How Much Can Training Accomplish?

I was invited to give a presentation for a very large, prominent software company at a conference of help desk managers from all over the world, and the topic of the conference was, “Creating a Better Customer Experience”. Different presenters focused on different ways to achieve this important outcome. Some, for instance, focused on how to reduce wait time by optimizing certain processes. The focus of my presentation was the impact of hiring the right kind of people.

The organizer of this conference had verbatim feedback from satisfied customers displayed around the room on large posters. Every participant could read several of these comments from wherever they sat. I read these posters as I prepared to deliver my remarks, and something struck me. Every single positive customer comment emphasized character traits. For instance, “Jorge was so patient in walking me through what I needed to do.” “Shirley really knows her stuff. But more importantly she was kind and understanding. She didn’t talk down to me.” “Amith did more than solve my technical problem. His sense of humor helped me get rid of my frustration. It was actually a fun conversation.”

You can give the exact same musical score to ten different singers. Some will deliver a simply dreadful experience. Some will do okay. But maybe one will create a performance so beautiful it brings tears to your eyes. The score alone cannot create an excellent experience for the listener. It depends on who’s singing. Talent matters.

When it comes to customer-facing employees, you can give them all the same training, the same information and the same support systems. But it’s character traits like empathy, patience, positivity and compassion that create an excellent experience for the customer. You can teach people to use your computer system, but you cannot teach them to be patient or positive. Those traits (and the others I mentioned) you must hire.

Would you like to verify this from your own experience? Think of the best customer-facing employee you’ve ever worked with. What made them so good? Take a couple of minutes and jot down a brief list of reasons why they were so good. When you’re done, read on.

Is your list mostly made up of things like positive attitude, good work ethic, good team player, liked to learn, etc.? You didn’t train those into the person. They were that way when you hired them. That’s what I’m talking about.

If you want to create a better customer experience, hire better people.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Why Are Hiring Decisions More Important Than Training Programs?

I was invited to give a presentation for a very large, prominent software company at a conference of help desk managers from all over the world, and the topic was creating a better customer experience. Different presenters focused on different ways to achieve this improvement. Some, for instance, focused on how to reduce wait time by optimizing certain processes. The focus of my presentation was the impact of hiring the right kind of people.

The organizer of this conference had verbatim feedback from satisfied customers displayed around the room on large posters. Every participant could read several of these comments from wherever they sat. I read these posters as I prepared to deliver my remarks, and something struck me. Every single positive customer comment emphasized character traits. For instance, ‘Jorge was so patient in walking me through what I needed to do.’ ‘Shirley really knows her stuff. But more importantly she was kind and understanding. She didn’t talk down to me.’ ‘Amit did more than solve my technical problem. His sense of humor helped me lose my frustration. It was actually a fun conversation.’

You can give the exact same musical score to ten different singers. Some will deliver a simply dreadful experience. Some will do okay. But maybe one will create a performance so beautiful it brings tears to your eyes. The score alone cannot create an excellent experience for the listener. It depends on who’s singing. Talent matters.

When it comes to customer-facing employees, you can give them all the same training, the same information and the same support systems. But it’s character traits like empathy, patience, positivity and compassion that create an excellent experience for the customer.  You can teach people to use your computer system, but you cannot teach them to be patient or positive. Those traits (and others) you must hire.

Would you like to verify this from your own experience? Think of the best customer-facing employee you’ve ever worked with. What made them so good? Take a couple of minutes and jot down a brief list of reasons why they were so good. When you’re done, read on.

Is your list mostly made up of things like positive attitude, good work ethic, good team player, liked to learn, etc.? You didn’t train those into the person. They were that way when you hired them. That’s what I’m talking about.

As a leader, you can create a better customer experience by holding out until the right employees come along – employees with the right character traits to create that WOW experience for your customers.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

How Much Deviation Should You Tolerate? Part 2

In my last post I took the position that leaders should adopt a zero tolerance stance toward behavior that deviates materially from the organization’s core values. In this post I’ll address issues involving behavior that deviates from policies, procedures and processes that are not part of the core values.

In this space there’s a lot gray; there’s a lot of, “It depends…” In many cases an overly strict requirement to conform to a written policy or process will prevent employees from meeting customer needs. Here’s an example. My wife and I went to an ice cream shop who’s concept was to mix in extra ingredients (like strawberries) rather than putting them on top of the ice cream. I told the young man behind the counter that I’d prefer my strawberries on top. He apologetically informed me that his supervisor wrote him up the previous week for accommodating a similar customer request. Not their concept. Not their brand. We left and never returned. The employee was waaaay smarter than the supervisor.

In addition to written rules and policies, all organizations have established ways of doing things that aren’t formal policies, but they’re well established practices nevertheless. When an employee asks why something is done this way, beware the answer, “Because this is the way we’ve always done it.” If that’s your reason, be open to the possibility that the employee has a better idea. “We’ve always done it this way,” is a remarkably unsatisfactory answer.

A related issue involves employees who simply think that certain rules shouldn’t apply to them. For a discussion of this issue, please see my post entitled, “How Should You Deal With Prima Donnas?”

While there are exceptions (such as healthcare or pharmaceutical companies) demanding 100% adherence to formal and informal policies can have a negative effect on customer satisfaction, job satisfaction, quality and engagement. High performance organizations trust their people. They minimized policies and rules. They expect people to bring their brains to work, and they empower people to use their judgement to deviate from established rules or procedures when it makes sense.

If you have the courage, ask your employees if there are any rules or policies that sometimes (or often!) prevent them from taking care of customers or performing their role with excellence. You might well make some improvements.

Thanks to Libby Farmen for suggesting this topic. And thanks for reading. As always I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

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Are You Nurturing Your Corporate Folklore?

