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As I began my day – at 5 AM with nearly silent downtown streets and a cup of hot coffee in hand – I spent some time thinking about the difference between serving your customer and caring about your customer. What is the difference? Is one better than the other? Combined, do they create something special?

As I have written in the past, my favorite time of the day is before daybreak; when there is time to think about family and friends, my projects and the day ahead. With journal in hand, I make notes about ideas for future blogs. Lately I have been thinking a great deal about how we can serve our clients more effectively, more efficiently.

One morning last week, as I was reading George Bradt and Mary Vonnegut’s excellent “Onboarding: How to Get New Employees Up to Speed in Half the Time,” I ran across this quote from a major search firm executive who was discussing the findings of a study his organization had conducted of thousands of prior searches:

“We found that 40 percent of the executives hired at the senior level are pushed out, fail or quit within 18 months. It is expensive in terms of revenue. It is expensive in terms of the individual’s hiring. It’s damaging to morale.”

Now, this is something I have been saying for years – a bad hire is a costly and disruptive event. It would be very easy to jump with glee, to learn that a major competitor had discovered such a record. However, that would not be fair. The truth is that the search business, which has operated with the same business model for more than 50 years – a rarity in the constantly evolving U.S. economy – has not changed much, save the addition of some technology. Hopefully, what our colleague has done in announcing these results is to sound the alarm that we cannot conduct business as usual in the new norm that is the current economic climate.

There are numerous things search firms can change and at JohnMarch Partners, we are reshaping our portfolio of services to afford clients more flexibility. The nice thing about being a smaller firm is that we can adjust fairly quickly. We have done that with our decision to offer interim management solutions, to unbundle the components of our highly regarded search process that will provide clients with advisory services to help them strengthen their internal recruitment and retention with programs like Onboarding and PredictiveSelection. But there is more to change than restructuring your offerings and that brings me back to my earlier questions.

What is the distinction between serving your customer and caring about your customer? Merriam-Webster defines service in a multiple of ways but these words stood out for me: “to furnish a professional service, to furnish or supply something that is needed or wanted.” In looking up the word caring, I was struck by this explanation: “painstaking or watchful attention…implies great concern and connotes either thoughtful or hovering attentiveness toward another.”

We can furnish a service, but if we also care about our clients, does that carry the implication that we worry about whether the work we perform will bring more value to our customer? Does caring service mean that we will be more invested in whether the work we do helps our client become more successful?

Is caring service the type of change that will enable companies to thrive in a new economy?