There’s a story of a Boy Scout arriving fifteen minutes late for a Troop meeting because he helped an old lady cross the street. When his Patrol Leader pointed out that crossing the street shouldn’t have taken a quarter of an hour, the Scout explained it took so long because the lady didn’t want to go.

Do you do that?

Do you decide for the customer what service should consist of? Do you deliver it regardless of whether she perceives any value in your actions? Are you frequently surprised to learn that service is not a quality your company is known for?

Perhaps you’re crossing the street with old ladies who don’t wish to cross.

Better customer service starts with “What can I do to help?” Truly savvy customers understand this and take the initiative, asking “Will you help me?

It was October of 1985. Jesse, Ray Anne, and I had not that long before been co-workers at an Orlando radio station. Now, oddly enough, we were all working for separate advertising agencies in Orlando. Each of our respective employers was a small fish in the Central Florida advertising pond, and each of us wore several hats in the completion of our duties.

As colleagues often do, the three of us met for lunch at a small Vietnamese restaurant. (“Try the spring rolls, they’re incredible”).

While I tried my best to look skilled at eating rice with chopsticks, Jesse and Ray Anne started comparing notes on the rates various media sources charged their respective clients. Then they started bragging about their own negotiation skills.

How much are you paying for K-92? That’s outrageous! I never pay them a dime over $57.

After listening for a while, I finally said “You two seem to think beating up a media rep for a couple of dollars per spot is going to help your clients. How much did you accomplish? You saved the client, what? $170 over the course of the month? Pfffttttt.

Ray Anne looked at me and said “Chuck, you know how competitive the advertising business is. How else can we demonstrate that we’re working on the client’s behalf?

I said. “I go into meetings with the media reps and say ‘Here’s what I’m trying to accomplish for my client. I’m not here to try to grind down the cost per point. I’m asking what you might be able to do to help my client reach his goals.’

Does that work for you?” asked Jesse.

You’d be amazed at how often the sales department calls in the programming or editorial or production or promotion department and creates an extra splash for my client. I pay that $170 each month that you manage not to, and my client easily gets thousands of dollars in additional exposure.

Additional exposure. Do you suppose that’s a street your client would like some help in crossing?

I doubt seriously that our 1985 lunchtime conversation changed the way media is purchased in Orlando. But what I find amazing is that these sorts of discussions between buyers and sellers don’t happen naturally in the course of doing business.

You’ve heard it said that more than half the time customers don’t make their purchasing decisions on price at all. (There’s hard data to prove that, by the way). But even when price isn’t the primary consideration, value always is.

Does your customer see any value in your customer service? Does she actually want to cross the street?

If you normally react to competition by cutting rate, perhaps you have an opportunity for both you and the customer to leave the negotiation thrilled at the outcome if instead you ask “How can I help?