The Proper Feudal Spirit

A subject of perennial debate among those who manage customer service workers is whether good service skills are innate or trainable – a sort of Nature vs. Nurture argument.

On the Nature side are those who claim that the key to providing good service lies in the hiring process. They interview and test and screen applicants to make sure they hire only those with the right instincts and attitudes. They scour the labor market looking for those Jeeves types who possess what P.G. Wodehouse referred to as “the proper feudal spirit.”

On the Nurture side are those who believe that good service skills can be developed through training, coaching, clear standards and consistent measurement. They are willing to hire the Eliza Doolittles, hoping they can make a lady out of a flower girl.

I have seen both approaches succeed (and fail), but I’m afraid that the nature approach is becoming less tenable with time. It isn’t that workers with the right instincts are disappearing. The problem is that there is far more service available to consumers than there was in the past. Expanded store hours, the proliferation of retail and restaurant chains, and the growth of 24-hour call centers have all contributed to an economy in which customer service workers are in high demand. As the competition for these workers has increased, the talent pool has been diluted. Companies nowadays rarely have the luxury of looking for Jeeves, so they must invest in the education of Eliza.

Many organizations have been able to provide exemplary service through the nature approach for awhile, but few are able to keep it up for long. As they expand into new markets, open up bigger call centers and face periodic labor shortages, their ability to rely on hiring “the right people” becomes more difficult to sustain. Without a system in place for developing the not-so-right people, service quality declines. In many cases, companies that worked hard to differentiate themselves on the basis of superior service find themselves unable to maintain their reputation in the long run.

This is not to suggest that managers should give up their search for the proper feudal spirit; at the least, they should continue screening out those who utterly lack the instinct for providing good service. There is no doubt that many prospective hires are hopeless as customer service providers, and would do better looking for some other line of work. But it is the in-between service workers, those who are neither “naturals” nor hopeless cases, for whom better systems need to be developed.

Consider the following scenario: Several years ago a video rental store, part of a national chain, set up shop in my Seattle neighborhood. The staff – all teenagers – were every customer’s nightmare. They talked on the phone with friends, were thoroughly uninformed about the stock, and treated customers as annoyances who interfered with their personal conversations.

After a year or two the store closed, lying vacant for several months before reopening under the management of another national chain. The service at the new store was excellent from the first. Customers were greeted at the door, the employees were attentive and polite, and the manager – a real, live adult – was always present in the store. Looking at the employees, I thought they seemed vaguely familiar, then realized that several of them were the same hopeless cases who had worked at the original store. The flower girls had returned as ladies.

This is not an isolated case. Many businesses with vastly different levels of service exist virtually side-by-side, drawing from the same labor pool. Interviews with workers and managers reveal consistent patterns among the superior service providers: Lots of training and coaching, clear standards, plenty of feedback, high expectations. Those workers with the proper feudal spirit tend to emerge as stand-outs and role models. The rest of the staff – the majority – are exactly as good as the system and processes that support them. When the system is well designed and administered it can survive expansion and tight labor markets – even without the assistance of nature.

By Peter Gurney

If you would like a PDF of this article, please contact us.

Originally published in: