Server or Servant? Join the Dialogue

by Jean Marie Johnson

A New Voice on the Horizon

I was trolling the net recently, "surveying the service landscape" when I happened upon a website called The copy read: "A voice for service industry workers everywhere." I admit my interest was piqued. The brainchild of Patrick Maguire, a Boston native, the site (and accompanying blog) is a tribute to those who serve. It celebrates every associate, clerk, waitress, receptionist and agent; it celebrates everyone who has customers. It celebrates you and me.

A View from the Other Side

In fact, Maguire is in the process of writing a book entitled I’m Your Server Not Your Servant. Who doesn’t know the feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when another human being treats you badly? Maguire sure does. And he is about to release a colorful "tell-all" based on hundreds of anecdotes from service workers everywhere. The book will leave little to the imagination when it comes to the naughty, haughty, humorous and ugly details of customer misbehavior. I feel a collective catharsis coming on….

But it’s not the promise of colorful customer misdeeds that has me intrigued. As a service industry warrior, I have heard hundreds of these.  I know how they sting, how they hurt, how they bemuse and befuddle. I know. So, that’s not it.

Starting a Service and Civility Dialogue

What I love about Maguire’s work (which I intend to follow closely) is that he is not propelled by raw, get-even retribution. He’s not "coming from that place." In fact, he states "The mission of the blog and book is to engage people in a dialogue that will result in more respect for service industry workers and greater civility among human beings." Wow. He identifies three core messages that are at the heart of his work:

  • That the customer has almost as much to do with the success of every customer service interaction as the service worker.
  • That the customer, especially the abusive customer, is often dead wrong.
  • That all of us are responsible for serving each other with mutual respect and civility.
Talk about choosing to exercise positive control and influence. He’s all over it.

In my view, Maguire’s current blog and upcoming book make two major contributions to the eternal service conversation. First, he is extending a long overdue, public expression of empathy for service employees everywhere. As a "service employee," a consultant-for-hire, innkeeper and shop owner, I say "Thank you, Mr. Maguire. I get that you get it and it matters to me that you do."

But here’s the second contribution: We’re all customers, and so we are not off the hook either. Maguire holds up the mirror, asking us to examine our own behavior when the shoe is on the other foot. And in this, Maguire has nailed the real point, and it is simply that service and civility are kinfolk.

Server Not Servant

Consider this: when a person is performing a task on our behalf, they are said to be of service to us, or at our service. They are there to be useful to us, or to provide us with a form of help or assistance. That is a far cry from the "servant" connotation that suggests servitude, submission or obedience.  And yet, some customers (perhaps in part because they’ve been told that "they are always right"?) act as if they’ve been given a license to mistreat. Sorry, not so. There’s no "pass" for that.

Maguire suggests that about 5% of customers fall into the "abusive, offensive, rude, obnoxious, mean and nasty" category. However, his sense is that the number is steadily growing "and that civility and common decency are declining.  Bad behavior is becoming more rampant." I’d have to agree.

In Maguire’s world and  in mine, it comes down to this: As a human being, "server" or  "served," I am responsible for my actions, period. I like to think of it in this way: that every action, civil or otherwise, leaves a fingerprint: MINE. And isn’t that, truly, the spirit of MAGIC? Each one of us chooses; each one of us is the other’s customer, always. And there is plenty that we can do to demonstrate it.

For example, in Maguire’s discussion of "rules of engagement," he emphasizes the difference a customer can make by simply "making a connection" with the service rep over the telephone. He says it best:  "You can learn a lot by saying hello, asking how things are, listening, and taking the temperature before asking for what you want. By doing that, you’ll be better prepared to make the rest of the interaction successful. For example, if a server responds to your greeting by telling you that they’re new or that they’re short-handed and asks you to bear with them, then hopefully you’ll be patient and work with them to relax and have fun. It’s not that hard…"

We’re All in this Together: Join the Dialogue

And about that book Maguire is writing? You may be thinking that a guy who has had 19 different jobs, and a smorgasbord  of occupations including Supermarket Bagger, Cemetery Worker, Bartender, Maintenance Man and Stock Broker, would be inclined to write a book that’s "all about me."  Well, to the contrary, Maguire emphasizes that the book is far from a personal memoir. Its subtitle says it all: A Voice for Service Industry Workers Everywhere. Note that’s "a" voice, not "the" voice. Oh what a difference a simple article makes!

And so Maguire has extended a heartfelt invitation to all of us who are of service to others to contribute to his work by joining the dialogue. What he’d really like to hear are your stories, first-hand experiences and opinions. I suggest that you visit Maguire’s website at:

There you will be introduced to his work and have an opportunity to contribute by clicking on the Submit Your Stories tab. You can also email him at Count me in!

Jean Marie Johnsonis a Communico facilitator and has helped clients with their MAGIC initiatives. And for 20 years she has specialized in cultivating the customer experience as a key competitive advantage.
Before and After
Before and After
Just one "tragic" contact can influence your customers' perception of your company (and their buying decisions). Listen to the difference MAGIC® can make.