Genuine Service: How a forgotten business card became a good friend

3 years ago around this time I wrote a post on the InHouston blog.  For those not familiar, InHouston & founder Eric Standlee encourage “GiveFirst, Pay-it-forward, Servant Leadership” social networking.

My post is long but it tells of my early experience as a consultant and my “gut-wrenching decision to rely on others for transportation.”

In my many words I tell a story of how actions speak louder than words, and how one person can make a difference in another person’s life with nothing more than being genuine.

“We had more differences than similarities…but that didn’t matter…because now I also have the pleasure of calling him my friend.”

Happy New Years Dereje!!!  I miss you my friend.

Genuine Service: How a forgotten business card became a good friend (December 13, 2008)

Life as a consultant often means traveling and relying on the services of others. With services we have all experienced the good (Vonage), the bad (Comcast) and the ugly (Kool Breeze). As my fellow tweeters know, these were a few of my experiences when I moved to Houston in July.

I worked in Houston for over a year before moving my family down from Ohio. This meant I had to rely on services of many others to get thru the week, be it for transportation, hotel, food and anything else a guy would need when his wife is not there to hold his hand. I’m happy to point out that most of the experiences I had during this time were good ones. Continental Airlines & Residence Inn appreciated my business as much as I appreciated their services. Dereje did as well.

Dereje owns a Houston town car service and, like many others, he quickly became a forgotten business card in a stack of many I receive in my travels. Unbeknownst to me at the time, he would later become my driver and my friend.

In the past I had always rented a car for anything which required vehicular transportation, no matter how far or at what cost. I may have taken two taxis in the first 30+ years of my life, and maybe once or twice I rode a bus or train. But I never had to work downtown before either. I’m a good driver (contrary to what my wife says) and a terrible passenger on the road (we both agree on that). But after seeing the Houston traffic, with having everything I needed within walking distance of my hotel, and being that I was not here for sightseeing, I made the gut-wrenching decision to rely on others for transportation.

I flew into Houston with the first flight every Monday morning and left on the last flight every Friday evening. After 48 hours home I was back again in Houston. Being new to this cross-country lifestyle, I wasn’t sure what service to use to go from Point A to Point B. Uncertain of my expenses at the time, I decided to go the cheap route, shuttle bus service.

The shuttle bus option started off well, but quickly became undesirable. It was half the price of a taxi but you needed patience, especially if there were others being transported to downtown hotels. Once I had to wait several hours as shuttles came and went without me. Those busy chatting at the service counter just waved each shuttle on by without stopping for pick-ups. That was enough for me.

While it was not imperative for me to arrive at the office first thing on Monday mornings, being on the last flight out meant that taking a shuttle bus could never be an option for my departure. So I would grab a waiting taxi from the hotel instead. If no taxis were available, then the concierge would readily request the service of a “preferred” town car waiting nearby. Going from shuttle to town car meant I was now going from the cheapest mode of transportation to one much higher, but that doesn’t matter when one needs to catch a flight.

This was the first time I met Dereje, or DJ as he lets those like me lacking pronunciation skills call him. The services that DJ provided can be summed up in one word: genuine. From the start I could sense that he was a warm & caring man, even though we hardly spoke to each other on that first trip. His actions spoke louder than words.

After my shuttle bus experiences quickly ran aground, I upgraded to taxis. Again, there was nothing special here, I just needed to get from Point A to Point B in a timely & professional manner without going broke doing so. I quickly learned that a taxi service could provide me with all of these requirements, except for the desire of being transported in a professional manner. Every traveler has their taxi horror stories and it seemed that I was experiencing another one every week. On most trips I was just hoping to make it from Point A to Point B in one piece, let alone in a timely & professional manner.

After a few months traveling by shuttle buses and taxis, I decided to go with a town car service after all, something I experienced as much safer, more reliable and highly professional, and it didn’t cost much more than a taxi. I drove with several “preferred” town cars since the time I met DJ several months back. They were all safe, reliable and professional. But none of them provided the service “genuinely” like DJ did.

One weekend I looked everywhere at home for his business card. I needed it. My experience with him was a good one so I put it aside in a place I could easily find. Unfortunately though I couldn’t remember where that special place was. As good fortune would have it, my “preferred” town car waiting nearby the hotel the next week turned out to be DJ once again. Immediately I was jubilant inside and asked for him to be “my driver” every week. He said he would be delighted and gave me another business card which I promptly put inside my wallet, right behind the business card I received from him the first trip. Of course, it’s like looking for your glasses while you’re wearing them.

Over the course of a year or more, DJ & I came to know more of each other. I would see him every Monday & Friday and sometimes in between. We shared the joys and tribulations of our family life, talked about sports, politics, religion and the like. We had more differences than similarities in all of these topics of conversation, but that didn’t matter.

What surprised me was that he even opened up and shared something about me which troubled him, the fact that I’m pretty much oblivious to the customs of others. Not out of a lack of respect mind you, but I have a memory span shorter than the lifespan of a mayfly and I always seemed to forget them or get them confused. I had a co-worker once for whom it was customary in his country to have the other person go thru the door first, depending on which side of him that person was. Great guy but I dreaded elevator rides with him because I could never remember who was to get off the elevator first. Was it supposed to be the person on the left or right?

As DJ explained to me, those who provide a service in his home country of Ethiopia take great pride in what they do and have the highest respect for those whom they service, no matter what that service may be. That explains why I would see great disappointment in his face every time I opened the door myself when getting out of the car. Each time he dropped me off he would try even harder than the last to make it around the car to open the door before I would.

Even if I had ten bags with me he would insist on carrying all of them while at the same time opening doors and expressing how thankful he is to see me again. DJ takes great pride in the services that he provides. Much to his dismay, to this day I still occasionally open my own doors and always carry some of my luggage. But he knows how much I appreciate his services and these days I receive the “you don’t have to do that” headshake instead of disappointment in his face.

Since July I moved out of my downtown hotel, moved my family to Texas and have been on some long-term projects in Houston, so I no longer needed transportation to & fro on a weekly basis. But I still keep in touch with DJ and still request his services for myself and others whenever the opportunity arises.

I have strong admiration for DJ. During the past year he & his family have been thru many challenges. He came to this country about 8 years ago and has had to learn a lot about how America works, most of it the hard way. Like many others, DJ had a variable-rate mortgage which shot up and nearly doubled his monthly payments. Then gasoline prices shot up and he incurred higher expenses instead of raising his prices. Thankfully his tips seemed to proportionately increase as well. Then Hurricane Ike greatly damaged his home and he had to flee with his family for safety during the stormy night. He later found out that his home insurance was never properly processed and no hurricane damages were being covered. Whenever I think I’m having a bad day, he’s having it much worse.

But DJ is a man of great faith spending time on Sundays mostly with his church, family and friends. His faith is so very strong that not even hurricanes and recessions can diminish his hope, good character and enjoyable demeanor. DJ takes great pride in whatever he does and it naturally comes thru in his services to God and others. He is appreciative of what he has and not remorseful for that which he does not. He is a source of encouragement for everyone that has the pleasure of meeting him, especially me. Dereje always provided genuine service as my driver and for that I’m thankful, because now I also have the pleasure of calling him my friend.

So if you think genuine service doesn’t matter, think again. You may someday become the service being sought after instead of that being shunned, and that means greater rewards for you as well. And who knows, you may actually become closer friends with some of those you service or with some of those who service you. Maybe even with some of my favorites..like my bartender Sara, or my stylist Carmen, or my hotel staff Marlena and Adrian, or if you’re really blessed, then with my driver Dereje.

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