From the July 1996 issue of Entrepreneur

Why can't we all just take customer service for granted? Shouldn't it simply boil down to decent manners? Have business standards sunk so low that common decency is now the factor distinguishing the mediocre from the excellent? Treating customers well has become so extraordinary that an entire training industry has been created simply to teach people how to be nice.

"America doesn't understand that real service means being servile-to take a subservient position with the customer, to obey without question," says Evelyn Echols, CEO of Echols Travel and Hotel Institute in Chicago. "When you have that attitude, it's hard for customers not to warm up to you real fast. How can they resist doing business with you, especially when you are such a refreshing change in the marketplace?"

The dictionary defines servile as "being subject to or obedient to whomever it is that you serve." Most Americans have a problem with servitude; they associate it with weakness. In reality, the strongest, most legendary entrepreneurs are servants to their customers-and are happy to be. They are thrilled to have customers to wait on. After all, they've considered the alternative-and it's no fun.

A top investment counselor who handles some of the world's largest portfolios practices a philosophy based on her willingness to serve as this story she told me illustrates: One of her West Coast clients was in Taos, New Mexico, and bought a sculpture of a jester on a pedestal. The jester had rings on its arms, and one day the client's dog ran by the pedestal and accidentally broke one of the rings. The client was very upset because she had paid so much for the piece. She phoned her investment counselor, who was based in New Mexico, and asked her to take a three-hour drive to Taos to find the artist and see if she could get the ring replaced. The client had no idea who the artist was. Within a week, the counselor had found the artist, had the ring replaced and sent it to her client.

What might appear to one person to be slavery is seen by another as an act of service or love. When I was just starting out in sales, I was criticized for "acting like a slave" because I offered free consulting services to homeowners. "Acting servile should be required behavior for all sales reps, especially new kids on the block," says John Marconi, CEO of Orange Coast Title Co. in Orange, California. "Everybody goes through an initiation period with prospects when you're just getting started. You have to have that 'Whatever it takes to get the job done' attitude."

Being servile is not a strategy. It's a way of behaving that proves to the customer you can and will help in any way possible. Real entrepreneurs know that serving another is not a waste of time. That prospect may not end up buying your product or service, but word-of-mouth advertising is a powerful tool-and when you serve, word gets around fast.

If you truly want to work at becoming a servant to your customers, periodically ask yourself these three simple questions:

1. Do I have a cheerful and obedient spirit? As a customer, have you ever asked yourself who should be serving whom? How does it feel to stand around waiting for help or listening to a sales clerk talk to a friend on the phone while she gives you that "Don't interrupt me" look? All you want to do is give her your hard-earned money. Shame on you for ruining her day!

Exceptional customer service is memorable, but poor customer service is both unforgettable and permanently damaging. Although it's been more than 15 years since my most horrible customer service experience, I still wince whenever I come within eyeshot of a well-known store that gave me the royal kiss-off when I was desperately in need of not only their services but also their full cooperation and understanding.

As usual, I was running late to the airport and discovered I was fresh out of minicassettes for my pocket tape recorder. Luckily, the store that carried them was right on the way to the airport. When I pulled up to the store, I noticed a note taped to the front door. Thinking it said "Be back in 15 minutes," I almost decided not to park, but I saw a man behind the counter inside, so I stopped.

When I got to the door, I saw the note actually read: "Come back in 15 minutes." But it was early afternoon, and the regular business hours, 9 to 5, were posted on the door. I knocked to get the clerk's attention.

"Didn't you see the note?" he said.

"Yes, but this is an emergency. I have to catch a flight, and I need some minicassettes." Why did a card-carrying customer even have to explain?

"I can't help you right now," he said. "Can't you come back in about half an hour?"

I was furious, and I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Obviously, he wasn't the store owner. At the time, I owned a small business myself, and I shuddered to think that salespeople would turn away legitimate customers in broad daylight. So I pushed it further. "I have a plane to catch. Besides, your hours are 9 to 5. What's the problem here?"

"The problem here is I'm backlogged," he said. "Do you see all these boxes, lady?" He pointed to about 50 unopened boxes behind the counter and in the aisles. His answer stunned me. I was speechless.

"This shipment just arrived, and I'm all alone here," he continued. "Plus, do you see this pile of stuff? I'm behind in my paperwork. I need an hour of uninterrupted time."

I was so desperate, I begged him for a few minutes-but to no avail. "Those minicassettes are packed in one of these boxes," he said, "and I'm not about to dig for them right now."

Boiling mad, I made a silent vow to go on an advertising crusade-the word-of-mouth type-and close that business down.

As unbelievable as this story seems, when I began sharing it with others, I found everyone had a similar horror story to share. Is it any wonder a salesperson with a cheerful and obedient spirit receives such an overwhelmingly positive response in today's marketplace?

2. Am I maintaining my servant status in spite of my success? John Crean, founder and CEO of Fleetwood Inc., a Fortune 500 company that manufactures recreational vehicles in Newport Beach, California, still has the same hands-on, servile style of doing business that he did when he was a struggling salesman selling miniblinds more than 50 years ago.

Recently, Crean set his alarm for 5 one morning because he had received word the previous afternoon that one of his new products, which had been shipped to Pennsylvania, had a major problem with window leaks. Fleetwood's reputation is impeccable, and this problem bugged Crean to no end. He couldn't sleep until he got to the bottom of it and contacted every customer to explain how the situation would be rectified.

Some successful business owners might have figured that worrying about or solving this type of problem was no longer something they needed to do. But Crean knows there is a time and a place for delegation. He knows his success stems from being a servant to his customers.

3. Do I seek opportunities to give up my time to save the customer time? David Steitz, owner of Characters Inc., a Houston supplier of prepress, prepublishing and presentation graphics, says his image is all about customer service and going the extra mile. Steitz built his image by reinforcing the idea that his company was the place to go when no one else knew how to do the job.

"One time we were finishing up a financial report due to be delivered on Sunday morning," Steitz recalls. "We were delivering copies to the CEO and the CFO, and I chose to deliver the packages myself. That sent a message to our customers that their project was a priority and was in responsible hands. Small gestures of reliability, like this one, created our image."

Steitz added value to his product by giving up his own time to deliver it. Giving up your time to save the customer time is one of the best ways to serve. In today's fast-paced society, every customer is looking for more time. When you offer them ways to buy more time for themselves, you are performing one of the greatest acts of customer service.

Why not take a few minutes right now to jot down some practical ways to show your customers just how much you want to serve them?

Danielle Kennedy presents sales and marketing seminars and keynote addresses worldwide. She is the author of five sales books as well as audio and video sales training programs.