Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Reconsidering who is important

Have you ever thought about the people around you and the work they do? In the context of your own business, have you ever tried to evaluate the relative importance of different jobs?

There are all sorts of ways to measure employees’ worth. The easiest and most common way is by looking at position and salary. An organization chart is a good way to tell what a company values. Generally pay, power, and prestige increase as positions go from the bottom of the chart to the top. It makes sense that the people at the top of an organization chart are the most important. Or does it?

There is an entire theory of organizational dynamics that is based on informal chains of command. The idea is that regardless of the formal structure, people within organizations create their own structures. It is disconcerting how little correlation there is between some of the informal structures that researchers have found and formal hierarchical organization charts.

If the supervisors are not more important than the front line workers and the managers are not more important than the supervisors, and the division directors are not more important than the managers, then who is important? Is it the CEO? No. Here is a short list:
  • The person that seems to know everybody, remembers a lot of company history, and knows how things work,
  • The administrative assistant who knows how to find everything,
  • The assistant who prepares all of the agendas for important meetings, and
  • The receptionist or switchboard operator that knows everyone everybody.
If you have ever been in sales, you know this list. These are the same people you get to know when you are trying to develop a relationship with a key client. Their opinions matter, even if they do not have a title or a desk in the executive suite. You will not even get a chance to pitch your product to the ultimate buyer if you do not sell to these people first. I’ve often found it amusing to read job ads for sales people that demand experience selling to C-level executives. The ads should ask for the people skills to interact with the people in the lobby or at the desk outside the executive’s office door.

If you have ever been a customer, then you know how important the last person on the list can be. Receptionists and switchboard operators are the first people that the public meets. Interestingly, companies that will spend huge amounts on web sites and advertising will often become very tightfisted when it comes time to hire administrative assistants, receptionists and switchboard operators. It occurs to me that companies send a not so subtle message to their customers when they don’t allocate resources to the people that customers contact most frequently. A good example of this is the trend toward outsourcing customer service. Instead of recognizing the competitive advantage of high quality customer service, many companies outsource this function to save money. The predictable result when customers interact with disinterested, poorly trained people without authority is that customers become unhappy. The same thing happens when companies replace the receptionist in the lobby with a security kiosk and a contracted security person. Do you really think your customers and vendors would rather check in with a bored security guard putting in the hours on a 12-hour shift than a knowledgeable and personable receptionist? Was it really a good idea to replace the switchboard operator with an electronic system that frustrates customers?

I think a good case can be made that some of the most important people in a company are the ones near the bottom of the organization chart. Whatever your business, you need to put knowledgeable, well-trained, and personable people in front of your customers. You also need the people within the organization that know the organization’s history and ways of doing things, and you need the people that seem to know everybody. If you think of your business as if it were a car, then these employees are like the tread on the tires that keep the car on the road and the oil and grease that keep everything moving without friction.

Maybe it is time to reconsider who is really important in your company. The next time you walk past the receptionist in the lobby consider that you may be walking past the most important person in your company (unless you have outsourced the job). Stop and say hello.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Excellent Customer Service

I’ve been an examiner for a fairly well known quality award, the Texas Award for Performance Excellence by the Quality Texas Foundation.  It is a Texas version of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. I also worked for a dozen years in the planning and research group for a major professional association. I’ve had a lot of experience trying to understand quality and what it means to deliver excellent customer service. I have decided that the thing that makes the “best in class” better than everybody else is the willingness to go beyond the expected.

I received an interesting letter in the mail today. It was from Ellis and Salazar, the body shop that repaired my car last year after I ran into a deer while driving home from work. I was not sure what to expect when I saw the letter in the mailbox. The letter turned out to be a reminder that the warranty period was about to expire. They were writing to ask me to go over my car thoroughly and to make sure that I was still satisfied with the work that they had done, and they were asking me to bring the car in if there were any unresolved issues. That was a surprise.

If you have ever been in a car accident of any type, then you know that getting a car repaired is not a pleasant experience. It starts bad, and it gets worse. You probably have heard the stories. Finding something to drive while your car is in the shop is a hassle. The shop is not able to do the work for what the insurance company will pay. It takes longer than promised. The paint does not match. The new windows leak. The list goes on and on.

I picked Ellis and Salazar because they were on my insurer’s list and because they had done satisfactory work for people I know. As I write this, there are 16 reviews on and they have a good rating. That is probably a difficult accomplishment because most customers at a repair shop of any kind are already not happy with their situations. Taking a car to a body shop is not nearly as much fun as going to an ice cream shop. It is a challenge to provide customer value in this type of situation. It does not take much to push an already unhappy person into the category of very unhappy customer.

