Service is one of those funny things. It’s such a huge thing in our lives: unless you’re a hermit, it touches pretty much every area of your life: the things we buy and do; the utilities; even the web. And pretty much, whatever you do – even if you’re a maker or artist – a big part of what you deliver to others is about service.
On the getting side of things, we expect “good” service but we’re not really sure what that is. We mostly suspect that service can be better.
And fundamentally, we have a love-hate relationship with it.
It’s probably deeply ingrained. Since ancient times, service is something that’s never been top dog in the societal pecking order. Being an artist, teaching, and, of course, ruling the whole thing gets you a higher notch than shopkeeper, craftsman, doctor, lawyer or refuse collector. (Obviously this has nothing to do with money, just status and in some sense, respect.) It doesn’t seem to come naturally to most people, and outside of corporations that spend tens of millions of training in it (utterly wasted money) precious few of us seem to improve ourselves in the area of service. And for those of us in societies in which we like to think that status and rank don’t matter, we feel squeamish about receiving service.
It’s this ambivalence about service that’s part of the problem. We need to start respecting service more. We need to start treating it as a real craft, and while we’re at it, we need to start expecting more.
More than anything else, the iconic image of service comes in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
It’s that scene that takes place in Tiffany’s flagship. Our cash-poor hero and heroine go hunting for something to buy at Tiffany’s, with a paltry (even in 1961) $10 in hand. A bemused salesman played by George McGiver with a most lovely Mid Atlantic accent, first suggests a $6.75 (including tax) sterling silver telephone dialer, but that lacks in romance. Then, George Peppard’s character produces a ring from a Cracker Jack box for engraving. The salesman agrees. Never a note of talking down, never a sense of derision. He even elevates their cause: “Do they still really have prizes in Cracker Jack boxes? Nice to know. Gives one a feeling of solidarity, a continuity with the past.” Lovely, just lovely.
That interaction has shaped my sense of what great service actually is: something practices with honor, sensitivity, individuality, intelligence, kindness.
Of course, this is a film. Of course, it’s from the Stone Age of 1961. Of course, it’s probably not possible in this world of corporatized service and slavishly intensive focus on the bottom line. But it encapsulates the essence of exquisitely crafted service, and an intensely pleasurable, almost magical moment. It encapsulates what we all deep down think it can be.
But when did you experience service like that? When did you give that to others? And when did you last receive service with grace and appreciation and awe, the kind you give to someone who’s made you an exquisite meal or crafted a perfect pot?
Then, there’s the craft of being served. For every person who’s terrible at service, there’s someone who’s equally bad at being served. You know: the silent type, the oblivious, the grunter, the abuser, the entitled, the ungracious, the ungrateful. While these bad customers deserve basic respect, there is a little of sowing what they reap. Service is a dance. Audrey and George probably made our Tiffany salesman’s day, too. Connection, kindness, and humanity go both ways.
Given how much time we all spend getting and giving service, it’s high time we became better connoisseurs of great service. We need to get more discriminating about what constitutes good service, being appreciative of it, investing time in those that seem to have a handle on the craft of it, and avoiding the rest like the plague. Like anything it’s about practice and commitment and discipline, but it’s also about learning to live life really well.