel welcomed and appreciated so that they will want to come back — and they will “spread the word” to their friends!

Some points to consider:

Beware of bureaucratization which eventually makes every person-to-person encounter into a series of hoops that must be jumped through.

Allow for different (potentially more creative, and sometimes even lower tech) approaches; for example, if someone wants to fax in a hand-written personal essay to the registrar rather than emailing it as a .docx attachment, more power to them! Likewise, if someone wants to do an index-card-based presentation as a refreshing change from the all-too-common PowerPoint.

Every person can gain insight into their job’s potential by considering it through the lens of customer service. Who do I serve? How do I relate to those I serve? Did they “get what they came for?” Did I display patience or impatience? Was I empathetic? Did I value the opportunity to help them find a solution? Why am I here: To serve or be served?

“Gotta serve somebody,” Bob Dylan famously sang on his “Slow Train Coming” LP. That formulation reminds us of what is essential to our personhood. The person, the enterprise, and the community are built up through service.