So what’s with the letter? I vaguely remember something about a warranty. I think it is probably going beyond what body shop customers expect to write a letter encouraging them to go over their cars and look for problems. Most people probably want to forget their accident and everything that went along with it. That includes the warranty. If something comes loose or the paint peels, most people figure that is just part of the game. This sort of follow up is not common. When I shop for goods or services, I expect things to work and for services to be performed as promised. I consider these things to be the minimum that a business should do.

Unfortunately, most businesses seem to be happy with the minimum. Maybe their customers don’t care. I do care, and I do business with firms that don’t do the minimum. Ellis and Salazar finished the job when they said they would, and my Prius looked like new. I expected that. Now a year later, they have taken the time to check on me. I did not expect that. I hope I never need body work done on a car again, but if I do, then I will take my car to Ellis and Salazar.

So what is the point? Am I simply writing an endorsement for a body shop? No. I’m trying to illustrate that excellent customer service is as simple as doing the expected and then just a little more. It does not even have to cost much. The reminder letter I received cost less than a dollar to mail, and it is probably done automatically. Even so, it made me feel important as a customer. That is willingness to go the extra step, and that is excellent customer service.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Unsung Heros

I spent some time in Newark airport over the Christmas holidays. It was a desolate place. A snowstorm rearranged a lot of travel plans, and the people that would normally have been bustling about were still at home or in hotels waiting for the days to pass until they could board their rescheduled flights. Most of the people in the airport had nowhere else to go. A few people were hoping that their regularly scheduled flight would actually be able to take off, and some of us thought we might get lucky with standby.

Of course I’ve managed to leave out an unseen army of other people who were also at the airport. That is one of the points I hope to make with this post. I just spent a lot of time talking about the travelers, but said little the other people. The airport was also full of people helping stranded travelers, feeding people, keeping shops open. The TSA folks were there. So were the gate agents and the ground crew and who knows who else. It is easy to overlook all of those people. At the airport, we usually focus on our destination, and all of the people along the way fade into easily forgotten scenery, and we take them for granted.

We shouldn’t.

Organizations spend a lot of time and money trying to come up with ideas for new products or better ways of doing things. A lot of times they create special teams of senior staff or managers. However, ideas about how to run faster or jump higher in an organization can come from anywhere. There is no rule that says the best ideas come from management or from employees that have been around a while. Sometimes the best ideas come from the newest employees, and sometimes ideas come from people well removed from the executive suite. Ideas can come from all over the organization. I thought about this while I was wandering around Newark airport.

I don’t know how many have seen the TV show Undercover Boss. It is a reality show in which the CEO of a company goes undercover and takes entry level jobs. It is an attitude adjusting experience. I watched an episode where the CEO of Frontier Airlines worked all sorts of jobs. (He was not very good at any of them.) He made a few changes after listening to people on the front lines who sell tickets, clean airplanes, and pump out toilets.

If this seems surprising, we might need to think about things differently. It should make sense that the people closest to the customer or the people doing the heavy lifting will be the ones that think about new ways to do things. The CEOs on Undercover CEO are frequently surprised how little they know about the daily work of the people on the front lines of their business.

I think many of us have a tendency to assign people to categories. It is easy and convenient, and it lets us ignore them. If you want an interesting example of this, look up Bill Crawford. He was a janitor at the Air Force Academy. He was just a janitor.

I got a stern reminder of this tendency at Newark. With nothing better to do, I decided to get my shoes shined. We’ve all seen shoeshine people. We walk past them in airports or on the streets of large cities. As I settled into the chair and put my feet up, I remarked that I had not had my shoes shined since the Marine Corps sent me to the Army jump school at Fort Benning years ago. It turns out that the man doing my shine learned about shoe polish in the Navy. He retired after twenty plus years as a Chief and went to work handling logistics for a well known firm. When the recession hit, he lost his job. He started shining shoes because he just could not tolerate being idle. His son is stationed at Coronado Bay. That is three proud generations of Navy men. Except for the snow storm, I would have wandered past the shoeshine man, and I never would have heard his story or been reminded that everyone has something to contribute. I wonder how many executives struggling with supply chains or facilities issues sat in that shoeshine man’s chair and had no idea that the man shining their shoes probably had the solution to their logistics problems.

The simple message that I received loud and clear while getting my shoes shined in Newark is this, “Everybody has value, and everybody has something to contribute.” If you want to be a successful business, then every single employee of your company needs to know this simple message and understand it. It is not enough for the management team to know the words. The employees have to know that you know the words and mean them when you say them. You can’t fake it.

By the way, that janitor from the Air Force Academy earned the nation’s highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor.