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Calling, Purpose, and Customer Service Via Sukhothai

Updated: Jan 23, 2023

By Raphael Hernandez

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There I was, in central Thailand, one of two passengers in a van being driven by a driver I will call Chen. We were there conducting a site survey to identify training venues for the U.S. Marine Corps who would be conducting training exercises with their Royal Thai Marine Corps hosts later on in the year. It was our second day of the survey and we were approaching the ancient city of Sukhothai, which means “happiness,” when we were suddenly surprised by the wonderful aroma of Thai cuisine in the air.

We decided to stop for lunch near Sukhothai’s ancient ruins; an open-air market lined with restaurants came into view and we agreed it was the perfect spot. The smell of Thai curries hung lazily in the air and we quickly selected a place to eat so we could quell our growing appetites. As we disembarked the van, I turned to Chen and invited him to join us for lunch. I was shocked by his reaction and what his facial expression communicated. Chen looked at me like I had just gifted him a check for a million dollars. His eyes welled up with water and his face lit up with a grin that spread from ear-to-ear. When I turned to my companion and gestured, “What’s up with this guy?” my friend answered, “Usually clients don’t invite their drivers to lunch; this is a big deal for him.”

Chen joined us for lunch and we had a great conversation. He shared his personal story, we learned about his family, and he enthusiastically shared how much he enjoyed driving “important’ people in his van, which was maybe 10 years old and a bit worn, but impeccably maintained – one could say it was lovingly maintained for the maximum comfort his clients!

I was so grateful that Chen joined us instead of sitting in his van, going without a lunch meal while waiting for us to finish ours. We learned a great deal about Sukhothai and the surrounding area that our online research had not revealed and Chen offered to give us a personalized tour of the ruins for free. Chen was one of the most interesting, thoughtful, and happy people I’ve ever met. We learned so much from him in that hour or so we spent breaking bread together. We were so appreciative of his company and generosity of spirit.

As the meal came to an end, Chen suddenly excused himself and darted across the street to where his van was parked. I asked my companion why he turned so serious, so abruptly. He explained that Chen wanted to ensure his van was ready to be re-embarked by us. “All we were going to do is jump back in and move to the next stop and jump right out again,” I said.. I quickly realized, however, that Chen saw his job as a calling and ensuring the happiness of his clients was his purpose in life. I wondered at that time if the Buddhist-inspired decorations inside the van had anything to do with his desire to make others happy. For Chen, it did not matter whether he was hired to transport people a few blocks within Bangkok or hired for a multiple day trip, like the one we were on—he was going to treat his every client “like royalty,” regardless of time and distance. The attitude and actions Chen displayed during our week together made me realize three valuable lessons:

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Embrace diversity and connect with people you don’t normally speak with. Had I not invited Chen to join us for lunch, we never would have learned the rich history of the areas we visited and we would not have benefitted from the wisdom he shared via his captivating stories. Our worldview expanded and I believe Chen’s had as well. When was the last time you had lunch with someone that was not in your socio-economic circle? Why not make an effort to connect with someone completely different that yourself? You may just learn something new about yourself and your community.

You don’t need a high-paying job or a fancy title to pursue your calling and live a life of meaning and purpose. Chen was clearly a servant leader—a servant leader puts the needs of others first. He was called to serve and he did so by putting his heart and soul into providing the best possible transportation services for his clients. He did it in such a way that one didn’t notice that his van was not the most up to date model, and he did it with an infectious joy that made his clients “feel like royalty.” During our lunch, Chen spoke fondly of the year he spent as a young man living the austere life of a Monk, which is a customary rite of passage for most young Thai men. We might conclude that his “others-focused” worldview was driven by a higher purpose. What are you doing to align your life with a “calling” and/or with your “purpose” in life? Have you found your purpose?

Customer Service is all about putting others first; those who do it well are poised to be tomorrow’s leaders. Chen was a leader. I know this because on subsequent trips back to Thailand, I observed him organizing and leading multiple groups of drivers and from observing the group dynamic. It was clear that he was a trusted leader who was looked upon as an inspirational person by his peers. He led with a smile and his inspiring leadership made things happen. What are you doing to develop your customer service representatives on the front lines? Do you put the needs of others first? What are you doing to inspire your customer service employees to enhance their desire to put others first?

The last time I saw Chen was in 2011. He came searching for me at a hotel in Bangkok after learning I was in town. We met by chance just outside my hotel as I was stepping into a taxi. He shook my hand, gave me a hug, and told me he would miss not seeing me again. As I pulled away for the airport, I couldn’t help but think once again about the meaning of Sukhotai: happiness. Suddenly, I felt a smile form on my face and I happily gazed out the window to appreciate the beautiful landscape one last time.

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Raphael Hernandez

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