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Innovative service takes responsible freedom

4 min read


Lisa was super-friendly and always eager to serve me. She was one of the main reasons I parked my car every week at the off-airport parking facility where she worked. Arriving at Acme Executive Parking, I would pull into the facility and Lisa would be the driver who always rode with me to the terminal. After I got out and retrieved my luggage, she would give me a ticket and then drive my slick-looking sports car back to the lot to park.

As a full-service parking facility, Acme could also wash my car, gas it up or change my oil while I was away. When I landed at the end of the week, I called the phone number on the ticket and someone (usually Lisa) would come to the terminal in my car to transport me back to the parking facility to settle my debt. Since I parked there 40 out of 52 weeks and frequently had other services done to my car, I was what you might call a premium customer. I was also a generous tipper!

Most of the time when I arrived at the parking facility and Lisa jumped into the passenger side to ride with me to the terminal, she would say, “Now, if I get a chance, I’ll wash your car while you’re gone.” I would typically say, “No, Lisa, you don’t have to wash my car.” She would persist with, “But I would love to!” It was ritual we joyfully repeated almost every week. And, it was clear it would be a labor of love for her. Remember, I often paid for the car to be washed!


One week, I returned on Friday evening. Someone else came to get me at the terminal. On my dash was a folded, handwritten note on a sheet of paper from a yellow note pad. It was from Lisa. It read:

“Sorry I did not wash your car like I said I would do. My boss told me you would be charged the regular price of $15. I thought it was not right to charge you for the wash job. I was only doing it because you are my favorite customer and I love your sports car.”

Now, here is the punch line! Her note continued:

“If you’d like to have your car washed and parked at a good price, I can recommend Mike’s Cleanup Service at 441-5423. Tell Mike you know me and that you park here at Acme. Sorry I couldn’t wash your car, Lisa.” Two weeks later, I was told Lisa had taken a job as a receptionist at a large medical center.

Innovative service — the type that is ingenious and delightfully unexpected — requires employees have the authority to be experimental and generous in their role. It takes ensuring employees closest to a problem or need have the capacity and permission to make judgments on how a problem is solved or a need is met.

But, empowerment does not mean unlimited license, as in, ”Just do whatever you need to do.” It means responsible freedom. It means helping employees balance the freedom to go the extra mile on behalf of the customer with the responsibility of taking care of the organization. Bottom line, it’s helping employees have the perspective of an owner.

Lisa was a great service provider. She cared about me. She cared about the welfare of the vehicle I entrusted with her. Her service attitude would be an asset to any organization on the planet. Except, Lisa deferred exclusively to taking care of the customer while forgetting about the welfare of the organization she fronted. She recommended me to their competitor! Organizations win when employees creatively serve their customers. They lose when those same employees fail to balance service with stewardship — taking care of the customer and the organization.

We can speculate about Lisa’s behind-the-scenes treatment, her customer service training, her incentives, orientation and pay. Bottom line, her loyalty to Acme was not strong enough to keep her. Maybe Acme got tired of her “giving away wash jobs” to their best customers. But, the lesson is this: As important as empowerment of employees is to delivering innovative service, so, too, is the encouragement of employee pride in the organization for which they serve as front-line ambassador.

Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker and the author of several best-selling books including The 9½ Principles of Innovative Service. His newest book is “Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experiences Through Innovative Service.” He can be reached at

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