Service as Purpose



Each Monday I post the next section of my 2001 book, which was originally called (by the publisher) Hoover’s Vision but which I have now retitled The Art of Enterprise. I have posted over half of it already; click on the “Monday” column to see all the prior sections. The entire book can be downloaded as a PDF for $10 at



Service as Purpose


I’ve already described the power of a clear and consistent vision to inspire people. People want to do something that is worthwhile – nothing is more motivational than doing something that you think is worth doing. For most people, the key inspirational ingredient in a vision is its stated desire to make the world a better place, to serve others.
Last year, I visited the Department of Transportation in Washington to get more data on the airline industry. I walked into the office on a Friday afternoon and it appeared that half the people had already gone home. I asked around to find what I was looking for, got a few shrugs, and finally was pointed to the man who would know. He said, “Oh yeah, we have that stuff, or most of it. It’s back here in this room somewhere. Nobody ever looks at it. We used to print copies and sell them, but our budgets were cut, so you have to copy these. You can make copies on that copier over there. It costs a dime a page.”
The books were piled around, not in good order, but I could find most of them with some digging. The copier, which didn’t look much used, was out of change, and I didn’t have 50 dimes. I went from desk to desk begging for dimes; I finally found one lady with lots of dimes, and I was a happy guy. I stood and copied dusty old reports for three hours, as the rest of the workforce drifted out of the office. By five p.m., only one was left, awaiting my departure.
At first, I felt the classic response of an offended taxpayer: these folks were being paid to sit around and do little, to produce reports mandated by law; they worked as little as they had to, and left as soon as they could. Another government boondoggle, I thought. But then I thought a little more about the people I had met. Ultimately, they were no different from the people at Nordstrom’s or at BOOKSTOP. They were normal people trying to make a living. What was missing from the DOT was not well-meaning people – it was a reason for excellence. If no one ever wanted your work, if all your efforts went into dusty piles, would you give your best work, would you stay late? We need a purpose, we need to be useful to someone.
People need to know that their work matters. Kinko’s founder Paul Orfalea continually pointed out to his copy shop employees that they were helping people announce birthday parties, spread the word on neighborhood festivals, or find lost dogs. Herb Kelleher reminds the people of Southwest that they are helping people get to graduations, to weddings, to be at the side of loved ones who are sick. So often, we go about our business and we forget that we, too, are doing something important. Something that is valued by others. Something that helps others.
At the best of enterprises, this sense of mission becomes almost a religion. Occasionally I have dinner with John Mackey, who founded Whole Foods Market, the nation’s largest natural foods chain. When I first met John, he was pushing grocery carts for the grand opening of his second store (next door to my first). Today Whole Foods does about $2 billion in annual sales, and John is a multimillionaire. But what does he say as soon as we sit down to dinner? He says, “Gary I can’t believe you’re still drinking that Coca-Cola. That sugar water has zero nutritional value!” Here is a man who went into this business because of his passionate belief in healthy eating. He is still in the business for the same reason, as are most of his eighteen thousand employees.
Southwest Airlines, Nordstrom, and the Container Store are just a few of the other organizations where people behave as if they were on a mission of great importance, a mission based on service.
In all these organizations, you will find workers, from bottom to top, who believe it is a great privilege to have the opportunity to serve others. It is the very best possible use of their time and energy. These are not people who think that serving others is beneath themselves. You will not find people who are eager to move up the ladder so they no longer have to wait on people. You will find people who always look behind themselves when they go through a door, to make sure the door is not closing in someone else’s face. You will find people who always thank other service providers, from waiters to flight attendants. To state it bluntly, these are the people who tell someone at the restaurant when they use the last paper towel in the bathroom.
Service-oriented people, like their leaders, understand that serving is a priority. That other things must come second. Many people today are in heads-down mode, working away on the task at hand, impervious to what is going on around them. The server is always in heads-up mode, always scanning for new ways to serve people. Finishing the report to the boss comes after dealing with the upset customer. Unloading the new arrivals in the back of the bookstore comes after helping at the registers to speed up the lines. Cleaning up the fast food counter comes after wiping up the spill on which someone might slip. Clocking out comes after announcing on the loudspeaker that someone left their lights on in the parking lot.
Whatever a service person sees, he or she immediately asks, “How will this affect others? How can I take a step that will make life better for other people?” These are people who care. They get genuine satisfaction from helping others achieve their goals.
How do you find such people? You must go beyond the resume and look into their eyes, into their heart. There is a supermarket here in Austin called Central Market by HEB, which is renowned for its outstanding service. If you get in line and realize you have forgotten something, someone on the staff will rush up and say, “No, stay right there, I’ll get it for you!”
I met an executive of this store, and asked, “How do you find such great people?” He said it was simple. Every week, they invite applicants to a meeting at their offices, and they put them all in a room with the application forms. They then say, “Our chief of recruiting is a little late, please make yourself at home for a while.” Then they watch. The people who fill out their forms and then sit quietly, awaiting the recruiter, are not hired. The people who finish their forms, then turn to the stranger next to them and start talking to them, asking about them, are taken to the next level of interviews.
Central Market first looks for people who care, then looks at resumes. Shared values precede “relevant experience.”
I believe that the customer must always come first. They are the reason we are in business, they are the ones we are here to serve. Some of my favorite leaders, including Herb Kelleher at Southwest and Richard Branson at Virgin, espouse a slightly different approach. They claim that employees ought to come first. My observation is that every successful enterprise that says their employees come first is an enterprise that first selects new hires based on their desire to serve others. Once such employees are on board, these organizations reflect their people-centered nature by putting their employees on a pedestal. They know that one of the best ways to build great service is to have a happy workforce. But it starts with service-oriented people.






