Indifferent employees alienate shoppers, run off clients and botch deals with a shoulder-shrug. They don't care, and that message acts like static on a bad telephone connection, canceling out any lucrative communication. How to turn that attitude around? Four things, says management strategist Don Peppers: a sense of ownership in the company, open communication, no secrets and no excuses. Together, all four also create an environment where failure is tolerated as long as you learn from your mistakes and missteps. Peppers spoke at the Compete Through Service symposium sponsored by the W. P. Carey School's Center for Services Leadership.

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Customer service and the purpose-driven organization

November 08, 2006

Armed with a vacant stare and a can't-do attitude, an indifferent employee can vaporize the best customer-service initiative, according to Don Peppers, a management strategist, author and founding partner of Norwalk, Connecticut-based Peppers & Rogers Group.

 

These are the workers who alienate shoppers, run off clients and botch deals with a shoulder-shrug. They don't care, and that message acts like static on a bad telephone connection, canceling out any lucrative communication.

 

Peppers coaches employers on changing their corporate culture to attract and retain the "self-organizing" employees who will cheerfully go out of their way to solve a customer's problem. A self-organizer spots dilemmas, takes responsibility, troubleshoots, seeks help if necessary, and uses his or her own best judgment to immediately and effectively remedy the situation. But to foster self-organized employee development, the company must become a "purpose-driven organization" with a unifying mission, he insists. A unifying mission is the bedrock of a thriving concern's corporate culture.

 

 

Trump self interest with a positive culture

 

"Bees and ants are genetically programmed to make decisions that are good for their communities, but people act out of self-interest. So you must rely on a unifying employee culture" to trump individual self-interest, Peppers told business leaders gathered for the Compete Through Service symposium sponsored by the W. P. Carey School's Center for Services Leadership.

 

Only those worker bees -- employees -- whose motivation springs from shared mission rather than self-interest are able to embrace the creative innovation and problem-solving mindset prized by employers. As Peppers noted, that's because "the purpose-driven employee works at overcoming obstacles and removing barriers to the mission" minus supervision and without direct reward; they work harder to please because the customer is their customer.

 

"Customer satisfaction comes after employee satisfaction. Happy people are happy employees. Service excellence follows employee satisfaction," Peppers continued.

 

What do employees need to thrive? Four things, he said: a sense of ownership in the company, open communication, no secrets and no excuses. Together, all four also create an environment where failure is tolerated as long as you learn from your mistakes and missteps.

 

In addition, while making a profit obviously is key, an organization's mission must be perceived as being more than simply lining investors' pockets, Peppers warned. Employees require the right purpose, not just a purpose. He points to Enron as an example of a once-strong, employee-identified company destroyed by a short-sighted "wrong purpose," and added, "An Enron deception is not possible in a customer-oriented enterprise."

 

 

Hijacking employee enthusiasm

 

But if caught before it crashes, even a culturally clueless organization can hijack employee enthusiasm to turn things around, he said, pointing to Baptist Health Care of Pensacola, Florida. By the late ‘90s, Baptist was a mess, ranking among the bottom 20 percent of American hospitals, and populated by workers who, when polled, gave the corporation a disheartened thumbs-down. Things had to change if Baptist was to survive, he added.

 

Survive it did. Today, Baptist is an award-winning, top-ranked system of four hospitals, a nursing home, two medical-office complexes, a medical spa and an orthopedics/sports medicine center under construction. Employee satisfaction is high and turnover is low. Market share is up. They even founded the Baptist Leadership Institute to help other hospitals "ignite untapped passions within their organizations."

 

For details on the health care company's turnaround, read "The Baptist Health Care Journey to Excellence: Creating a Culture that WOWs!" by Al Stubblefield, Baptist's president and CEO. Peppers shared a few crucial changes with symposium participants, though. For instance, all Baptist executives regularly "attend rounds," similar to doctors' rounds, leaving their offices to tour the system's operations, from housekeeping to patient rooms. They look around, listen, ask questions, then act on what they've learned, he said.

