A Conscious Decision

By Peter DeHaan

January/February 2004

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineIt was 5:45 am. My family and I were in a hotel room in Alpena Michigan; we were there for a hockey tournament. I had just awoke, but yearned to fall back asleep. After a few minutes, the futility of attempting to do so became apparent and I got up. With my nighttime respite being a few hours shorter than normal, I was a bit groggy as I readied myself for the day.

The night before, I had made a conscious decision that I would workout in the morning. This was partly to maintain some semblance of my normal routine but also in response to the pizza that I shouldn’t have eaten at 11:30 pm. I shuffled down the hallway to the exercise room and emerged 40 minutes later with an exercise-induced euphoria that, while not negating my lack of sleep, did invigorate me for the day ahead. Since the pre-game schedule had not yet been communicated to the hockey parents, my wife and I needed a quick breakfast in order to be ready for whatever was to emerge for us that morning.

With our son already at his team breakfast, we hopped into the car and proceeded to the nearest McDonald’s. “I’ll have a number 10,” I decisively informed the perky and personable teenage-looking girl at the counter. She acknowledged my request and smiled pleasantly. This encouraged me to make small talk while my wife contemplated her choices. I said something, which was apparently not too inane and mildly humorous, causing her to laugh and brightening her smile. “What a pleasant way to start my day,” I thought, glancing at her name tag, which indicated, “Amber.”

My wife conceded that what she wanted wasn’t part of a meal deal, nor were the items listed individually. Amber was helpful. “Tell me what you want and I will see what I can do,” she encouraged. My wife listed three disparate items and Amber began pushing buttons on her cash register. After a dozen or more keystrokes, she proudly announced that she had accomplished my wife’s request. We paid for our meal and stepped aside to await it.

As the people behind us placed their order, Amber’s positive, friendly demeanor continued to capture our attention. Suddenly she saw someone out of the corner of her eye. Her smile widened as she looked up and her face beamed, “Good morning Jimmy,” she excitedly called out. In the split second that it took for my glance to move from Amber to Jimmy, I anticipated who I might see. Certainly, he would be her peer, perhaps a jock or a maybe prep, possibly even her boyfriend.

I was wrong. Jimmy was an older man with a weathered face, worn clothes, and a considerable limp. He moved with deliberate effort, alternating between a herky-jerky lunge followed by a short shuffle. As he made his way across the room, he did not attempt to get in line, but headed straight to an open space at the counter near Amber.

With considerable effort, he produced a handful of coins and cupped them in his twisted and arthritic-looking hand. He tipped his hand forward and with practiced precision, gave it a little shake. Two coins spilled out onto the counter and then a third. As if not satisfied with his progress, he poked his gnarled index finger into his open hand and moved it around as though stirring a pot. Then he flicked a fourth coin onto the counter, stirred some more, and released a fifth. With the last coin still rattling on the counter, Amber was there. She picked up four of the five coins, rang up an unspoken order, pulled a dime from the cash drawer, and carefully dropped it into Jimmy’s still cupped hand.

What happened next made me curious. Amber reached under the counter and pulled out a handful of supplies. Then she turned to the coffee pot behind her and laid the contents in her hand on the table – two containers of cream and several packs of sugar. This seemed backwards and inefficient – pour the coffee first, then get the additives. Amber grabbed a coffee cup and filled it half full. Even more curious. Did Jimmy only want a half of a cup? She then picked up one of the creams, gave it a brisk shake, meticulously opened it, and carefully — dare I say, lovingly – emptied its contents into the cup. Then she repeated the procedure with the second cream.

Amber glanced around the room to see if anyone else needed her assistance. Assured that she was not neglecting another pressing need, she picked up a pack of sugar, shook its contents to the bottom and prudently tore off the top, so as to not waste any, pouring every granule into the coffee. She repeated this a second time and then another customer’s need momentarily diverted her from Jimmy’s coffee. She returned to the partial cup and added two more sugars. But her task was still not complete. Amber then produced a stir stick and thoroughly mixed the contents. Upon being satisfied with the results, she then topped off the amalgamation with more coffee, put on a lid, and presented it to a grateful Jimmy.

She didn’t do any of this begrudgingly or with indifference, but with all the care and precision of someone making their own cup of coffee. She was there to serve Jimmy and she did so happily and without hesitation. I was touched by her kindness, gentleness, and thoughtfulness. Such a gesture was probably not found in the restaurant’s efficiency manual, but it was the right thing to do. Amber’s attitude and actions established the framework for the rest of my day. If her example affected me to such a great extent, I can only imagine what it did for Jimmy’s day.

I imagine that, when Jimmy woke up that morning, there was no question in his mind where he would go for coffee. I surmise that his morning trek to McDonald’s was routine and habitual. I suspect, however, that he wondered who would wait on him. He must have said to himself, “I sure hope Amber is there today. She treats me like I’m special; my whole day goes better when she gets me my coffee.”

Likewise, I wonder what Amber thought before work that morning. Did she make a conscious decision to make a difference in the lives of those with whom she came into contact? She may have, but I suspect it wasn’t necessary. I think that cheerfully going the extra mile was a conscious decision that she had made on many previous mornings and that she had done thus so often that it was now routine and habitual. While I had made a conscious decision that day to take care of my own needs, Amber had made a conscious decision to focus on those around her. And what a difference she made, not only for Jimmy and for me, but for the other customers and for her co-workers as well.

I was challenged by all this. Yes, I too had made a conscious decision to help those around me, giving more than I received. Yet over time that focus has blurred and my resolve has been distracted. Though it’s unlikely I could ever match Amber’s personable, outgoing disposition, I can once again aspire to her positive, helpful, serving attitude.

Do you have someone like Amber working in your call center? What if all your staff was like Amber? Then caller satisfaction would be exceeding high, complaints and service problems would be non-existent, and your company would be an even greater place to work.

Whether it’s pouring coffee or answering the phone, you can have employees like Amber — and it’s not hard; all it takes is a conscious decision. It can start today.

Peter DeHaan PhD is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine and a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his personal blogs, social media sites, and newsletter, all accessible from peterdehaan.com.

[From Connection MagazineJan/Feb 2004]

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