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Tuesday, 28 March 2017 15:02

An authentic spirit to serve

An authentic spirit to serveEarly in 2000, I started working on a project that would change the course of my life. It was called HelpOut!, and it was a learning programme for Economic and Management Sciences for grade 4 learners. It’s real purpose, though, was to get kids to think and act like entrepreneurs. 

The challenge to learners was to help out fictional entrepreneurs. By continually walking in their shoes, seeing things their way, and solving their problems, they’d be encouraged to behave like entrepreneurs. A typical lesson involved reading an illustrated story about an entrepreneur with a challenge. Like Pam, who loved growing plants, but couldn’t sell them. She particularly liked scary-looking carnivorous plants, like flytraps. And she couldn’t understand why couples in romantic, candlelit restaurants didn’t want to buy them! 

Now that was the beauty of HelpOut!. Because even a group of 10 year-olds could see that Pam was simply selling her plants in the wrong place. If she tried selling them elsewhere, she might have more luck. And in that moment of realization, they’d grasp the rudiments of one of the most important functions in business: distribution. By the end of the programme, those 10 year-old grade 4 learners had spent 32 weeks getting to grips with other key functions like pricing, promotion and break-even, by simply helping out people who were passionate about their businesses. But perhaps even more powerful was that they were developing a problem-solving mindset, and contributing to their overall entrepreneurial mindset.

When Barry (my brother and Cognician co-founder) and I started working on HelpOut! we had a healthy respect and admiration for entrepreneurs, but we had no business aspirations apart from building our instructional design agency, Bright Sparks. But the deeper we went into development, so our minds started to change. The next programme we built was called LookOut!. Where HelpOut! was focussed on developing a problem-solving mindset, LookOut! was all about fostering an opportunity-seeking mindset. Every week, for 32 weeks, learners would look out for opportunities in large Where's Wally-type illustrations, which were peppered with latent entrepreneurial possibilities.

Next came TryOut! which challenged learners to try out a different business, every week, for 32 weeks. So we went from a problem solving mindset to an opportunity- seeking mindset to an action-orientated mindset. Every step of the way we were mindful that while knowledge is important, perspective is paramount. Simply knowing how to solve a problem, doesn’t increase your propensity for problem-solving. Just as knowing how to recognize an opportunity, doesn’t make you more opportunity-seeking. And acknowledging that taking initiative is a good thing, doesn’t make you more action-oriented. Behind every entrepreneurial habit is an attitude that makes the behavior more likely, more repeatable, more sustainable.

When it comes to putting customers first, there is an attitude I’ve noticed in many successful entrepreneurs I’ve met, which is at the core of the great customer service they deliver. In the world of corporate learning, it’s often called an “authentic spirit to serve”. 

So what on earth does that mean? Well, in recent dealings with a utilities client in the UK, I heard an anecdote that sums up the idea beautifully. A talent development specialist was explaining that her company aims to hire call centre specialists with an authentic spirit to serve. She explained that people who have this in their DNA are the kinds of people who notice when someone is lost on a street corner, and despite being busy, will ask, “Can I help you, it looks like you might be lost?” 

Now you may think that entrepreneurs don’t have time for this kind of thing, as they’re the busy ones on the street, who have places to go, and people to see. But having an authentic spirit to serve in business means making the experience of your customer the thing you’re busiest about. The entrepreneurs who sincerely believe that the experience of their customers is the most important thing in their world, are the ones who don’t have to struggle to deliver great customer experiences. They tend to make customer-first decisions in every area of their business without being prompted to do so. They design products and services with the customer in mind. They create processes that optimize for customer delight. They hire people who are a pleasure to deal with, and they prioritize this over functional traits, and their customers get the benefit. 

The result of this entrepreneurial attitude is that customer service isn’t bolted on frontline training programmes in companies run by entrepreneurs who have an authentic spirit to serve. Instead it is woven into the fabric of the company so that the customer feels the seamless authentic spirit at every touchpoint. And they reward it with their loyalty. 


Patrick KaytonPatrick Kayton co-founded Cognician in 2010 to scale up the ability to have life-changing conversations in large companies through digital coaching.

He is married to Jill and spends much of his spare time chasing after their children Ava and Cole.

Patrick was selected as an Endeavor entrepreneur in 2013.