The “Iron Chef” approach to customer service

I have a confession to make: I love cooking competition shows. I watch Food Network more than I should. And it’s not just the ones most folks know, like Chopped or Top Chef. If it’s on Food Network, chances are, I watch it if for nothing more than to steal ideas for my own kitchen.

What I love more than just the food itself is watching the way the chefs work through the tasks at hand. Some are frenetic and run around the kitchen like their hair is on fire. Others seem to move through at such a leisurely pace, you wonder if they realize it’s a competition. The styles of cooking and the flavors presented by the competitors vary just as much. One round can see a Tex-Mex, Asian, and American BBQ version of the same dish prepared in a myriad of ways. It makes me feel like my skills in the kitchen barely cover boxed mac and cheese.

Aside from the lessons in the kitchen, these shows have helped me figure out a few things about problem solving and working with my customers. That’s what most of us in sales do every day, right? We work with our customers to solve problems. I’m no “Iron Chef” in this regard, but there are some things I’ve picked up that have a lot in common with the cooking shows I love so much.

What I’ve learned watching too many cooking competitions

Here are few tips:

1. It can be a lot like those mystery baskets …

We always hope to know our customers well, but some we just figure out more than others. Regardless, not every customer and not every project is clear from the get go. Sometimes it’s like those “mystery baskets” that contestants have to make into something great for the judges.

To me, those can be the most fun. What oddball problem or unique quirk in the desired solution is going to challenge me the most? Which unforeseen hurdle must I clear in order to make everyone feel good about our work together?

I’ve found that as I watch these shows and work with my customers, the common theme is that you do best when you just dive right into the “mystery” involved. Like the contestants on television, the mystery isn’t going away until it you address it, so why not dig right in and tackle it head on? With our customers, that level of service goes a long way. We really want to help our customers get a full view of their operations and craft the right solutions for them along the way.

2. Focus, focus, and … focus

If you watch these shows long enough, the contestants who find themselves in the most trouble are not the ones that just make bad choices on their food or go in awkward directions. What causes the most havoc for contestants is a lack of focus. Either there are too many things going on at one time, they’re trying to do too much, or they shift gears too often and dig themselves into a hole.

Inevitably, the clock runs out, they burn food, and they quickly lose the round.

With our customers, we have to focus on the problem at hand. Sometimes when the conversations get rolling, we want to throw out solutions instead of address the critical issues that brought us into the conversations in the first place. That’s when we need to slow down and focus.

This kind of focus also means using what’s right there in front of you. What ingredients do you already have? Which ones can you use that aren’t necessarily required? Do you really need to use everything in the pantry? Or can you stick to the core of what you have?

It really is no different in my customer interactions. We are bound by what our customers can and cannot feasibly do. Oftentimes, those things are out of our control and it is up to us to steer them toward a solution appropriate for their requirements. We can challenge where appropriate and make recommendations for changes, but at the end of the day, we need to make life easier for our customers on their terms.

3. Get creative and WIN

Winning contestants on these cooking competition shows take ordinary ingredients and spin them into something that completely blows the judges away. They don’t stick to the predictable or traditional. They make something that is inventive and unique.

Sometimes, they bend the rules when they can only spend so much on their items or have to make use of certain tools in their kitchens. Sure, certain techniques and flavors are always going to be used, but the winners of these competitions are often the ones that let their creativity shine bright.

Not every opportunity is going to be simple and straightforward. On the team I work with, we have hundreds of solutions for accounts payable, human resources, and contract management. Very few of them look alike and even fewer didn’t require our team to get creative on the solution and its delivery. That’s just a fact of our industry.

It also happens to be true in just about any situation where you are helping your customer solve a problem. You need to be creative to find the right fit at the right time for the right reasons. There’s a saying that the most dangerous thing to tell a customer is, “We’ve always done it this way.”

While we want to challenge our customers on their way of thinking to provide value with our solutions, we often need to challenge ourselves internally on how we provide those solutions in the first place. Just because it’s the way we’ve always approached that type of problem or that type of customer doesn’t mean it’s the right way to do it this time around.

4. Have fun

The chefs on television love their jobs and love what they do. It’s a labor of love, a true passion, and they get to do it every day. Without passion for the food they are cooking, there’s no way they win on these shows, let alone run successful restaurants. Unlike the competition shows, the “rescue” type shows typically have management or chefs that just don’t care and the quality of the operation reflects that apathy.

I am very lucky to work for a company that makes it easy to love what I do. Hyland has a reputation for being a great place to work and that isn’t just on paper (though four-years-in-a-row on the Fortune Top 100 Workplaces doesn’t hurt). The collaboration and purpose here drives me every day. There are simply incredible people here that make coming to work a positive experience. Aside from the work environment, I enjoy working with my customers and discussing their problems and how we can help them solve them.

If you don’t have fun, even a little bit, then it will show whether you realize it or not. I’m not saying do cartwheels and high five your colleagues every day. All I mean is that you have to enjoy what you are doing to take care of business in all of the ways described above. Without some sense of purpose and passion, you won’t be able to focus, be creative, or provide the most value for your customers.

I’m also very lucky that the solutions I help provide are among the industry’s finest. Whether it’s enterprise content management, case management, business process management, or secure file sharing or whether it’s on-premises, in the cloud, or on a smartphone – we have the finest ingredients to prepare the best meal.

And that’s what it’s all about.

* This post originally appeared on Pulse.

Joe Russo is a strategic account manager at Hyland. Currently, Joe also writes for Factory of Sadness, a Cleveland sports website operated by Fansided, and The OnBase and Hyland Blogs. His work has also appeared on and The Fraternity Advisor.
Joe Russo

Joe Russo

Joe Russo is a strategic account manager at Hyland. Currently, Joe also writes for Factory of Sadness, a Cleveland sports website operated by Fansided, and The OnBase and Hyland Blogs.... read more about: Joe Russo