Last year, I heard a striking story about customer service from an unexpected source. It cut through all the ‘best practice’ that you might read about in management textbooks or glean from customer satisfaction data. It was a story that inspired me and, at the same time, left me feeling wistful.
The unexpected source? I was at a 5-day meditation retreat with the spiritual teacher, Adyashanti. If you haven’t come across him before, Adyashanti is a slightly built Californian of undiscernible age. He exudes the kind of unearthly intelligence you might find in a Silicon Valley savant or – as is actually the case – a long-time devotee of Zen Buddhism who found enlightenment about 20 years ago.
So I wasn’t expecting insights on such a prosaic subject as retail customer service. This is the gist of the anecdote that he told us one day:
He had walked into an ordinary kind of convenience store, somewhere in Hawaii. (I’m imagining it as similar to a 7-Eleven.) And he immediately felt that there was something different, something special about the space he’d just entered. It was filled with a sense of peace, radiancy, vibrancy. It was like hallowed ground, or, in Adya’s experience, a ‘Buddhafield’, a realm associated with a Buddha.
Intrigued, he hid for a while in the snackfood aisle. He realised that the Buddha in the convenience store was the man standing behind the cash register, who was serving customers with a rare quality of attentiveness. He was taking a moment to connect with each person – not with any sense of theatre or false bonhomie, but through his calm, meditative presence and his quiet, welcoming acknowledgement of the customer’s presence. (This is the essence of the Indian “Namaste” greeting, by the way: “The divine in me honours the divine in you.”)
This transmission of respect and kindness rippled out through each customer and into the space itself. People were entering the shop in their usual state of distracted busy-ness or weariness, and leaving a few minutes later as though they were walking on air, with beatific smiles on their faces.
THE SEARCH FOR SIMPLICITY
How great would it be to contribute to others in that simple, meaningful way in our daily work? And how great would it be to receive that – to be met in that way – during all our interactions with businesses? Imagine how far that flame could travel. And imagine how highly those businesses would be trusted and valued by their customers.
I often hear friends, colleagues and coaching clients yearn to create a simpler, more meaningful life for themselves, in place of the high-powered, high-pressured career and lifestyle they have defaulted into. They fantasise about reskilling into a slower, hands-on trade or craft, or doing work that nourishes real human connection rather than competition. They talk half-jokingly, with a sense of collective nostalgia, about doing ‘an honest day’s work’ and then sleeping soundly at night.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, scholar and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, writes poignantly of this life philosophy in his short guide, The Miracle of Mindfulness. Every daily act can be a rite, he says. You can wash the dishes in order to get them out of the way and to have clean dishes – or you can wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes. With the latter approach, whatever we are doing, be it dishwashing, chopping wood or answering the phone, becomes the most important thing in the world to us for that moment. It is valued for its own sake: a meditation, a joy, a celebration of life.
You can practise these principles in Working Meditation programmes at various retreat centres and spiritual communities, e.g. Ängsbacka (Sweden), Osho Meditation Resort (India) and Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village (France and other locations). And of course, the growing field of ‘mindfulness in the workplace’ has spawned many books, training courses and even an Inner MBA programme.
It’s one thing to do a separate hour of meditation or mindfulness around the edges of the work day. It’s often far more challenging to integrate mindfulness into complex daily work practices, especially in workaholic, dog-eat-dog corporate management cultures. Hence the longing sometimes to downshift into a simpler, “easier” occupation.
But here’s the rub. Many so-called menial jobs, or those at the frontline of customer service, now offer the least scope for mindful working. What happens if you put that rarefied being from the Hawaiian convenience store into a different work environment? What if you give him a zero-hours contract, micro-managed work tasks and a customer service script from which he cannot deviate? Or monitor his work closely using surveillance technology? Or set him Stakhanovite work-rate targets that he must meet in order to keep his job? OK, that’s an extreme scenario, but it’s also sadly not uncommon.
THE VALUE OF BREATHING SPACE
In a way, it’s ironic that we’re trying to make AI more ‘real’ and human-like while we’re also trying to programme humans into more standardised, hyper-efficient units of productivity. Of course, this convergence also prepares the ground for a next stage: a fuller automation of jobs across different industries and skill-levels.
But what price can you put on experiencing more empathy, kindness and connection – more genuine humanity – in daily life and work? Just think about the positive consequences that would flow into so many areas of society. It’s about prioritising (or at least, balancing) supportive societal values and individual wellbeing against profit, growth and shareholder value.
In her book about mindful leadership, Janice Marturano shares a key insight from her many years talking and listening to people in business, community service and executive training.
“[T]hey simply do not feel they are living their best lives – at work or at home. They feel something is missing. But what?
The most frequent answer is:
We often simply do not have the space, the breathing room, necessary to be clear and focused, and to listen deeply to ourselves and to others… [I]t requires training and courage to intentionally create such space.”
Up to a point, we can create this space for ourselves as individuals. There’s truth in the adage that change happens from the inside out. So each of us has to take responsibility for our own journey into deeper self-awareness, mindfulness and self-supporting work practices. The ripple effect from individuals working in this way can be powerful too.
But in many workplaces – whether they are plushy corporate offices, distribution warehouses or customer service touchpoints – this journey increasingly feels like swimming against a rip current.
The onus should also be on businesses and organisations to create more space through their policies and overarching culture; to facilitate change from the outside in. Rather than driving employees down a cattle chute of performance metrics that are focused on meeting minimum thresholds, how much better if we could inspire and enable people to rise to their fullest human potential?
Encouragingly, there’s a groundswell of new interest and thinking in this area (see follow-on blog). It’s founded upon trust, autonomy and mutuality. And it holds a space for us – individuals, organisations and wider society – to thrive and find true enrichment.