Wayne Gretzky and Customer Service

“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. Being proactive means we’re taking charge of our situation, trying to be a bit in front of the wave, so to speak. Proactive people are taking control of today.


But what if we could anticipate the next occurrence on the court: the next pass, the next cut, the next shot? Wouldn’t we 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 will be. Anticipation. Proactive playing? No, Gretzky showed us something new. Gretzky gave us PREactive. Maybe a little too much for an eighth grader.

Customer Service is like basketball and hockey. While it is better to react than to do nothing, it is much better to be proactive than to simply react. Being proactive was a great idea when it rose to prominence in the 90’s. In today’s fast paced world, however, being proactive isn’t enough. We need to be preactive. We need to carefully anticipate what is coming down the line and take definitive action to insure success and prevent upcoming problems.

Conceptually speaking, this is great. True pre-activeness, however. has some foundation beneath it. In order to be preactive you must do four 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 preactive customer service (or even halfway decent pro and 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. Our ability to preact is completely dependent on us having a firm handle on what we do and for whom we do it. While this knowledge aids us in serving our customers, the only real way to provide the best service to an individual is…

3) Ask, Probe, Clarify, then begin to Anticipate. 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 PREactive, 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. Soon, it becomes anticipatory.

4) As Daniel Burrus says, in his book Flash Foresight, being PREactive is both anticipatory and opportunity based. It is working from the inside-out, as opposed to being ruled by the things that happen from the rest of the world. It is creating change rather than having to change.

We live in a world of Crisis Managers. For some it is almost a badge of honor. Being preactive lets us be Opportunity Managers. That would make a great customer service model.

Anyone (well, most anyone who tries) can give reactive customer service. While reactive service is okay and proactive service is better, 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.

The greatest service providers, places like Nordstroms and the Ritz Carlton, understand that this phenomenon does not just happen without effort. That’s why they work at it daily. We could do the same.

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 preactive. 

I’m sure Mr. Korwin would have liked that better anyway.