We’re All in the Customer Service Business

Even in our competitive business environment, organizations that pride themselves on great customer service continue to be few and far between. To test that thesis, answer this: How often do you receive exceptional service—the kind where you can tell that the person serving you actually cares about keeping you as a customer?

I rest my case.

Now just for fun, let’s see what happens when I turn it around: When was the last time you gave one of your customers that same kind of exceptional service? If you work in the retail, foodservice, or hospitality industry, or as an online customer service representative or another frontline position, you may deal with hundreds of customers a day. How do you think they would rate your service?

Perhaps you don’t think of yourself as having customers because you aren’t in a customer-facing job—you’re a middle manager, you work on a manufacturing line, or maybe you spend your day looking at spreadsheets in a cubicle. Think about the internal customers you interact with. And parents, teachers, and coaches have customers, too.

In reality, we’re all in the customer service business—and every customer deserves special care. No matter what position you hold, or who your customer is, you can make a positive difference in that person’s life. And doing that may be simpler than you think. Read on!

One of my favorite real-life customer service stories begins with my friend Barbara Glanz giving a speech to hundreds of employees of a major grocery chain. At the end of her speech, Barbara challenged every attendee to think about something small but special they could do on the job—starting the next day—to make their customers feel important.

About a month later, Barbara got a call from a young man named Johnny who had been at her speaking event. As he introduced himself, he mentioned he was 19 years old, worked as a grocery bagger, and had Down syndrome. Johnny told Barbara that after seeing her speak, he went home and talked with his dad about what special thing he might do for his customers. They decided to focus on the fact that Johnny loved to read and collect quotations.

That night, Johnny chose one of his favorite sayings, typed it as many times as it would fit on a single page, and printed 50 copies. He cut the printed lines into strips and signed his name on the back of each one. The next day as Johnny finished bagging each customer’s groceries, he dropped a strip of paper in their bag and said, “I’m putting my favorite saying of the day in your bag. Have a great day!”

After a few weeks had gone by, Barbara was surprised to get a call from Johnny’s store manager. He wanted to let her know that Johnny’s small gesture had changed the store’s whole atmosphere. A few days earlier, the manager had noticed a huge line of customers at Johnny’s station but only a few at the other checkout counters. He tried to get people to change lines, but he kept hearing “I want to be in Johnny’s line so I can get his quote of the day.” One woman shopper even told the manager, “I used to shop here once a week, but now I stop by every day to get one of Johnny’s favorite sayings.” Johnny’s little gesture made a big difference to his customers, his manager, and his store.

To help spread Johnny’s message to more people, Barbara and I wrote a little book called The Simple Truths of Service: Inspired by Johnny the Bagger. It’s filled with true stories about simple acts of service that made a difference and helped build customer loyalty.

Just like Johnny, we all have the ability to make a difference in the lives of our internal and external customers. Remember that the best competitive edge in business isn’t product or price. It’s the way we make our customers feel.

You are in the customer service business. What simple thing can you do today to make your customers feel special?

When the Thrill Is Gone: Dealing with Decommitted People

One of the biggest challenges managers face is how to respond when they notice a direct report has decreased motivation or confidence to do a job. We call this decommitment.

For the most part, leaders avoid dealing with decommitment, largely because it is such an emotionally charged issue and they don’t know how. When they do address it, they often make matters worse: They turn the not-engaged into the actively disengaged! It doesn’t occur to many leaders that something they or their organization is doing or failing to do may be the cause of the eroded commitment. Yet evidence suggests that’s often the case.

Lack of feedback, lack of recognition, lack of clear performance expectations, unfair standards, broken promises, being yelled at or blamed, and being overworked and stressed out are just a few reasons people lose their motivation and commitment.

So how do you, an enlightened leader, deal with a decommitted direct report without making matters worse? The most effective way is to catch decommitment early—the first time you see it—before it gets out of control and festers. Then take the following steps to get back on track.

Step 1: Prepare Before You Meet

Before meeting with your direct report, clarify the specific performance or behavior that you want to discuss. Do not attempt to address multiple issues at once. Gather all the facts that support the existence of the decommitment. If it’s a performance issue, quantify the decline in performance. If it’s a behavior issue, limit your observations to what you have seen. Don’t make assumptions or bring in the perceptions of others—these are sure ways to generate defensiveness.

