Are You RE or PRO?


“Don’t think, React!” That was the daily advice of my Junior High School basketball coach, Mr. Korwin. He believed that if we spent too long pondering the next move on the court, we would be prone to mistakes, indecisiveness, and poor judgment. For us, gangly eighth graders, it may well have been excellent advice.

Better advice might have been to learn to be proactive rather than reactive. If we could anticipate the next occurrence on the court: the next pass, the next cut, the next shot, we would be better players and make better decisions. Hockey great, Wayne Gretzky, once explained that the greatest players didn’t go to the puck, they went to where the puck would be. Anticipation. Proactive playing. Maybe a little too much for eighth grade.

Customer Service is like basketball and hockey. While it is better to react than to do nothing,it’s also much better to be proactive than to simply react. This is a nice concept, but true pro-activeness has some foundation beneath it. In order to be proactive you must do three things:

1) Know your stuff. It’s difficult to know what’s coming when you don’t know what’s happening. The lesson is to be knowledgeable about your product or service – your stuff. As your customer, I’m not sure you can help me, or anyone else if you are not familiar with your product, tools, systems or resources. Mastery of subject material is the base upon which you build proactive customer service (or even halfway decent reactive service).

2) Know your customer(s). This “customer(s)” thing is written in both the singular and the plural so that you understand that you not only need to know your individual customer, but also customers (people) in general. Our primary focus should be on what our people want and/or need. Before that, however, it’s helpful to be well versed in a little psychology to understand those folks to whom you’re providing service. You could study the DISC profile, behavior styles, lifestyles or whichever theory floats your boat. Different people think, act and feel differently (big news, huh?) and it helps to have an anchor in the identification process. While that aids us in serving our customerS, the only real way to provide the best service to an individual is…

3) Ask, Probe, Clarify. It’s not possible to give someone what they want/need without actually knowing what they want/need. We can’t even be REactive without this knowledge. To be PROactive, however, an in- depth examination of our individual customer is needed. If we know our business completely and know our customer thoroughly, we have the ability to anticipate what we can do to provide the best service possible. Routine service is just that: routine. The best customer service is individual, focused and unique. There is a nuance to it that makes it more difficult to deliver, but more appreciated when experienced.

Let’s take something simple like a customer that has a question during a process. It seems as though there are three levels of service (maybe four if you count no service as a level):
a) At the bottom is that I have to track you down for my answer, maybe you get back to me and even when you do, I’m not so sure you’ve taken care of my question. Maybe we can call this Lousy Reactive. It was tough getting you to react and when you did, it was a lousy experience.
b) Next is that you answer my question, but never without me asking it. We can call that, at least, Reactive. While being reactive isn’t completely bad, what if I don’t know what to ask? What if it’s my first time in your process?
c) At the highest level, you have comprehensively explained the process to me up front, are keeping me in the loop, and have the ability to sense what I want or need and deliver it (and maybe even more) without me having to track you down. In other words, the best service is PROactive, going to where the puck will be.

Anyone (well, most anyone who tries) can give reactive customer service. While reactive service is nice, I think most of us prefer someone who isn’t making us ask for help, or beg for service. I’m more satisfied when my service provider actually looks at my needs – my best interest and anticipates how they can help. Unfortunately, proactive service is rare and oddly, some of the most competitive businesses (airlines, cell phone carriers, and mortgage companies) are the worst.

The greatest service providers, places like Nordstroms, the Ritz Carlton, understand that this phenomenon does not just happen without effort. That’s why they work at it daily. John Ruskin, English author, poet and artist once said, “Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of an intelligent effort.” So let’s work on our service, let’s skate to where the puck is going, let’s be proactive. I’m sure Mr. Korwin would have liked that better anyway.