Good service or good product – which would you choose?

I imagine that most people, asked whether they would prefer to have good service or a good product, would be inclined to say “both”.

And of course if you are in a professional services business, as I am, you can’t really separate the two.

But this sign I saw at the local weekend market got me thinking about the importance of ensuring the quality of what we provide, as distinct from how we provide it.

Sign at weekend market, Tweed Heads
Sign at weekend market, Tweed Heads

Farmers at the market

In case you are wondering, the farming people selling their own produce at this stall are quite friendly. They don’t actually provide bad service: the sign is what my mother, who came from the country, used to call “bush humor”.

And you will be able to have a much more informative and lengthy conversation with them about what you are buying – and they will give you the time to do so – than you will get with the checkout person at the local supermarket. In fact, if you have the time, you will almost certainly be able to learn from them a lot about what they are growing, what’s in season and isn’t (try and get that information at the supermarket!), what effect current climate conditions are having on various crops.  Yes, some people will wait a bit longer to get served, but everyone will get served in due course, and anyway it’s Sunday, so what’s the rush?

You can probably be confident that the farmers are more likely to say “G’day” than “How are you today?” and they almost certainly won’t say “Have a nice day” (with or without a cheesy smile) when you are leaving.

What I can be absolutely sure of is that at the first bite of their produce I will feel very grateful to have fruit and vegetables of such quality and freshness.

And I love buying from the burly farmer who hands over his beautiful, fresh spinach so gently, carefully, as you would something produced with love and tells you proudly he just managed to get it picked last night before the big rain hit.

So what I get at my local market and for which I don’t actually need the niceties of “retail service” is quality produce, planted, nurtured and harvested lovingly by people who take pride in what they do and get pleasure out of seeing that I recognize the quality of it.

The fact that it actually costs less than what look like comparable products (except they’ve come from the cool room after a lengthy journey in trucks and via other cool rooms and have lost most of their taste somewhere along the way) is a bonus. What I want and relish is the quality and (don’t tell the farmers) I would surely pay a bit more if they asked.

Professional services business

So when I apply these considerations to my professional services business – coaching and consulting – what sort of distinctions can I make? Can I really make a distinction between product and service? Isn’t it all of what I do, what others in professional services do, about service?

Well yes. But within the concept of professional service I would make a major distinction between what I would call the outward trappings of service and how I engage with the people and companies I’m privileged to serve, in the deeper sense of really working to understand their needs and using my knowledge and skills to deliver the best quality of listening, guiding, supporting or problem-solving I can.

The world of farming and the worlds of coaching, consulting and other professional services are in fact not so far removed from one another as might be supposed.

While writing this post I remembered, years ago, being “all ears” at a lecture in the Sydney Opera House by the legendary Dr Stephen Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, when he spoke about – among other things – the values of the farm and how, just as the farm works on immutable natural laws, so do human relationships. Including, clearly, the human relationships involved in delivering professinal services.

His argument can be found in the first chapter of 7 Habits (excerpt here), where he makes the distinction between what he calls the Character Ethic and the Personality Ethic, arguing (my paraphrase) that a lot of what is done in business now owes more to techniques (of persuasion, of presentation, and so on), as in the Personality Ethic, than to the deeper values summed up in the concept of the Character Ethic.

When it’s mainly technique, quality suffers, if not now, then in the long run.

The glitter of the Personality Ethic, the massive appeal, is that there is some quick and easy way to achieve quality of life — personal effectiveness and rich, deep relationships with other people — without going through the natural process of work and growth that makes it possible.

He presents what for is me a powerful argument for the cultivation of those qualities of character, in ourselves, in the culture of our businesses, that make us and our companies desirable and reliable to do business with in the long term.

He calls for respect for and engagement with “the natural principles and processes on which a high-trust culture is based””.

High-trust culture. That’s the basis on which, as much as possible, I want to do business, both with those from whom I purchase goods and services and with those who give me the privilege of providing them with professional services.

I want to have a justifiable pride in the service I deliver, like the farmer who hands over his just-picked spinach, planted by him, grown with his own hands, preferably pesticide-free, harvested by him. And if I am as is sometimes the case being an agent for someone else’s products or services I want to have that confidence in them and the quality of what they offer.

Business as high-trust culture. Not just “service”.

That’s how I see it. Does that make sense to you? Have I missed something?

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