Now identify anything you or the organization might have done to contribute to the decommitment. Have you ever talked to the person about their performance or behavior? Have you made performance expectations clear? Does the person know what a good job looks like? Have you been using the right leadership style? Is the person being rewarded for inappropriate performance or behavior? (Poor behavior in organizations is often rewarded—that is, nobody says anything.) Is the person being punished for good performance or behavior? (People often are punished for good behavior—that is, they do well and someone else gets the credit.) Do policies support the desired performance? For example, is training or time made available to learn needed skills?

Once you have done a thorough job of preparing, you’re ready for Step 2.

Step 2: Schedule a Meeting, State the Meeting’s Purpose, and Set Ground Rules

Scheduling a meeting is vital. It’s important to begin the meeting by stating the meeting’s purpose and setting ground rules to ensure that both of you will be heard in a way that doesn’t arouse defensiveness. For example, you might open the meeting with something like this:

“I want to talk about what I see as a serious issue with your responsiveness to information inquiries. I’d like to set some ground rules about how our discussion proceeds, so that we can both fully share our perspectives. By working together to identify and agree on the issue and its causes, we can set a goal and develop an action plan to resolve it.

“First, I’d like to share my perceptions of the issue—what I’m noticing and what I think may have caused it. I want you to listen but not to respond to what I say, except to ask questions for clarification. Then I want you to restate what I said, so that I know you understand my perspective. When I’m finished, I’d like to hear your side of the story, with the same ground rules. I’ll restate what you said until you know I understand your point of view. Does this seem like a reasonable way to get started?”

Using these ground rules, you should begin to understand each other’s point of view on the issue. Making sure that both of you have been heard is a wonderful way to reduce defensiveness and move toward resolution.

Once you have set ground rules for your meeting, you are ready for Step 3.

Step 3: Work Toward Mutual Agreement and Commit to a Plan

The next step is to identify where there is agreement and disagreement on both the issue and its causes. Your job is to see if enough of a mutual understanding can be reached so that mutual problem solving can go forward. Both of you probably won’t agree on everything—but see if there is enough common ground to work toward a resolution. If not, revisit those things that are getting in the way, and restate your positions to see if understanding and agreement can be reached.

When you think it is possible to go forward, ask, “Are you willing to work with me to get this resolved?”

If you still can’t get a commitment to go forward, you need to use a directing leadership style. Set clear performance expectations and a time frame for achieving them; set clear, specific performance standards and a schedule for tracking performance progress; and state consequences for nonperformance. Understand that this is a last-resort strategy that may resolve the performance issue but not the commitment issue.

When you get a commitment to work together to resolve the issue, it is normal to feel great relief and assume that the issue is resolved. Not so fast.

If you have contributed to the cause of the problem, you need to take steps to correct what has been done. But you may not be in a position to patch things up if it was the organization that created the problem. In this case, a simple acknowledgment of how your direct report has been impacted may be enough to release the negative energy and regain the person’s commitment.

Once you finally get a commitment to work together to resolve the issue, you can go to Step 4 and partner for performance.

Step 4: Partner for Performance

Now you and the direct report need to have a partnering for performance discussion in which you jointly decide the leadership style you will use to provide work direction or coaching. You should set a goal, establish an action plan, and schedule a progress-check meeting. This last step is crucial!

Resolving decommitment issues requires sophisticated interpersonal and performance management skills. Your first try at one of these conversations is not likely to be as productive as you would like. However, if you conduct the conversation in honest good faith, it will reduce the impact of less-than-perfect interpersonal skills and set the foundation for a productive relationship built on commitment and trust.

What Do You Really Want from Your Work?

Many years ago I participated in an “Aligned Thinking” seminar, designed by Jim Steffen. One of the exercises in the program made a big difference in my life, so I want to share it with you.

Think about how you would answer this question: What do I really want from my work?

To break this down, make a list of five things you would really like to get out of the work you do (e.g., income, skills, training, camaraderie, pride, positive feelings, etc.). Don’t rush this—think it through. Choose the five most important things you can imagine gaining from your work. Now, give each one of those items a value from 1 to 10 in terms of how well you feel your job is achieving that goal or fulfilling that particular desire right now. When you are finished, take a look at how you scored yourself.

