True Customer Care

At the start of another year, many of us make resolutions for the forthcoming year. For me, the time has led me to reflect back on 2003 and self-assess. Personally, 2003 has been a tough year, having become an orphan with the passing of both of my elderly parents. (We also lost a cherished feline friend in the fall.) The passing of a loved one opens up emotional wounds, but it’s also a time when those wounds are healed by family, colleagues, and friends who reach out. Until one walks in those shoes, the meaning of that caring cannot be understood or appreciated.  It lends new perspectives even for our business lives.

When my mother passed away in March, I was touched by some in a way that holds lessons for our world of customer service. My mother was 86, living in a nursing home with my dad, suffering from Alzheimer’s, and her passing while sad was in part a blessing. My sister and I were with her when she passed at about 7 in the evening.  Being there with her lent a sense of closure that is hard to describe.

It was known in the home that my mother was under hospice care, and her passing quietly became known to the staff on the floor. After she passed, my sister and I went into the hallway to tell our father. He understood, and we sat there for some time sharing our grief as a family in silence. Then something simple, yet powerfully beautiful happened. The three primary care workers on the floor that evening came over to us, hugged my dad, and expressed their condolences.

No one told them to do that.

They did it on their own — because they genuinely cared about the people in their charge. Both my sister and I were sincerely moved.

Consider this basic, humane act for a moment. These three workers have a job that few of us would want. It pays barely above being a hamburger flipper, and it is truly a job that must try one’s patience. The positions are typically filled by immigrants, in this case predominantly from Haiti, people who have come to this country with a strong work ethic and a desire for a better life for them and their family — much as my grandparents did over a century ago.

Yet, they genuinely cared about their charges.

The next day, one of the aides, Sanna, who typically cared for my dad spent considerable time with my dad. That may not seem special at first glance — except that it was his day off.

Many of you reading this article work in organizations called “Customer Care.” Is it merely a slogan meant to try to instill a feeling of empathy into your employees’ interactions with your customers? Or do your employees truly care? My experience related above shows that it is possible for front-line workers to truly care, and I wish I could bottle the elixir used at the Devreux House where my parents lived their final days. Is it hiring practices, training, the culture practiced by leadership — or a combination of all?

Lacking that elixir, I do know that for 2004 I’m going to show the people in my life how much I care for them.