Swimming, Mastery and Customer Service


It struck me while swimming this morning that the method I have been using for the past 8 years or so is all about mastery.

As a triathlete, I spend a great deal of time practicing the three sports — swimming, cycling and running. Running and cycling share one thing in common, which is that a good athlete in decent condition can do well in these sports, especially when they are blessed with some degree of physical speed and power.

Swimming, however, is quite different.

Water is 80 times as dense as air. The reason that good swimmers are not muscular is that being a good swimmer is all about technique. In particular, poor swimming technique is punished severely in the form of resistance or drag.

By contrast, poor cycling and running technique are not as important as stamina, speed and power. The movements in both these sports are much more constrained, or limited, and the air is much more forgiving than water as a medium.

This makes swimming unique — and the repetitive drilling that goes with mastery all the more important.

At my level of swimming it is ALL about technique. In fact, the books I have read say that someone with my (slow) speed should not even worry about trying to go faster. Instead, the emphasis needs to be on cutting resistance by using better techniques.

This particular insight is one that is pioneered by Terry Laughlin, the inventor of the Total Immersion approach to mindful swimming.

Someone watching me practice would wonder what the heck I am doing… it would look like a bunch of half-swimming exercises, repeated over and over again. They might think I am trying to get my body fitter and fitter by doing different things.

The truth is quite different, however.

Whereas the typical swimming workout, and the typical swimming coach focuses on quantity — doing lots and lots of laps with variations in length and speed and stroke, Terry’s focus is on using your mind to emphasize, isolate and improve different actions of the arms, legs, torso and head and the resultant bodily sensations.

For example, he would have you swim while focusing on creating a sensation called “weightless arm” which is created by pressing the chest into the water.


It turns out that these sensations allow for a more streamlined approach that cuts resistance and improve speed. However, the speed comes when the technique is right, and the technique is right when the sensations are right, and the sensations comes when the various appendages are doing more of the right things than not.

So, there I was this morning, swimming back and froth, trying to accomplish better and better way of keeping that feeling, especially when I am fatigued.

I recognized a parallel between this kind of thinking and providing good customer service.

A company that sees the need to deliver good customer service might invest in actions such as training employees to smile, say hello and ask “How can I help you” every single time a customer walks in. However, the result might be the opposite of that intended.

In The US, for example, I got quite used to the “fake friendly” service that is delivered in stores by people who would do all of the right things, but five minutes later would ignore me outside the store as if they never knew me. I have even gotten the same greeting from the same person only minutes apart, indicating to me that they are not really meaning to be friendly — they are meaning to do their jobs.

If the company does not focus on the experience that the customer is having, versus the one that is intended, they could well deliver something very different.

It stands to reason that the way to focus on providing the desired experience with customers is to create practices for each employee of the company in producing the desired experience with other employees — the people that they interact with most frequently.

And this is where the analogy fit — practicing one thing can give you another. In my swimming training, practicing fast swimming comes from focusing on becoming more streamlined in the water.

In companies, producing excellent customer experiences comes from focusing on creating superior employee experiences.

When it comes to thinking about creating the right kind of experience with employees, executives have a tremendous blind spot, and start to think immediately of how much it will cost them. Often, the assumption is that the right kind of experience equates to giving them more money, which mostly comes from the point of view that employees are merely economic animals to be “inventivized” one way or another.

Well, it does come down to that — but only in the very worst companies.

In the better companies, employees do not retreat into monetary rewards as their sole or even most important reward. Research shows employees want much more than that, and are not so easily bought and sold.

Instead, in the case of the Jamaican worker, research from Why Workers Won’t Work by Kenneth Carter shows that respect is much more important.

In some companies that we have consulted with across the Caribbean region, workers have said over and over again that an executive that does not say “Good Morning” to each employee that he/she passes is guilty of disrespect, and insulting behaviour. While this may sound extreme (and it seems so to me with my American hat on) it nevertheless is true.

These feelings are then passed on wholesale to customers, as that same employee (without necessarily being vengeful) reproduces the same treatment that they received.

My sense is that executives can get away with this kind of behaviour to some degree in North American countries, as that “fake friendly” service can continue to some degree, perhaps due to the Protestant work-ethic that the US is so famous for.

In the Caribbean, however, a worker “dat not feelin’ it, not gwine give it.” Transl: “a worker that is not feeling it, will not give it.” Workers in our region are particularly unforgiving of such slights.

Mastery of the customer experience in our region may well start with executives mastering the kind of keen listening and sensitivity that they want employees to demonstrate.