No problem?

Recently, I had the good fortune to teach a course in customer relationship management (CRM) to our hospitality students in a summer intensive in Prague. One theme we explore is service culture among others.

We had an amazing experience at the Hard Rock Café in Prague. The sales and marketing manager, Gabby (from Prague), the assistant general manager, Steve (from Pittsburgh), and Oliver, our memorabilia guide (also a local), were absolutely delighted, genuinely, to welcome 20 students and two faculty without a reservation. Oliver, I must admit, set the standard for blending knowledge and passion without once being cheesy. He may have set my standard for young professionals a bit higher after his tour, able to float between describing 11th-century Czech history of the restaurant’s cellar and the cultural history of Muddy Waters’ impact on 20th-century music. Never once during our lunch service or tour did any of the young Czech staff say “no problem” in response to a request. As a largely American acculturated group, this was somewhat unexpected. 

Why unexpected? Today, it feels as if the phrase “no problem” has become ubiquitous in so many service situations. Some brands have extensive training on avoiding this cliché and have placed it on the “banned” expressions list. Another service encounter in Prague made me think a bit differently about the phrase. Upon arrival and a bit jet-lagged, I missed breakfast in the lounge of the Corinthia Hotel Prague. As I hurried in past the breakfast time, Lukas, in toque, was breaking down the station. My forlorn expression and puffy eyes were not lost on him. He asked if he could make me an omelet (even listed ingredients), and I responded, “I don’t want to be any trouble.” He replied, “It is not a problem; I would be happy to do so.” It struck me that this might be an acceptable time to use this phrase — after all, I was asking him to exceed the standard. It was also more than that. It was genuine — not an auto-reply. And I could tell.

I ask you: how did “no problem” come to be an acceptable response to simple customer requests? If service is our purpose and not our problem, when did this response find its way into the service lexicon? How can we change this automated response from being so ubiquitous?