If your current job is giving you most of the things you desire from your work, you are one of the fortunate people who have a fulfilling work life. Your job is probably providing enjoyment, excitement, energy, etc. Good on you—that’s great!

But what if the things you want from your work are different from what you feel you’re gaining in your present job? In that case, it may be time for you to ask yourself a few questions, such as “What am I getting out of my work now? How is that different from what I really want to do? Are my tasks at work connected to things that are meaningful to me? How can I adjust my actions and attitudes so that my work can better meet my needs and wants?”

When I took this quiz, I came up with these things that I know I want to gain and enjoy from my work:

  1. The opportunity to serve others. I’m convinced we finally become an adult when we realize we’re here to serve, not to be served.
  2. Meaning. Every day I would like to make a difference in someone’s life, even if it’s just by giving them a warm smile. I’m always looking for meaningful encounters.
  3. Fun. If something’s not fun, I don’t want to do it. Of course, not everything we do can be fun—some things have to be done so that we can accomplish other more important things. But if I can squeeze some fun into my day, I will.
  4. Social interaction. It’s important to me to work and play with smart, fun loving people. That’s why I have so many coauthors—I really love working with and being around people.
  5. The opportunity to grow and learn. I never want to stop learning new things. As I’ve said many times before, if you stop learning, you may as well lie down and let them put dirt over you.

I made this list many years ago, and I still love doing the kind of work that provides meaning, fun, social interaction, the opportunity to serve, and the opportunity to grow and learn new things. Most days I still do pretty well at checking off those boxes.

Of course, the ebb and flow of deadlines, special projects, health concerns, etc., keep many of us from being able to say our job satisfies our wants and needs every single day. But when we determine what we really want from work, we create a purpose—an individual mission—for working. And we can start taking steps toward achieving those desires.

Life is a special occasion. Work is an important part of it. People who practice Aligned Thinking know how to get more of what they want out of work—and life.

 

Five Principles to Apply When Problems Arise

If you’ve ever faced a business failure, a health crisis, a broken relationship, or any other life dilemma, you know how easy it can be to let negativity pull you down into self-doubt and helplessness.

Life puts us into situations that challenge us—and working on those challenges stretches us. In fact, the toughest dilemmas often provide the biggest opportunities for growth.  While we may know this intellectually, this knowledge provides cold comfort when we’re in the middle of a difficult challenge.

When problems arise, I find it useful to apply the wisdom I gleaned from Norman Vincent Peale, my late coauthor on The Power of Ethical Management. In that book we introduced the five core principles of ethical decision making. These same five principles also can be applied to dealing with problems—no matter how hard those problems may seem.

Reflect on Your Purpose

When you are faced with a setback, reviewing your purpose can help get you back on track. Your purpose will be inherently motivating, because it’s the ideal toward which you are striving. Unlike a goal, which has a beginning and an end, a purpose is ongoing. It’s your reason for existence and answers the question “Why?”

Let’s say you just had a career setback. If you obsess about the missed goal—a lost contract or job—you’ll be discouraged. If you focus on your purpose, you’ll redirect your attention to the person you want to be in the world and the life you want to lead.

If you don’t have a life purpose and want to create one, check out my blog from a few weeks ago, Writing Your Personal Life Purpose.

Tap into Your Pride

Pride sometimes gets a bad rap. After all, they say it’s the last thing to go before a fall. And if you’ve taken a fall, you may be feeling anything but pride. My definition of pride isn’t having a big ego; rather, it’s the healthy self-esteem of people who aim high but know they’re human and make mistakes. Pride is essential if we’re going to have the strength to get up, move forward, and fulfill our purpose. As Ben Franklin quoted in his Poor Richard’s Almanac way back in 1740, “It is hard for an empty sack to stand upright.” So, don’t be afraid to tap into your pride!

Exercise Patience

Life unfolds on God’s timetable, not ours. If you ever saw “Oh, God!” you might remember that in the movie John Denver asks God—played by George Burns: “Did you really create the world in six days and rest on the seventh?” God/George replies, “Yes, I did, but you’ll have to remember, my days are a little longer than yours. When I got up this morning, Freud was in medical school.”

Once I learned to be patient and trust the timing of a higher power, I noticed that things began to work out for me. When you have patience, you realize that there may be a good reason why things turned out the way they did.

