BE MINDFUL …Combating mindlessness at the front line

One look at her face told me everything I needed to know. It was instantly obvious that this lady would have preferred to be somewhere else that morning rather than sitting at the front office of the company. The distant look in her eyes coupled with the forlorn look on her face were enough to tell me that this was the last place she wanted to be that morning. It is interesting the way a person can be at one place and yet still not be there. Sounds ridiculous? But it is very true. A person can be at a place in body but the mind can be totally out of the place, wondering elsewhere.

This was the exact condition of that front desk lady that day. Although, she was sitting at her desk, it was clear as daylight that she had “zoned out” and was daydreaming. Whatever was her mind, I did not have the power to decipher but I knew her mind was not on her job.

I had no choice but to still approach her and make the enquiry. Her response all but confirmed what I had first perceived as I entered. The monotonous tone in which she spoke was the clearest sign of someone who had no interest, whatsoever, in what she was doing. To say I was not impressed would be to say the least. I could not wait to get out of there, lest she infected me with her lackadaisical attitude.

As I walked out of the office, I could not help but compare her to another lady I had dealt with earlier that day. She was the exact opposite of this particular one. Her place was packed with customers all trying to get their tickets but that did not seem to affect her at all. It did not matter that she could not even see the last person in the line in front of her. Her eyes sparkled with excitement. Her contagious smile was enough to brighten the day for all her customers. She was alert. She was “all there”—fully engaged and alive to her duties.

I found it interesting that in a single day, I had come across two examples of something I had been studying that week—mindfulness and mindlessness. The concept had come to my attention in a book I bought on my recent trip to the Orient. In his book, “The Confidence Project”, bestselling author and psychologist Dr. Rob Yeung defines Mindfulness as “the act of bringing our full attention to the experiences happening to us at any given moment.” The concept is something that is really gaining grounds around the world and more and more studies reveals its importance and usefulness.

It is important to differentiate between mindfulness and mere paying of attention. Mindfulness is more of an enhanced form of paying attention in a non-judgmental way. It is knowing that you are paying attention to a particular matter.

Contrary to what the name might conjure up, mindlessness, on the other hand, is actually not about being silly or ignorant. As Dr. Yeung explained, those who suffer from mindlessness, like the lady in the first vignette, allow their minds to go on an “autopilot mode.”

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Mindlessness is about doing the same thing over and over again without giving much thought to it. Mindlessness is about eating and not savouring the meal—not allowing your taste buds to really work on the food in your mouth. It is about driving to work without noticing anything on your way. And for the purposes of this discussion, it is about serving one’s customers without taking note of them.

Too many front line staff suffer from mindlessness and this accounts for much of the poor experiences customers go through all over the world. Customer-facing staff who are not fully engaged in the moment are like zombies residing in the front offices of their organisations. They see a customer without fully being aware of the customer. They see the customer but they do not see the one.

I bet if you asked the lady in the first story what colour of shirt I wore that day, she would not remember. She merely went through the motions of serving me but she never really focused on me. Whatever memories were consuming her mind had taken all attention and so she was as robotic as she could ever be. Her mind was full but she was not being mindful.

I am pretty sure I am not the only one she did that to. What a shame! She had a great opportunity to endear her organisation to customers. However, her mindlessness put the potential for repeat business in jeopardy. I do not see myself returning to that company with high expectations for a great experience. Therefore like many disappointed first-time customers would do, I would prefer to take my business elsewhere.

The issue of mindfulness is not just some fanciful idea conjured by some holy man sitting atop a mountain in the Himalayas. It is a widely-studied phenomenon with lots of scientific data to back it. According to a 2015 review on the topic, there are more than 4,000 scholarly articles written on the subject of mindfulness.

One of such studies was published in a 2003 edition of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Titled “The Benefits of Being Present: Mindfulness and Its Role in Psychological Well-Being,” this study asserted that being mindful had a positive effect on the psychological well-being of the individual. The study found that individuals suffering cancer were less prone to mood disturbance and stress when they practiced mindfulness over time.

In other words, when we go to work to serve customers and we put our whole minds to the serving customers, we tend to feel better about the whole experience. By extension, this could also mean that those who complain about not enjoying the front line job might be those who do not practice mindfulness at work. They might be at work but their minds might either be in the past, remembering some past events; or dreaming of something in the future.

There was another interesting study published in a 2012 American Psychological Association journal which contrasted mindfulness and mind-wandering. This study was titled “Mindfulness and Mind-Wandering: Finding Convergence through Opposing Constructs”. Mind-wandering was defined in the study as the “interruption of task focus by task-unrelated thought”—such as serving a customer while thinking of a fight you had with that special someone the night before.

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One of the results of that very study was that practising mindful breathing for just eight minutes had the potential of reducing an individual’s mind-wandering. Mindful breathing, by the way, is the practise of paying close attention to one’s breathing. The ability of mindfulness to help control mind-wandering is important because studies have shown that the human mind is estimated to wander roughly half of our waking hours. The lady I referred to at the beginning of this piece evidently was mind wandering and it is individuals like her that need the curative properties of mindfulness training.

There are many studies that have proven that practicing mindfulness helps ameliorate the symptoms of many disorders such as major depression, borderline personality disorder, or posttraumatic stress disorder. Anyone who has spent a bit of time at the front line will tell you that serving customers can be one of the most stressful job schedules one can have. Therefore studies like this, which indicate that mindfulness is very helpful in improving stressful conditions, should excite every manager or supervisor.

The importance of mindfulness has not gone unnoticed in business circles as the phenomenon is fast catching on in many organisations around the world. It has even been reported that major organisations such as the US Army and Google are using mindfulness training to enhance the performance of staff. If these organisations have caught to the concept of mindfulness training, it can only mean that they have seen something other organisations are yet to discover.

It has been stated time without number on this platform that when it comes to customer service, the little things can really make a big difference. Those whose job it is to face customers must ensure that they know the seemingly little things they must do to perform at their very best. Organisations must learn more about this concept and so train their customer-handling staff to ensure that when they come in to serve customers, they keep their minds fully committed on the task at hand.

One of the positives of mindfulness, as far as I am concerned, is the fact that you can practice it at any point during the day, regardless of what one is doing and wherever one finds oneself. It does not take anything special to get into mindfulness—no special equipment, no special routine. However, as we seen, the benefits are really impressive.

The truth is that customers know when the individual charged with serving them has his or her mind somewhere else. This sends a wrong message to these customers. It makes customers feel like they are being a bother to the organisation rather than the reason for the existence of the organisation. In a time when competition is coming at the organisation from all corners, this is something all organisations must be mindful of.

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