Here’s a story:

Many years ago, long before the internet, a prominent speaker was invited to deliver the keynote at a large conference being held at a Ritz-Carlton hotel. The speaker had a video tape (this was before CD’s and digital video files) he was going to show as a part of his presentation. Unfortunately the evening before the keynote, someone spilled a beverage on the tape, rendering it unusable. In those days, it was impossible to get another copy of the video to that location by the next morning.

Without being asked, a Ritz-Carlton engineer set a number of six-foot banquet tables end to end in an unoccupied meeting room. He then unwound the damaged video tape and laid it out across the tables. Using cotton swabs and alcohol he painstakingly cleaned the tape inch by inch. By the next morning the tape was completely restored and useable.

One more story, also from Ritz-Carlton:

In the course of cleaning a room a housekeeper noticed that the guest was almost out of an over-the-counter medicine he had been taking every day. She picked up a bottle of this medicine on her way to work the next day and left the bottle with a note saying that she had noticed he was almost out. The guest was genuinely touched that she had gone so far beyond cleaning his room and demonstrated such sincere caring about him as a person.

These stories say to employees, “This is who we are.”  They illustrate that employees were welcome to go outside their narrow job descriptions to fulfill even, “…the unexpressed wishes…” (quotation from the Ritz-Carlton credo) of the guests.  The stories bring the expectation to life.

When I worked for Ritz-Carlton, almost everyone knew these stories. They were part of our company folklore. Do you see the difference between telling these stories and saying, “We expect you to go the extra mile”? These moving stories tap into peoples’s emotions, vividly communicating the organization’s values and expectations.

Because it’s been more than fifteen years since I worked for Ritz-Carlton I make no claims about how the company operates now. But when I was there the organization intentionally managed its folklore, creating a cult-like devotion to providing memorable experiences that touched the guest’s heart.

If you have written mission, vision and values, do you have iconic stories that bring each item to life? Are these stories repeated frequently? Once a story is well known, you can say things like, “This is a David and Goliath situation” and everyone will get the message.

Storytelling is one of the most potent ways to influence attitudes and behavior. Search for compelling, iconic stories illustrating how someone has exemplified your values. Repeat them, discuss their meaning and ensure that they are understood. Celebrate employees who demonstrate similar behaviors. Over time your mission, vision and values will be more than just nice statements. They’ll become a way of life.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

Larry Sternberg

The Power of Empowerment

“Let me get my supervisor.” How many times have you heard that when you expressed dissatisfaction with a product or service? Or perhaps you heard it when you requested an exception to stated procedures. The customer often is required to repeat their story numerous times as the complaint or request escalates to someone who has the authority to make a decision. Lack of empowerment results in terrible customer service, and it has a considerable negative impact on job satisfaction and retention.

The concept of empowerment can include many things, including giving people tools, training and information that improve performance. In this post, I’ll focus on the following aspect of empowerment: giving employees the authority to make decisions and take action without first getting approval. Empowerment is always a matter of degree. Every employee is empowered to make some decisions without seeking approval. The important point is this:

The more decisions employees are empowered to make, the higher the level of job satisfaction, the greater the degree of engagement, the more people learn, and the greater the likelihood of retaining them.

Additional benefits include improved customer service, increased flexibility, accelerated process improvement and improved ability to respond to unanticipated events.

The importance of empowering people cannot be over-emphasized as it relates to R.E.D. Empowerment contributes to psychological ownership of one’s job.

So why wouldn’t managers strive for as much empowerment as possible? Many of the reasons appear different on the surface. The manager does not want to give up control because they are accountable for the results. They don’t trust the subordinate’s judgment, or they don’t believe the subordinate has the necessary knowledge, experience, or information to make the decision. Or they are concerned that the subordinate will commit malfeasance. All of those reasons boil down to one fundamental issue: lack of trust.

I wish I remembered where I heard or read the following insight, but I just love it. “In any hierarchical organization, incompetence seems to start just below wherever I am on the organization chart.” People don’t say it so blatantly, but that’s a very common attitude. It’s a general attitude that we need control because we don’t fully trust “those people down there”.

“But,” you say, “I don’t want control, I just want sign off on it so I know what’s going on.” That’s a cop out. You can know what’s going on if you are informed after the fact. The requirement to sign off before implementation exists so you can veto it.

The Chief Steward

Here’s a story, told to me by a seminar participant during a break.

This person was Charlie, a Chief Steward in a very large, luxury hotel. The Chief Steward is responsible the crew that washes and manages all the china, glass and silver, and washes the pots, pans and kitchen equipment – among many other important duties.

“When I need to order cleaning chemicals,” he said, “I need four signatures: the Food and Beverage Director, the Director of Purchasing, the Controller, and the General Manager. One day, I asked the General Manger why we needed all those signatures, because they slowed the process. He told me that we needed standard controls over all purchasing decisions. I replied that I was the only person who had the information to know how much we needed to order, but he wouldn’t consider changing the process. So the next week, when I had to order chemicals, I wrote a purchase order for 100 times the amount of chemicals I actually needed. This would have cost a lot of extra money. They all signed the P.O.!”

 

His next move took enviable courage. He took the signed P.O. to the General Manager and asked, “Where is the control? You all signed this because you trust me.”

What value did the signatures add? I understand the need to have more than one signature to prevent collusion (lack of trust, again, by the way). But four signatures? How do you think Charlie felt? More like a trusted, respected staff member, or more like a peon whose judgment/ethics could not be trusted?

You might advance all kinds of good reasons for all these signatures, but be clear and honest about the impact of this process on engagement and retention.

In my next post, I’ll discuss how empowerment fosters the growth and development of employees at every level.

Thanks for visiting. I’d love to read your thoughts,

Larry Sternberg