My friend, Tom, and I like to participate in long bicycle rides and one of the most memorable was the Ojai Century — 100 miles through the beautiful vistas of Summerland, Ventura, Ojai and Santa Barbara. These events start very early in the morning and this one was no different. We had to be in Ojai for about 6 a.m. One of the nice customer service touches with such events is they give you a swag bag full of goodies. Shuffling through my swag bag, I could feel what seemed like an energy gel. For those who don’t know, these are small sachets of a concoction that supposedly, (and, legally, I must add) gives one a boost of electrolytes. I decided to rip off the top of the sachet and down that sucker, as I knew it was going to be a long, long day. After about five seconds in my mouth, I knew what I’d just taken in was not an energy gel. It was just too pasty. I shouted to Tom (who was a few yards away setting up his bike for the 6:30 a.m. start) that I was such a numbskull as I’d just tried eating sunscreen! I hadn’t read the instructions — but that’s sure what it looked like. So, I proceeded to rub the rest of the sachet contents onto my arms and legs, but still something didn’t feel quite right. What was this stuff? It wasn’t soaking into my skin. One of the many things I like about Tom is he’s a man of few words. Seeing my distress — still spitting and still rubbing, he wandered over and picked up the discarded sachet in my bike bag. And then he said it: “That is chamois butter.” I’d heard of chamois leather but never chamois butter and so I asked Tom what it was. And then he said three more words that have since stuck in my mind whenever I drive past Ojai: “For your buttocks.” That was the first time I’d heard of chamois butter — apparently, to be applied to soften the discomfort of 100 miles in the saddle. Who knew? I hope that comes up on “Jeopardy’ or “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” — I won’t even need to phone a friend. I burst out laughing when Tom added a philosophical viewpoint to finish the episode: “Look on the bright side, dude. At least the sachet wasn’t already open.” Throughout the subsequent 100 miles around this beautiful part of southern California, three things were on my mind. Firstly, will the taste of chamois butter ever leave my palette? Secondly, why did the designers of chamois butter decide to present their product in the same manner as an energy gel — was that a design oversight, or did someone think it’d be funny when idiots like me downed one in darkness? And, thirdly, I vowed to always read the instructions moving forward. Relating this episode to the workplace, it set me thinking about how often as service providers we don’t read the instructions on what our internal or external customers truly want from us. We think we know best. I believe at the root of most customer service issues is where we simply didn’t read the instructions and give the customer what he/she asked for. I have observed that many leaders who fall from grace do so because they seemed to have not read the instructions on what a leader is meant to do or have forgotten them. Many consulting companies don’t consult well, because they don’t read the instructions on what their customers actually want. Likewise, many salespeople try to sell a product or service their customer is not really asking for — in effect, they fail to read the instructions from their customers. The only time in business I think it’s important to challenge the instructions you’ve been given from your customer is in the area of innovation – your instruction is to challenge the status quo. Henry Ford once said, “If I would have asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have asked for a faster horse.” I don’t think I’ll ever be a consumer of chamois butter again (and certainly not in the way I first consumed it), but that little sachet did teach me a lesson: Read the instructions. Paul Butler is a Santa Clarita resident and a client partner with Newleaf Training and Development of Valencia (newleaf-ca.com). The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Signal. For questions or comments, email Butler at email@example.com.