“Service First” Means “Other Things Second”


Of course, virtually every company gives lip service to the importance of the customer. Most mission statements talk about serving the customer. But in fact, most companies make their decisions based on what accounting says they can do, what is the easiest procedure to train people in, what their systems allow them to do, what the lawyers tell them to do, or any of a thousand other ways of setting priorities. But the enterprises that survive and prosper the longest always start by asking, “what is best for our customers?”
More than once, the embryonic BOOKSTOP was low on cash. We were working our way toward profitability, we were expanding, we were stretched thin. We might have $100,000 in the bank after payroll but $300,000 in bills due. Many of our publisher suppliers would have to wait until after Christmas, our big season, to be brought current. But how do you decide which publishers get the $100,000? Was it the publishers who were calling the most often or screaming the loudest? Was it the publisher who had spent the most time kibitzing with the accounting clerk? Was it the publisher who had bought the most lunches for the buyer? Or the publisher who knew the CEO the best?
No, we sat down each Monday morning and figured out which payments would do the most for our customers. Which publishers had bestsellers that our customers were asking for? Which subjects in the store were most depleted, and which publishers should be paid first in order to correct the situation?
One time some computer consultants were visiting us, and I asked how much they could speed up our cash register process. They said, “For $10,000, you can get only a 10-second improvement per transaction. So of course you won’t want to do that.”
 I said, “Hold on. Have you ever been the tenth person in line at the register on a Saturday afternoon? The one minute and forty seconds that you would save that person is like a lifetime. Of course, let’s spend the $10,000.”
When I started in retailing, the giant retailers used their computers to do accounting and a multitude of other “back office functions.” At the beginning of BOOKSTOP, with very limited resources ($350,000 total for building and inventorying the first store, advertising and payroll), we did our payroll and our books manually. We hand-wrote all of our checks. But, even at the beginning, we maintained a computerized inventory system, because that affected the lives of our customers. Go to most great retailers, and see how little they spend on executive offices compared with what they spend on their stores. They know where their bread is buttered. 






Gateways to business thinkers who realize it is more than just money


If Aristotle Ran General Motors: The New Soul of Business and True Success: A New Philosophy of Excellence by Tom Morris are brief and full of straight-forward, excellent real-world thinking from a philosopher. Parallel thinking from someone who has built a company can be found in Tom Chappell’s The Soul of a Business: Managing for Profit and the Common Good. And King of Clubs: Grow Rich in More than Money by Robert H. Dedman is a great story by one of the real thinking, curious, liberal arts billionaires. Finally, Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness by Robert K. Greenleaf is a kind of quirky book by a very bright fellow.


And on service …


Try Discovering the Soul of Service by Leonard L. Berry, the professor who thinks like a merchant. Bless his soul.