Working on the Railroad

Recently a friend of mine was incensed after visiting a publicly-funded clinic where his doctor failed to show for their appointment, scheduled solely for the physician’s convenience. An unapologetic receptionist then refused to set another appointment. (“We’re very busy; we’ll call you sometime.”) Monumentally irked by this abysmal service, my friend spent the next several days demanding of me and the Universe: “Is this any way to run a railroad?!!?”

The quality of customer relations can make or break both organizations and personal careers. This is so self-evident that it’s hard to see why some enterprises and employees act so shabbily toward the people they serve. Where’s the logic in this equivalent of throwing your customers from the train?

Whatever your job or profession, you have customers. Some are internal (these include your co-workers); others are external. You owe it to these clients and to yourself to do everything in your power to treat them well.

When you go to work for an organization you enter into an implicit contract to support its mission. That’s why you receive your wage or salary. Fail to support the mission, and you violate the contract. You are, in essence, taking money under false pretenses.

The clinic that my friend visited is run by a state-contracted company that declares its mission one of “Setting the standard for personal and community health.” Mistreating customers does set a standard, but hardly a positive one. Far from being seen as the reason for the clinic’s very existence and treated accordingly, my friend and his fellow patients are dealt with as an annoying distraction from the staff’s more important (to them) personal concerns and routines.

How often are we guilty of the same? Do we stop to reflect that, without our customers, we wouldn’t have a job?

Beyond the ethical considerations for honoring your commitment to your organization’s mission and showing due respect for the rights, needs and dignity of your customers, there is a practical reason: your work will be more satisfying and your workplace more pleasant.

When you give short shrift to someone you have agreed to serve, does it make you feel good? Do you leave work humming a happy tune because you spent the day disappointing peoples’ expectations? More likely, you leave grumbling and feeling drained or depressed, with your stomach in knots and your neck as stiff as a whiplash victim’s.

Harvard professor of psychology Daniel Gilbert points out in his recent book Stumbling on Happiness that a sure route to contentment is through altruism, which the dictionary defines as a selfless concern for the well-being of others. In his research, Gilbert has found that although people sometimes have to be dragged kicking and screaming into behaving altruistically, once they do, they wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. Serving others well—including our customers—“makes us feel better than we imagined,” says Gilbert.

Every day, you have a golden opportunity to practice altruism—while being paid for it, no less! When you do, the Law of Attraction sets into motion a pleasant cycle: you practice altruism which gives you a clean conscience because you’re doing your job, your customers grow happier because they are better served which in turn, makes you feel good and you are inspired to do more of it.

Now that’s the way to run a railroad!

Download a PDF of this column