Birth is a miracle. A new life enters the world, and everyone coos. Youth then offers a blessing of discovery—where every encounter is a learning experience. And then, inevitably, comes an awkward time in all of our lives when we search our souls to figure out our true selves—a period often marked by clumsy attempts to fit into various social groups, with role playing and façades, and many long, strange days spent trying to hide the very things that make us unique.
Remember those strange days in your life? There's probably a picture buried in a yearbook somewhere that highlights your strangeness. At least, you thought it was strange until you realized the one thing you were hiding is actually your most admirable and memorable feature.
Mine was a passion for organizing oddly engaging events like Frisbee flipping festivals, citizen diplomacy tours to China and the Soviet Union, and meetings of a Boy Scout group called "The Gorf Patrol" (that's Frog spelled backward).
Service organizations, like people, fumble through strange days as well until they realize the strange stuff is the root of the good stuff. Investors first thought a nerd named Bill Gates was odd—who would want a computer in the house anyway? The concept was ridiculous. Who would treat frontline hotel staff and toilet cleaners like "Ladies and Gentlemen?" But that has been the credo of the Ritz-Carlton (MAR) hospitality chain from the beginning: "We are ladies and gentlemen, serving ladies and gentlemen." Anchor a global airline's image entirely on the cabin crew's attitude and performance? What were they thinking in the early days of Singapore Airlines? And what about Walt Disney (DIS)? Do you think the starchy shirts at the bank thought a massive theme park based on a cartoon mouse was a great investment?
Yet how soon we forget the strange early days before these people, ideas, and organizations become known around the world for great products or great service. Companies such as Disney, Ritz-Carlton, and Singapore Airlines have set the gold standards for service for so long that "unique" hardly seems relevant anymore.
Offbeat Role Models
Enter now the underclassmen of strange and unique services: Zappos, Google (GOOG), and GoDaddy. Once considered off the wall, these are the new leaders in service. But how can you follow their lead—be more zany, progressive, and risqué?
The answer, strange as it seems, is to be more you.
Many organizations don't want a service culture such as Zappos that promises to be "a little weird." At the Zappos call center, staff performance is not assessed via speed of resolution or number of calls per hour. Instead, the company tracks and rewards employees based on how happy each customer is at the end of every call. That's time consuming and expensive, but for Zappos, it works.
Government agencies may not want to look like Google with employees playing games in the office to stimulate creativity. And few financial or medical outfits will copy GoDaddy and risk their service reputation by running racy ads that push the boundaries on television.
Service Culture DNA
So how can you—the banker, government manager, trusted insurance broker, or entrepreneur—build a service culture that makes you a legend in a crowded and noisy market? It's actually simple. Remember your early days? Your original and unique service vision? That one oddity you knew would surprise and delight the world? That special thing you just knew you had to do?
Just as human beings can't argue with their DNA, companies can't argue with the very things that first made them unique—your own service culture DNA. Those seemingly strange qualities that first brought your organization to life and carried you through youth and discovery cannot and should not be ignored today. And just as we discovered as teenagers, we cannot fabricate our true selves by trying to be someone or something else we are not.
It's the strange days that define us all, personally and as cultures. It's the struggle and the judgment that lead us to make our unique offerings to the world. Below, I offer my three steps to becoming successful via your strangeness:
1. Remember what first made you strange, different, and driven. Mine was a passion to uplift the spirit of service in everyone, everywhere. (Especially those who really needed it.)
2. Find ways to express your strangeness. We send chocolate to event organizers after seminars and speaking engagements. The more difficult they were to work with, the more chocolate they receive. (The tough cookies are the ones who need love most.)
3. Celebrate your strangeness. It's easy to forget what made you strange when you grow older or bigger. Some will even tell you it's time to "grow up" and stop behaving in strange ways. Don't listen. We make small cards that say, "Keep it UP! Nice work. Well done." And our team members pass out hundreds every day.
Celebrating and sharing what makes you unique is what makes your service culture special. You will attract more customers, credibility, publicity, and new team members by being who you are than by anything else you do.