The Zen of Customer Service

Monica Postell
Posted: 07/15/2010

Humor me for a minute. Take a long, slow breath in as you read this. Now, take your time and exhale slowly, blowing a steady stream of air. That wasn't Zen; it was just breathing. But it felt good, didn't it?

To me Zen conjures up feelings of tranquility and images of quiet, contemplative sitting and of harnessing the mind to meditate on the meaning of life...or customer service.

If a common Zen meditation is, "Who am I?" then perhaps the customer service meditation might be, "How can I be the customer?"



I never expected to quote Chuck Norris, much less in a customer service post, but here goes: "Zen begins and ends at the most human level, how people think of themselves and others." That's a quote from his book The Secret Power Within - Zen Solutions to Real Problems. He may have been talking about martial arts and Zen, but what he said surely applies to customer service. How customer service representatives think of themselves and others definitely shapes how they deliver customer service.

So how do we move our minds to be the customer and act accordingly?

Here's a Zen story that's thought provoking. A young man wanted to master the art of sword fighting. Being a young, industrious fellow, he found himself a master sword fighter and apprenticed himself to him with the agreement that the master would teach him the art of sword fighting. For the first few years all the lad did was cook, clean and act as the master's servant. Eventually, he reminded the master of their agreement and asked him to begin teaching him. But the lessons had already begun.

As the student began to cook the rice early the next morning, the master suddenly appeared behind him, whacked him with a wooden sword, and disappeared without saying a word. The student then began sweeping out the rooms. The master was there right beside him again, hit him again with the sword, and disappeared. This went on all day, every day. No matter what the student was doing, he could never be at rest, knowing that at any moment the master would again appear and hit him with the wooden sword.

A few years went by this way and eventually the student learned to successfully dodge the master's blow no matter which angle it came from. The student felt he had accomplished something, but the master was not satisfied with him yet.

Then one morning, the student spotted the master busy cooking some vegetables over an open fire. The student decided to turn the tables, picked up a big stick, and crept up on the master. When the master stooped over the cooking pot, the student raised the stick and swung it down on the master—who in an instant grabbed the cover off the cooking pot, spun around, and used it to catch the tip of the stick.

In that moment the student had the kind of sudden insight Zen is famous for: He saw into one of the secrets of the art of sword fighting, that sensory awareness has to be developed to the point that one can anticipate movement as well as thought.

In Zen, the learning experience is subtle and gradual. In customer service, the learning experience is subtle and gradual as well. As much as we'd like to see customer service represtatives leave new hire training as fully-realized customer service professionals, no amount of training will make that happen if the individual's attitude isn't already customer focused and service oriented.

It seems to me that the lessons learned in customer service training can't solely be about how to put a call on hold or use systems tools efficiently and effectively. And considering that the vast majority of learning occurs after training, I have to wonder about the lessons learned on the job.

So I'll leave you with two questions on which to meditate:

  • What would the impact be if your customer service representatives left training feeling good about themselves, certain of who they are and what they hope to accomplish on every customer interaction—whether it's internal or external?
  • What does your organization do on the job to support the importance of acting with integrity, being your best self and serving rather than servicing customers?
Monica Postell
Posted: 07/15/2010

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