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Common-Sense Customer Service
By Peter J. McGarahan, Founder and President, McGarahan & Associates

In the beginning

Through high school, college, and graduate school I had a variety of jobs to pay for my expenses. Each job reinforced the importance of customer-service skills in terms of building better relationships with my customers, peers, and bosses. I came to work daily with an attitude to do more than was expected of me; to be an eager, lifelong learner; to be compassionate; and most of all, to apply common sense to all customer-service situations. I learned to trust myself, to be unafraid of challenges, and to embrace change and growth, and to have confidence in my own judgment and abilities.

The master of these traits was Dante Nigro, owner of the deli at which I worked when I was 17. He made each customer feel important. He looked them in the eye, listened to them, talked to them, and served them. He didn’t always know their name, but it didn’t matter, because he knew them – what they bought last, what their favorite meals were, what ingredients they preferred, what specials would make their day. He was quick with a joke, a smile, and a witty name for many regular customers, some of whom would visit up to three times a day. At the core of Dan’s common-sense customer-service philosophy was his uncompromising work ethic – he set the standard and expected us to follow suit. Everyday was a new adventure. We looked forward to coming to work. We worked hard. We had fun. We enjoyed serving our customers. It was the epitome of the corner-grocery store service model – always personal, pleasant, and productive.

Simplicity is underrated

I find myself now doing what older people do from time to time, regressing about the good old days. When I first started my career in IT with PepsiCo in 1984, work and life seemed simpler then. There wasn’t a technical solution for every business problem and we were not bombarded daily with the rigors of process and project management inspired by six sigma fraternities. We didn’t live in an on-demand world that gave people the ability and means to access us 24/7.

We were people-focused and actually spent time developing relationships with customer and peers. We knew it would make a difference in how well we worked together and in the quality of the end product or service. Our plates were full, but not overflowing because someone was managing business demand and customer expectations, and saying “no” when called for. I was empowered to make educated decisions, take risks, and use a common-sense approach to handling problems and challenges. It didn’t always work out perfectly, but the solid relationships I had with peers, customers, and bosses always helped me with the recovery and what to do or not do next time.

Timing is everything

In all my IT roles – programmer, network administrator, business analyst, help desk manager, service and support consultant – my relationship with people always led me to believe that it was better to do the right thing than always do things right. The principles of common-sense customer service are value-based and are driven by what’s important to people. They choose customer-service careers because it’s in their DNA, and the principle of doing the right thing is pivotal to their confidence and success.

Are you utilizing your people, customer-service and relationship-building skills in your workplace to maximize your performance? If the majority of your time is spent in your office or in formal meetings, chances are you are not finding enough time in the day to:

  • Meet and greet - Informally meet with customers, peers, and bosses outside the constraints and distractions of scheduled meetings to connect and build lasting relationships.
  • In their shoes - Observe and shadow customers to learn what's really going on and how they use technology and applications to be productive in their jobs.
  • On the front line - Spend time with Service Desk, Call Center or Field Service front-line employees, observing and shadowing them to understand what’s working and what isn’t as well as discovering opportunities for innovation.
    Doing the right thing versus doing things right

It is important that we live by a set of principles that guide professionals in all decisions and situations. When asked about the difference between personal and business ethics, the late Wayne Calloway, inspirational CEO and Chairman of PepsiCo, replied to a reporter, “There is no separate set of ethics for business. PepsiCo managers are expected to bring their personal ethics to work with them everyday and use them as a guide for how they conduct themselves in day to day decision-making.” Along that same line, the role of a service and support leader is to create an organizational culture that promotes and rewards doing the right thing for the business and the customer.

It is also our job to simplify the complex. This includes automating business processes, empowering employees to use common sense and good judgment in all situations, and to listen more than we talk. Callaway once stated the single biggest stumbling block to a manager’s long-term success was arrogance. He observed that once a manager felt as though he knew it all, he would always force his way onto customers and employees and destroying all sense of team collaboration and cooperation and grinding to a halt innovation and success.

Perhaps the most famous, as well as most effective, set of behavioral guidelines is the legendary Nordstrom employee handbook. New workers are given a 5” x 8” gray card that reads:


We're glad to have you with our Company. Our number one goal is to provide outstanding customer service. Set both your personal and professional goals high. We have great confidence in your ability to achieve them.

Nordstrom Rules: Rule #1: Use your good judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.

Please feel free to ask your department manager, store manager, or division general manager any question at any time.


How does Dante’s corner-grocery model apply to today’s IT workplace?

1. Hire the right people slow and fire the wrong people fast. Look beyond the resume and technical skills and look for the heart, potential, people skills, work ethic, and good judgment.

2. Take the time to get to know your customers, peers, and staff. It’s up to you to find the best time to accomplish this, whether it is before, during, or after the work day, in the workplace or outside of it. My old PepsiCo CIO would arrive early everyday and enjoy a cup of coffee with customers, colleagues, and employees before the workday started.

3. It’s hard to lead by example when you are in your office or behind close doors in meetings. Dante was always visible serving customers or bettering the business. If it didn’t add value to the customer’s experience, he didn’t do it.

4. Being personable is not a sign of weakness. Dante always made the effort to be personable, respectful, knowledgeable, and engaging, with a genial sense of humor. And he always treated customers and employees the way he wished to be treated.

5. Less tech and more touch. The grocery store was a highly profitable business. Dan created a fun workplace where customers felt important and enjoyed their shopping experience. Dan was an energy-giver. He motivated and empowered people to perform their best. We had customers visit us three times a day not because of flashy technology, but because of lasting relationships built on service with a smile. Dan cared about people and they felt it.

I encourage all service and support leaders to stop, look, and listen for opportunities to personally influence your organizational culture by practicing a common-sense approach to customer service. Everyone you interact with daily wants to know one thing and one thing only: do you care?

About the Author
Peter McGarahan is the founder and president of McGarahan & Associates and acting Chairman of the IT Infrastructure Management Association. Pete’s value to the service and support industry is his thought leadership. As a practitioner, product manager and support industry analyst and expert, he has influenced the maturity of the service and support industry. His passion for customer service led the Taco Bell support organization to achieve the Help Desk Institute Team Excellence Award. IT Support News also named him one of the “Top 25 Professionals in the Service and Support Industry” in 1999. Support professionals voted McGarahan “The Legend of the Year” in 2002 and again in 2004 at the Help Desk Professionals conference for his endless energy, mentoring and coaching and his valuable contribution to the support industry and community. You can reach Peter McGarahan at or 714.694.1158.

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