Paul Butler: Service is a choice

Paul Butler

Last week, my wife and I ran a half-marathon in Hawaii. During our trip, I was reminded that service really is a choice. Employees, as service providers, really do make all the difference.

Here are three short stories from last week that reminded me of this principle:

The organizers of the event arranged for us to get a bus ride from the finish line back to where our cars had been parked several hours earlier. The race organizers — Revel — had hired a local school district to provide buses, and I assume the drivers had volunteered for some overtime outside of their normal duties.

Our driver was outstanding. He loved Hawaii, and it showed.

Even though he wasn’t expected to do so, he told us about what we could see around us. He gave us a history lesson. He told us things that many local runners said even they didn’t know. His level of service really was his choice. He chose to give a lot of himself.

The second story was on the flight back to Los Angeles.

We flew Hawaiian Airlines, and although the plane’s audio system played nice music, we didn’t feel too much aloha spirit from our hostess. She smiled, but it seemed fake.

She had a little Hawaiian flower in her hair, but it was almost wilting. Even though the pre-recorded announcement said the hostess would be “delighted” to be of service during the flight, we just didn’t get that vibe from her.

Partway through the long flight, I wandered to the back cabin to ask for a glass of water, as I couldn’t get a response from the call button I’d pressed twice.

I was obviously interrupting her chat time with her fellow cabin crew or her magazine reading time, because the look she gave me — accompanied by her fake smile — was as if I’d asked her to whip up a filet mignon on the spot.  

Her level of service really was her choice. She chose to give very little of herself.

Even though we weren’t landing until midnight local time, we were getting excited about indulging in the “Californian Classic” that is In-N-Out Burger near LAX.

For any late night In-N-Outers, you’ll probably know they close at 1 a.m.

We ordered our midnight munchies around 12:30 a.m.

Just before our order was called, my wife asked me for some ketchup, and I went up to the dispenser to find it was empty. I wandered over to the counter and asked the server if she could refill the dispenser, and she looked at me with a vague recognition of what I’d just asked.

Our order was called about 12:40 a.m., and I went up to the counter to collect the supper we’d been thinking about since leaving Kona — some seven hours earlier.

I wandered over to the ketchup dispenser and noticed it still hadn’t been refilled. So, I went back up to the counter and spoke again to the not-so-friendly face of the same server and politely reminded her about the ketchup still needing to be replenished.

It cuts me deeply to say this as a raving fan of In-N-Out, but I was given a bit of an attitude from the server when she sharply responded: “We close in 20 minutes.”

I, therefore, asked for a couple of packets of ketchup, and she huffed and puffed while opening up a new box and just threw them onto the counter with not so much of a word or eye contact.

Yes, the meal was still, “Quality You Can Taste,” but with service that kind of sucked. Her level of service really was her choice. She chose to give very little of herself.

Customer service is essentially the addition of people, process and product.

These short stories from last week reminded me that, regardless of how efficient an organization’s processes are or how good its product is, it’s the employees who can make or break the end experience.

Will I ever see the bus driver again?

Sadly, I doubt it.

Will we choose Hawaiian Airlines again?

Probably not.

Did “Little Miss Unhappy” at In-N-Out Burger put me off the “Californian Classic?”

Well, some products are just so good we can sometimes choose to forgive the imperfections of people.

Paul Butler is a Santa Clarita resident and a client partner with Newleaf Training and Development of Valencia ( The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Signal newspaper. For questions or comments, email Butler at [email protected].

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