11: What Great Leaders Do!

The author refers to a potential client he declined to pursue: they wanted him to provide a training course for the low-level employees - none of the managers or executives would be trained - and the company expected the course to result in a "transformation of the organizational service culture." It was a lucrative contract, but he declined to bid, because it was a situation where success was impossible.

Primarily, changing a corporate culture isn't something that can be done in a training session - it's a process that can take a long period of time. And in this instance, it was asking for a cure without an opportunity to perform any diagnosis to determine the cause of the problem. But most importantly, changing a culture cannot be done by "training" the low-level employees - if the executives and management aren't on board, they will continue to push employees in the wrong direction.

Go First!

The notion of "management by walking around" was a response to the tendency of managers to be disconnected from their employees - to sit in the office and direct activities they didn't quite understand. The author goes a step further: "management by working around" - jumping in the trenches.

The author relates the story of Herb Keller of Southwest Airlines, who'd work as a baggage handler on the busiest travel days. Some have dismissed it as a publicity stunt, but those who know the man realize it's a genuine expression of his enthusiasm for the business.

And on the other end of the scale are the top executives of American Airlines, who gave themselves a pay raise and golden parachutes after winning salary concession from the flight attendants union to help the company avoid bankruptcy.

The examples illustrate how employees, and customers, respect a leader who doesn't place himself "above" his employees.

Knowing the Customer

Service companies have a trend toward collecting customer information - when you take your car to a dealership and they punch it into a computer, sign up for a frequent flyer program, or present a discount card at a grocery store - the information is collected and warehoused for analysis to monitor customer behavior and tailor the service to their needs.

But this is not some new development by virtue of technology, merely using technology to assist at a task that has been done for centuries: people working as waters, bartenders, grocers, news-stand vendors, and other low-tech professions remember their best customers, remember how they like to be served, and act accordingly.

It's noted that customers who want something out of the ordinary have gotten out of the habit of asking the server, but instead ask the manager, because they're more likely to get a "yes." This is the sign of a badly-run operation, in which employees are governed by policy and forbidden to make exceptions, and only "the boss" has the ability to help the customer. In well-run operations, employees are empowered to serve the customer without having to ask permission (within reason). And the companies who empower employees in this way have better marks when it comes to reputation, brand value, and customer satisfaction.

It's not merely that the employee is empowered, but that the customer is better served - directly and promptly - when there is no delay to "ask the boss." The customer's impression of the server colors their impression of the company, and where the employee is trusted by the company, the customer is trusted by the company, and is inclined to reciprocate by trusting in the company.

All Customers are Not Equal

While listening to customers is important, you should consider the value of their input. Not all customers carry equal weight, and if you yield to the desires of a few who make aggressive demands, you may be neglecting or even providing lesser value to those who "make" your business: the customers who buy often, or in quantity, or are influential.

The value of the first two categories (high quantity, high frequency) is self-evident. Influential customers, however, are a different matter: they may not buy a lot, and they may not buy often, but they have pull with those that do. They are valuable in getting word-of-mouth to boost your brand, and critical in convincing others to try new products or services.

As such, you should carefully identify the special customers, and offer them special treatment. Be attentive to their needs and give them a "direct line" to communicate with you - receiving early notice of special events or changes, sending back their feedback. The Internet is a goldmine of opportunity to communicate with customers, and create a community of customers who support one another. Get them to participate in testing, invite them to participate in market research.

On the topic of listening: listen to your employees as well: they work directly with the customer, and are likely to have a lot of good ideas that draw on that experience. However, many companies still insist on being run top-down, and forcing ideas from executives who have no front-line experience and, it seems, contempt for the front line workers. The author also has a few stories to tell:

Getting Employees to Think

The author cites his experiences in pilot training - specifically, in simulations where a pilot is put in an unusual or nerve-wracking situation that makes him stretch himself to find a solution to a problem. He muses that this would be a good approach for people in service positions: to assess and develop their ability to think creatively in odd situations, so they would be less likely to panic when it's necessary to do something out of the norm to serve the customer.

A lot is done to relieve the employee of the necessity of thinking - change machines that make it unnecessary to do basic math, food dispensers that eliminate the need to measure. All of this is done with the intention to avoid small losses (heavens forbid an employee gives away an extra nickel or an extra quarter-teaspoon of mustard), but it eliminates the need for employees to think, and they lose the skill.

And this is the cause of service failures: the cashier who demands you present a receipt for a returned item, even though he's the one who rang you up just minutes ago, the cashier who charges you a nickel for a cup of water because the cups have to be inventoried against the database. The clerk who has to call his manager to do anything out of the ordinary.

The solution: make them think. Even if it means taking a risk, or even a small loss, the value of an alert, attentive, and creative employee who can handle making decisions in unusual situations is far greater in the long run.

And in some instances, it requires making them think. He presents the anecdote of a manager who was plagued by employees' cries for help in situations where the solution to a problem was fairly obvious. His solution was not to tell them, but to ask what they thought they should do - and over time, they stopped feeling the need to ask, and just did it.

(EN: This approach is overused, and has a couple of negative consequences. It can frustrate an employee who has made an effort but genuinely needs guidance, and it also gives the impression that you don't know either, which undermines confidence in your leadership. Two adjustments: first, don't do this very often and especially not by default, and second, change the question to from "what do you think you should do?" to "what solutions have you considered?")

He returns to the notion of airline simulation, and suggests that bad simulation is worse than none at all. He mentions some frustration with computer flight simulators - not the real flight simulators, but the software that can be run on a regular computer, using mouse and keyboard. They are very bad simulations, nothing like "real" flying, and can train pilots to do things wrong, all the while giving them positive feedback. Which is why the industry doesn't use them, and real pilots avoid them.

In a more practical example, the author mentions the "magic apron" approach to training: having a new employee shadow an existing employee to learn the business. It can be helpful, but should not be the only method of training, because the new employee learns the bad habits along with the good ones (and even the best employees have a few bad habits) - and it's hard to re-train an employee who has been taught the wrong way.