I haven’t published a post for ages. However, I was part of a conversation last week in which I realised that I’d drafted a relevant post a couple of years ago. Here it is:
Show me a service organisation and I’ll likely be able to show you posters on their walls imploring (or perhaps commanding) their front-line employees to ‘care about their customers’ (or clients1).
I expect that we are all in agreement that we should care about our customers – who they are, what their situation is, what they really need, how they are thinking/feeling (because of the past, the present and their view of the future)…
…BUT whether our employees can and will ‘see the customer’, and whether they act accordingly, will depend.
The conventional way to ‘convince’ employees to care is to roll out some form of a ‘we must be customer-centric’ programme (which likely includes those posters on the wall). There might even be some framework rolled out to score how well each ‘service agent’ did within each customer interaction or (so called) ‘moment of truth’.
‘Customer-first programmes’ are essentially an attitude/orientation exercise.
All too often we discover that people return highly motivated from an excellent training experience only to find an organisation with procedures, systems and other conditions which do not adequately support the values expressed in the programme.
People can’t delight the customer if their organisation won’t let them!
Seddon is clearly questioning the simple (simplistic) notion that ‘our people’ are the problem…and therefore where to aim a (supposed) solution to this.
But what about the ‘bad eggs’?
You might respond with “Yes Steve, but I’ve got clear, undeniable evidence of some of our people providing really poor service to our customers!” and, yep, I’d expect that you do. Perhaps even bucket loads of it.
The fact that poor service often happens isn’t in doubt.
The question that needs asking is “why is this happening?” And just to be super clear, NOT “who did we catch doing it?!”
If you know the why, then you will know what to act upon to achieve meaningful and sustained improvement.
Conversely, you can spend all day rooting out the ‘who’, and perhaps publicly ‘parade them around’ with the aim of shaming them for all to see…but I doubt you will achieve any meaningful improvement to your system and its performance. In fact, likely the reverse.
A self-fulfilling prophecy
So, we want our front-line employees to be ‘customer-centric’ and yet we regularly see instances where it can be said that they weren’t…and it is very easy to fall into a ‘blame game’.
However, a quote to ponder:
“When we take people merely as they are, we make them worse.
When we treat them as if they were what they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of being.”
(Translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1795)
I really like these words, and they have been repeated in various forms by many since they were first written. In fact, it’s almost a perfect fit with the work of Douglas McGregor (ref. Theory X and Theory Y).
To me, there are three points worth drawing out from von Goethe’s quote:
- ‘As they are’: If we look to blame a person for the poor performance that occurred during an event that they were involved in, then we’ll be heading in the wrong direction!
- ‘What they ought to be’: If, however, we start from a position of presuming that a person would want to do the right thing (and was likely born that way), then we change the game completely. Clarification: This isn’t denial of what has happened, just a better starting point to move forwards.
- ‘What they are capable of being’: What I particularly like about the quote is that von Goethe wasn’t suggesting that all people can do/be anything and everything. Rather, he recognised that people are individuals and that, if they are treated accordingly, they can achieve what they are capable of…which is likely to be far greater than what we can currently imagine.
Do you believe your own rhetoric?
If you are employed in a ‘leadership position’2 then I expect that you often find yourself talking with your team about how they should behave. In fact, if you stood back, this might be somewhat of a ‘broken record’.
However, I am reminded of the proverb “do as I say, not as I do”.
Turning this around – and therefore realising why this proverb is often stated…to little effect – is to make clear that people take note of what you do and use this as their guide…no matter what you say.
Those in leadership positions are responsible for the organisational system – its purpose and the working environment. You can say ‘wonderful things’, but the system you preside over is the key.
“People’s behaviour is a product of their system. It is only by changing the system that we can expect a change in behaviour.” (John Seddon)
Management is responsible for that system, and therefore the behaviours that it produces. No amount of ‘training’ or exhortation will undo this tie.
- beware the dissonance between management talk and management behaviour
- don’t spend (waste?) time exalting people to ‘care for thy customer’, provide them with an organisational system in which this is the obvious and natural thing to do
- to do this requires much reflection as to why things are as they are, which can be discovered from regular and respectful ‘eyes wide open’ time ‘at the Gemba’
1. Customer or client?: I was interested as to whether there is a meaningful difference between the use of these two words…and, after a bit of a trawl through definitions, I think that there is.
The normal use of the word ‘client’ (as opposed to ‘customer’) is when it is associated with the services of a professional (examples: lawyers, accountants,….plumber) and so this now makes some sense…
I am a customer where I am clearly in control of what is happening and can make my own choices e.g. transactional situations.
I am a client where I am highly reliant on another and their care over me.
2. Leadership position…which is very different to ‘leading’. Ref. an earlier post on the notion of leadership