People Power: The search for connections – July 2023

By Sam Allman

What happened to good customer service? It seems that whenever or wherever I need help, I am ultimately expected to do whatever it is myself, often through an app on a smartphone. I am frustrated and overwhelmed. I now have innumerable apps I have to learn to use. And if I need assistance using their app? I am unable to talk to a human, just a virtual assistant. It was better when I could talk to a real person, even if they were half a world away. I have not had good luck communicating with bots. Have you?

My first real job (not working for my dad) was in a service station-pumping gas, cleaning windshields, checking oil levels and filling radiators. I guess most of us are used to pumping our own gas now, but that loss of service has trickled down even further. Where have all the cashiers gone? I struggle ordering my food in a fast-food restaurant from a kiosk, especially when I want to customize an order. It then irritates me when I go to pay that there is a line on the bill for a tip. I was under the assumption that tips were for rewarding good customer service. It seems they are requesting tips before the service, even if there is none. I am further annoyed that I have to clean up my mess when I finish eating. And at most grocery stores, I have to check myself out and bag my own purchases. Similarly, I used to book my airline tickets through a travel agent, but now I spend hours online trying to book my own.

I realize I sound like a boomer reminiscing about the good old days. I understand that technology has changed and will continue to change the world, and I’d better get used to it. After all, with our decreasing population, we will be increasingly short of workers. One of the benefits of capitalism is that price matters, and that means that remaining competitive demands that we use creative ways to cut costs. Cutting costs and increasing productivity are means to provide a less expensive product or service (or increase profits), and technology and artificial intelligence may help alleviate the production problems created by fewer workers in the future. But the loss of customer service we feel as we bag our own groceries or struggle through a website or kiosk to place an order, wondering if we are getting it right, can make us feel lonely and disconnected. When we need and want help, no one is there. No wonder we’re anxious and depressed.

Americans disagree about many things, but on one topic we are nearing consensus: We are troubled. Partisan hostility seems as bad as it’s been in living memory. We are divided like we were prior to the Civil War. People feel disconnected from their families, their communities and their country. The future is uncertain, and people are angry. There is much pain, animosity and fear. Anxiety, depression and loneliness are rampant, and the number of people suffering is increasing. The Covid pandemic exacerbated the sense of loneliness, depression and disconnection, as has working virtually at home alone.

In our hunter-gatherer and agrarian societies, our ancestors lived in small communities, villages, tribes and families, where everyone was connected and supported. I believe that industrialization is the chief cause of our current human issues. Stress wasn’t even a word in the dictionary in the early 1900s. Pre-industrialization, life was simpler, and we had more people in our support groups. Multiple generations would live in the same home. Interaction with others was inevitable and more intimate. In our industrialized society, ironically, loneliness is pervasive in our crowded cities. People are all around us, but there is little contact and connection. Many of us may not even know or have talked to our next-door neighbors. And mobility today is such that members of our families may live any place on the globe, making interaction difficult or impossible.

Our human evolution has not kept up with these changes in our modern culture. We are ill-equipped to handle living without a larger support group. Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives. Those ties protect people from life’s vicissitudes, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ or even genes. Whether you like it or not, we all need people. We need relationships for support, for meaning, for understanding, for our mental and physical health.

Modern society and technology will continue to attack and weaken the critical relationships we do have unless we decide to do something about it. I assume that the people who read this magazine and this column are always looking for ways to grow personally or ways to find personal meaning in making a difference. I have always loved Steve Jobs’ answer to what the meaning of life is. He said, “We’re here to put a dent in the universe.” What better way than to eliminate loneliness or depression in others, even if it is only one person at a time?

Several days ago, I attended the unexpected funeral of my niece. When I heard of her passing, I was deeply saddened, but at her funeral, I realized that in her short 44 years, she made a bigger dent than I could have ever imagined.

She had a hard life. She was the single mother of an adult son, who was still living with her. She had raised and supported her son alone, but she stayed close to her parents and two siblings. She was a retail salesperson in a recreational-vehicle business selling snowmobiles, jet skis, four-wheelers and Razor scooters. Many of her customers came to sing her praises and pay her homage. Can you imagine a long line of Razors, four-wheelers and recreational vehicles leading the funeral procession to the cemetery? That was when I was hit by a blinding flash of insight: You can have a happy and meaningful life, no matter how short or hard, if you nurture the relationships you inherit and search for ones that can be mutually beneficial. My niece’s life is proof of that.

Each of us may have different needs in terms of the number of relationships we hold close, but happiness requires that we have at least a few relationships that are mutually supportive and beneficial. In an America that is hurting, we have an enormous opportunity to alleviate pain by simply using our people power skills with whomever we come in contact with in our homes and communities, and especially in our businesses. Daily, we have the potential to fortify a current relationship, reconnect with a previous one or meet and connect with someone new who possibly could enrich our lives as we enrich theirs and, at the same time, grow our businesses. Let me remind you what management guru Peter Drucker said, “The purpose of a business is to create and keep a customer.” Yes, even one customer at a time.

There are only three ways to grow a business: acquire new customers, get current customers to buy more or get current customers to buy more frequently. The fact is, loyal customers come back, buy more and buy more often. Loyalty is tied to the experience the customer has with your brand, your people and the product you sell. It’s all about relationships. Relational loyalty-whether it is a customer, an employee, a constituent or a member of your immediate family-cannot be demanded; it can only be granted. And that is influenced by the quality of the relationship.

Unconditional giving is foundational in any meaningful and satisfying relationship. In essence, when you give of yourself, be it your time, your efforts, your wealth or your words, you are actually exercising the behaviors of love. Love is the spirit of giving. Though you may not have the intense feelings associated with romantic love or the love parents have for a child, as you give, serve and nurture others, your care for them will grow. It is a natural law, the law of investment: What you invest in (your time, talents, money, efforts, etc.), you will value. The more time you give, the more value you feel.

When you give unconditionally, you exercise one of the most powerful and influential forms of love. To love unconditionally is to love without judgment, without expectation and without the need for control or possession. Unconditional love is what makes meaningful relationships transformational. It’s the willingness to give love without expecting anything in return. It’s the gift of acceptance without the threat of you leaving. It is not about overlooking someone’s faults; it’s about seeing them clearly and loving them anyway.

At the heart of mankind’s existence is the desire to be intimate and to love, and to be loved by another. Why are loneliness and depression rampant? Odds are it is the lack of personal attention. That’s why we can feel lonely in a crowd if we are not noticed or acknowledged. The opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference. Many of us suffer because no one seems to care when we express our needs. Hence, my feeling that modern culture and technology are lacking the human touch that real customer service provides. If your focus is on what you can get rather what you can give in your relationships, odds are your relationships are not meaningful.

People power skills allow you to connect, create and maintain relationships with strangers, friends or members of your family. The unconditional use of these skills alleviates loneliness and frustration in others-you can make a dent in this troubled world by simply stepping up and using them with anyone with whom you make contact, just like my niece did. “The truth is this: Love is not determined by the one being loved but rather by the one choosing to love” (Stephen Kendrick). As you consider your daily search for meaning and relationships, let me leave you with these words from Mother Teresa, “Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier.”

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