 

Management offices are no longer segregated in posh pockets, isolated from the action. Instead, they are windowed rooms opening off of high-traffic hallways, visible and accessible to other employees. Problems are tracked on community bulletin boards, with regular progress reports. Hiring policies have changed, too, favoring "behavior-based interviewing" during which applicants are asked to describe how they resolved customer complaints at previous jobs.

 

Baptist employees also learned to use "scripting" to change how they spoke to patients and each other. Example: instead of saying, "I don't know, she is not my patient," the nurse is taught to say "I'll go with you and we'll figure out what to do." Rather than saying, "No, I don't have time," the housekeeping employee learned to respond with "Yes, I can help you in five minutes." Workers enmeshed in the Baptist culture teach new recruits by example, reinforcing the organization's values of integrity, vision, innovation, superior service, stewardship and teamwork. As Peppers said, "Culture will drive strategy or culture will drag strategy."

 

 

Finding the meaning of work

 

A study by the Hay Group, a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, management consulting firm, indicates employee "engagement" results from a confluence of four factors: a clear, promising sense of purpose, confidence in the organization's leaders, collaboration and collegiality, and developing opportunities.

 

What would employees at your company say if asked, "does your job have meaning?" Peppers cited a United Kingdom study of workers 25 to 35 years old; 59 percent of those responding "saw no meaningful purpose in their work," he said. "Employees want meaning." It's a universal need, whether you build the safest infant car-seats on the market, work for the team that won the World Series three times, or clean bathrooms in a research center dedicated to developing an AIDS vaccine.

 

This elusive feeling -- workplace meaning -- is most often is based on trust, between management and workers, among co-workers, and extending to the customer base, Peppers noted. Emigrant Quakers practicing a "testimony of integrity" helped transform the emerging American business environment, later buoyed by business leaders such as banker J.P. Morgan and department-store founder John Wanamaker, who pioneered fixed retail pricing. "There is an organizational benefit to trust. Groups, teams, companies all need trust to cooperate and meet goals," he continued.

 

Customer trust implies a certain level of customer advocacy, Peppers maintained. He's winnowed out four elements of modern-day customer trust -- credibility, reliability, intimacy and self-orientation. In the end, it comes down to a simple concept: treat the customer like you'd like to be treated yourself.

 

He shared a story with symposium participants regarding his own customer service experiences at two British airlines. Burdened by a complicated schedule in different cities, his wife booked a series of one-way tickets online. Literally minutes later after booking the flights with a credit card, she realized it would be cheaper to buy round-trip tickets for the same trip. But when she called the airline, first the customer-service agent, then the agent's supervisor both insisted that there was no way to change the just-booked tickets. Common sense be damned, the answer was a stolid 'no,' leaving the Peppers not just out some unnecessary cash, but fuming.

 

Later the Peppers and their children were racing to catch a flight, the first leg of an island vacation. They missed the flight for a variety of reasons, none of which were caused by the airline. Yet this customer-service agent was generous and understanding, volunteering to find seats on an early-morning flight the next day, waiving the rebooking fee and finding them a hotel room for the night. This airline gained customers' trust, while the first airline lost it.

 

 

Bottom Line:

 

  • A self-organizing employee spots dilemmas, take responsibility, troubleshoots, seeks help if necessary, and uses his or her own best judgment to immediately and effectively remedy the situation.
  • Bees and ants are genetically programmed to make decisions that are good for their communities, but people act out of self-interest. So organizations that prize self-organizing employees have found it's useful to unify staff with a shared mission.
  • Emigrant Quakers practicing a "testimony of integrity" helped transform the emerging American business environment, later buoyed by business leaders such as banker J.P. Morgan and department-store founder John Wanamaker, who pioneered fixed retail pricing.
  • A United Kingdom study of workers 25 to 35 years old found that 59 percent of those responding "saw no meaningful purpose in their work."