Big Ideas – A Parable

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    By Guest Blogger: Geoff Rotunno

    People are always asking me where I get all my big ideas. Answer: They just come to me.

    Drop by my local coffee shop sometime. That’s me right there, front and center, within easy earshot of all the rants from every table in the place. People do love to rant.

    Learning to listen well – especially if you are in the customer service business – is, of course, one of the most important skill you can acquire. But these days, great customer service is not built on listening alone: you also have to give.

    I remember the day I learned how to give – in the specific context I’m talking about – and it came when I was well outside of the office, and at a moment I had least expected it.

    Years ago, bothered by the monotony of yet another business trip traveled by air, I decided to try the bygone alternative: I took the train. From a journal entry recorded during that trip:

    This is the Southwest Chief, eastbound from Los Angeles to Chicago. It is the cusp of autumn.

    As we finally speed past the last junk pile in a string that seemed to go on forever, the overweight gentleman from Melbourne in the car seat across from mine does not seem to notice the sudden metamorphosis of Tuesday morning landscape. He is held prisoner by his own formidable snore, which seals in a previous moment spent awake. The endless piles of junk sure color his slumber.

    Train number four rumbles along, just east of Topeka at dawn. Acre upon acre of golden-green farmland frames every creek, and watching the poplar and maple and cottonwood and birch blur by, I discover a connection: I am in meditation with a larger landscape. It is a beautiful trance.

    I should have nudged the Australian awake. He had been chatting me up endlessly before his impromptu catnap. His lonely heart would have gladdened at the gesture.

    Instead, I let my last call summons to the dining car be a convenient excuse, and began the amble toward the source of the inviting aromas.

    Concurrent with my arrival at that portal, a horrifying revelation: There are only big tables here – nothing for one. There is nowhere to hide.

    Marshaled convincingly by the car’s hostess, I have no choice but to immediately slide into the fourth a final chair at my assigned table. The visual is absolutely ingrained; it is yesterday once more.

    “Mornin’,” I say, in an instantly invented mid-Plains drawl.

    Henry, a farmer type with strong gray eyes and two-inch wide pomegranate red suspenders, looks me square in the eye, and I know at once that there will be few words between us.

    Jonette, our server, pours me some coffee. ‘Bacon and eggs or oatmeal and fruit?’ Her offering is less a question than a statement – and completely mechanical.

    “The latter,” I decode quickly, silently panicking over the social crisis at hand.

    My eyes land just to Henry’s left, where a joyous African American woman in her 60s, Miss Rosalinda from New Orleans, is receiving her bacon and eggs and biscuit.

    “Mmm-mmm,” she almost sings, “and here’s hopin’ that the coffee keeps on comin’!”

    Across from the enthusiastic Miss Rosalinda and next to me is Myrtle, a woman with an ornate walking cane. The lovely specimen has, in fact, just slipped off the edge of the table and tumbled – with an extended clatter – to the floor.

    But the ruckus is impotent against Myrt’s ceaseless rambling. She’s from Sola, Kansas, destined for Harrisburg by way of Chicago, and oh yes, her grandson has just totaled his Jeep Cherokee –

    “… and Lordy, the glass they took out of his face,” she chortles, “is probably enough to replace that big glass wall at that church in California.”

    “Crystal Cathedral,” mumbles Henry.

    “Mmm-mmm, I love that preacher,” offers Miss Rosalinda, ejecting bits of scrambled egg from her mouth as she speaks.

    In the middle of this declaration, I see Miss Rosalinda’s wheels turn as her gaze finds me and her internal barometer starts to size me up. Her eyes are on auto-focus; they neither betray nor stray very far from the truth.

    Myrt continues her rant – something about the sleepless night she’s spent aboard the Southwest Chief’s economy sleeping car, and then it’s suddenly just me and Rosalinda, one-on-one.

    “First timer,” she volleys.

    “Yes.” My eyes begin to dart.

    “No,” she clarifies. “I mean at the big table.”

    She sees the state brimming within me and then chuckles softly as she aces another blazing serve: “Thought so.”

    Henry has the patience to watch beans grow, and Myrt is in complete rapture now, providing a pointed observation about the ramifications of her neighbor Helen’s lingerie left out on the clothesline overnight – but then Miss Rosalinda is back, this time for match point.

    “It would probably be right Christian of you to offer us your name, gentle traveler. I think it might be good to get to know you.”

    In our whimsical age of twerks and jerks, endless sound bites, even more endless streams of video clips – and of all of our individual fifteen minutes of fame (do we really get to expect that much of it anymore?), it’s funny how quickly we forget not so much about the importance of taking time to listen – but of the critical need to connect – and to share the journey of which we are all a part.

    Do you take the time to really listen to your customers? If the answer is yes, congratulations. But you are really only halfway there.

    Riddle me this: Do you also take the time to respond in a meaningful way – to give it back?

    To do that – to respond in a way which truly resonates, forget about tables for one – invite yourself to a spot at the biggest one.

    I am always ready for the big table now, feasting at it even when I’m not, thanks to Miss Rosalinda and her own big idea – the one which forced me to let everyone see who I was.

    So, here’s a big idea for you: When it comes to serving your customers, find them and serve them by being with them. Converse. Listen to what they have to say, and then let them listen to who you are. Dig right in – and like Miss Rosalinda, remember to eat with gusto.

    It won’t be a waste of your time. Far from it, because this I can guarantee: you will see needle-moving results like never before.