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Does Your Company Practice “Lateral Service”?

Where there is no saying, “It’s not my job.”

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Ever drive past an Enterprise Rent-A-Car and see a guy in a tie washing cars? What’s your impression of that kind of behavior? If you’re like many, thoughts like “team player” and “going the extra mile” might spring to mind. That’s no accident — that’s lateral service.

Lateral service as a concept is best defined in The New Gold Standard by Joseph Michelli. The book takes a deep dive inside Ritz-Carlton hotels and their amazing culture. Michelli tells tales of lunch banquets being prepped by dining room staff with last-minute help coming from all corners of the hotel, including managers, front desk staff, and housekeeping. This “lateral service” concept is embedded in Ritz-Carlton’s hyperfocus around their customer-first obsession.

If you’re a Ritz-Carlton employee, there’s no such thing as saying, “That’s not my job.” When a customer needs something, you accompany them until their issue is resolved. This idea of obsessing over the customer experience isn’t unique to Ritz-Carlton. Companies like Amazon are famous for obsessing over customer experience, but often at the expense of their employee and vendor relationships. Ritz-Carlton tries to balance the see-saw through their mantra of being “ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” The devil in the details for lateral service is that it requires faith and trust in your colleagues for it to work well.

Also by Henry Clifford: You Can’t Make Unhappy People Happy

How do we learn from Ritz-Carlton and better deliver lateral service inside our own businesses? Michelli first points out that it’s got to be a 100 percent participation program, led by executive leadership from the top down. This helps to quell the predictable resentment that can come from a policy like this. The most common breakdowns in a lateral service policy mirror those of a marriage or committed personal relationship. You’re giving and leaning in to the extent you feel the other person is doing the same thing. They pull back, you pull back. How do we make this work in a commercial environment where our relationships are tied together through financial rewards? It can never be “the rules don’t apply to me.” The right culture will attract the right people and keep them engaged.

Let’s say you’re excited about lateral service and decide to implement it in your organization but quickly find it’s not working out. “I don’t get it,” you say. “I got out there and washed a few cars with my tie on but nothing changed.” It’s all built on trust and selecting the right people. Employees who aren’t “others-centric” will never fit into a lateral service culture. What if you decide to adopt lateral service and then assume anyone who recoils from it might not be a good fit for your company? Maybe they would leave? Maybe then you’d need to focus on hiring service-minded people the next around? That sounds hard. It is hard. That’s the point. If it were easy, all of us would practice lateral service and the world would be a much happier place.

Also by Henry Clifford: Simplification Through Specialization

If we all treated our workplace and colleagues like we treat our home and significant others, what would happen? Maybe we’d stop operating out of fear and assume good intent? Maybe we’d empower others and develop leadership skills in our direct reports?

Lateral service can only exist and thrive inside a healthy culture. It’s very much a referendum on how happy your workplace is. Focusing on making your company a great place to work will increase examples of lateral service exponentially.

In order for all of this to work, you need to lead by example. You might feel like you’ve paid your dues and now it’s someone else’s turn to suffer, and that’s OK. Just don’t expect lateral service to work out in your company. If you can’t bring your best every day (nobody can!), consider changing your routine and adapting your personality in a way that enables you to look as if you’re excited, even when you’re not. Random acts of kindness are contagious. Our employees deserve our best and lateral service culture springs from that.

What are you doing to promote lateral service in your company?

Stay frosty, and see you in the field.