It’s important to develop the capacity to accept or tolerate the delays and suffering that are inevitable in life. If you are making your best effort and doing the right thing—even if things look tough in the short run—your efforts will pay off in the long run.

Apply Persistence

Of course, you can’t just sit back and do nothing; patience without persistence is not sufficient to fulfill your purpose. Once you’ve processed your feelings about a setback and dusted yourself off, it’s time to continue working toward your goals and commitments. I agree with Calvin Coolidge, who said, “Nothing can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with great talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

Get Some Perspective

Perspective is the capacity to see what is really important in any given situation. To do that, you need to get some distance from your problem. As my wife, Margie, puts it, you need to take the helicopter view of your life. When you stand two feet from a mirror, you will see the slightest imperfection—and suddenly that imperfection becomes a huge deal. But if you view your life from the helicopter, you see the big picture and the little things take on far less significance.

I’ve written extensively on how to maintain perspective by starting your day slowly. Perhaps your knee-jerk reaction to that statement is, “But I need more time to start my day slowly!” You have the same time we all do—a 24-hour day. Suppose you’re playing chess and your opponent says, “Checkmate!” You’re cornered; the game is over. You can’t say, “I want more board!” Yet that’s what you’re asking for when you say you need more time.

Taking time to reflect gives us the perspective we need to listen for guidance from within. When we do that, our purpose comes into focus and we’re able to make wise choices moving forward.

The next time you’re faced with a big challenge, try reflecting on your Purpose, tapping into your Pride, exercising Patience, applying Persistence, and getting Perspective. You may not get instant answers to the problem you’re facing, but I guarantee you’ll grow from it.

Leading a High Performance Team

People working together toward a common goal usually can get things done much faster and more effectively than individuals working alone. Because of this, and because of the constant change happening in the way organizations work, the way they are managed, and in technology overall, teams are becoming a major strategy for companies around the world that want to do business in a more efficient way. Personally, I enjoy participating in teams because I love helping people and I love learning from them. I guess you could say being on a team is in my sweet spot.

Now I have a couple of questions for you: How many work-related teams (project teams, virtual teams, management teams, etc.) are you on right now? And how much of your work week would you say is spent doing team-related work? If you’re like most people, it’s likely you are on five or six different teams and you spend about half your working hours in a team setting. And if you’re in a leadership role, the higher your level, the more time you spend in teams.

If you’ve ever worked on a high performance team that had a skilled leader, you know it can be  a powerful approach for goal accomplishment or problem solving. But what if you’re on a team that you know is not a high performance team? You’re not alone there, either. If members of a team don’t have a shared purpose, if they are unclear about their roles or the team’s goals, or if they aren’t accountable to each other, it’s hard to get anything done. What’s more, if the leader isn’t proficient in the skills required to successfully lead a high performance team, the team is more likely to fail than to succeed.

So if you’re a team leader, how do you give your team the best chance of success? It’s about knowing and understanding the characteristics and development stages that make up a high performance team.

The 4 Stages of Team Development

When a team is first put together, the first stage members go through is Orientation. They have high expectations but are not yet informed as to the goals of the team or the roles each person will take on. The team leader must provide structure while building relationships and trust.  

The second stage of team development is Dissatisfaction. After the excitement of joining a new team with intriguing possibilities, members may find themselves discouraged and frustrated with the process and with each other. The team leader’s responsibility is to clarify the purpose and goals while recognizing small victories and positive behaviors.

In stage three, Integration, things are getting better. Team members work together more effectively and trust among members increases as they learn to support each other and collaborate. The leader may begin sharing leadership responsibilities but must continue encouraging people to talk openly, catch each other doing things right, and work on their decision making and problem solving skills.

The biggest challenge of the fourth stage, Production, is for team members to sustain their high performance. Morale and trust among members is high, as is the quality and amount of work the team is producing. At this stage the team provides its own direction and support and the leader is there to validate members’ achievements. Everyone participates in leadership responsibilities.

Leading a high performance team is a big job, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. For more help on keeping your team on track toward success—and finding your sweet spot as a team leader—check out this blog post by my colleague David Witt. It features great tips from Lael Good, our company’s director of consulting services and coauthor of our new Team Leadership program.