Year’s ago I asked an executive in a rather large business about his firm’s business strategy. Sheepishly, he looked at me and said, “It’s hard to plant trees when your forest is on fire.” Then he went on to describe the siege mentality that had taken root in their business. Management was so busy dealing with daily crises that there was not much attention given to what kind of company they were building.
I was reminded of that recently when I took my car to be serviced by my mechanic. Knowing that I’d be taking it on a long trip I asked them to look at the brakes. We found an afternoon they could fit me in their busy schedule while I walked to a nearby restaurant to await their call that my car was ready. Only after they called did I realize I hadn’t ask them whether the car needed an oil change. It desperately did but by now they had released the bay for another vehicle. My oil change would have to wait for another time.
While they did just what I asked, the experience put me in touch with I really wanted. I wanted them to think bigger on my behalf. What if instead of just responding to what they heard me say—“can you check the brakes”— they connected to the context of the request? I’m heading out of town on a trip so can you check the brakes? Had they connected with the context first, they might have seen in their records, or by observing the little sticker on my windshield that an oil change was way overdue. Had they noticed, I would have been delighted by the attentiveness and they would sold another service. As it was, they did only what they were told and missed both my delight and my cash.
“So what?” you might ask. Isn’t this just another story about how customer service could be better. Well, yes and no. Yes in the sense that every business can do something better. I trust my mechanic and will continue to go there, despite this missed opportunity. And every leader of business can take something away from this story about thinking bigger on behalf of the clients they serve.
But I think there’s something deeper here—something more personal than an anecdotal story about customer service. This is a lesson about thinking bigger with everyone we meet. We all have needs. Most remain hidden beneath the surface. Only by listening for context can we imagine what they might be.
We can think bigger for our customers and lead our teams to improve their experience with our businesses. But we can also lead ourselves to think bigger too. How often do we miss the opportunity to help another because our forest is on fire and we simply want to dispatch what little may have been asked of us and move on?
Even in the midst of the most raging fire in our lives we still need to take a moment to plant a tree in someone else’s forest.
What are some ways you intentionally practice awareness of others?