The Not it! Leader

January 2, 2019

I am working with a school system on solving some conflict-laden issues. As I talk to various employees about the background processes, I am finding that across the board they shut down and refuse to give me information about how things actually work as soon as I ask them about what specific expectations are put on them and/or where those expectations come from. I've even had people refuse to talk to me at all about the issue, stating "I can't talk to you about that while I'm still working here." This reluctance to talk to "outsiders" about the administrative processes is the most troubling to me and here is why.


When employees feel that it is not safe to reveal how things work in their organization, that is a red flag that the leaders of that organization are unwilling to take responsibility and ownership for their work.


Let me ask you this.


Have you ever had the experience of trying without luck to get customer service to solve a problem for you? Have you ever asked who else you could speak to only to be told there is nobody or that nobody is available right now?


How frustrating was that experience for you?


Now let me ask you:


Are you the leader of an organization (private, or public; large or small)?


If you said yes, think back. How often would you say you dealt with a customer/client/service beneficiary directly in the past year?


If you said 'never', think about why that is?


Did you say "Well it's not my job to talk to stakeholders on that level. That's why we have ...."?


Read on. 


When we put frontline workers in the position of having to "deal with the customers" without the freedom to pass on feedback from customers directly to us, what we are really saying as leaders is "I don't care how my choices affect my customers." This is the equivalent of coming up with an idea for a new product and starting a company based on it without listening to potential customers about what they would do with such an offering.


I have found in the course of my career that the more we as business leaders (in every sector) decide what's 'best for everyone' the less our choices meet the needs of those they affect. Likewise, the more we talk to the potential 'affected' before making choices, the better a choice we tend to make in that the choice solves problems for those it affects, as opposed to creating new problems.


I have worked in many positions, in many kinds of organizations, in many sectors. I can tell you from first-hand experience that when your frontline workers (receptionists, customer service, teachers & Principals, Executive Assistants, program associates) are asked to lie or to deflect questions, requests, calls and/or visitors the people who are being lied to or deflected know it- every time. No matter how "good" your frontline worker is they call smell the dishonesty. It damages your relationships with colleagues, with potential partners, with the public. As someone on the other side of this, it's always obvious to me and it tells me that this person has been instructed directly not to admit that mistakes were made, not to acknowledge that policies have been put in place that keep them from being able to meet my needs, not to let people know who is responsible. Often it is to "save face" for the leader.


Here's the problem with this.


As a leader of any organization, it is our responsibility to take responsibility for our work at much as, or even more than, we would hold the people who work for us responsible for their actions. If we are unwilling to let it be known that we are responsible, we are abdicating that responsibility. In doing so we are also, turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the very people whose wants and needs we are constantly trying to figure out.


How many surveys have you put out in the past year? How many reviews have you solicited?


How hard has it been to get people to take those surveys and/or leave those reviews?


Right. It has been getting harder and harder to get people to take the time to even fill out a short, simple survey. The only people who leave reviews generally are the super impressed or the very disgruntled. We wind up having to incentivize the taking of the survey or the leaving of the review just to gather data in order to make business decisions. So what if...


What if we opened our proverbial doors to feedback on a daily basis?


What if we were willing to let the public know that a policy exists, an expectation has been put on our salespeople/customer service representatives/program associates, a process has been put in place? What if we were willing to take ownership of those policies, expectations and processes? Personal ownership. What if?


We would gain invaluable insight into how our choices are affecting people. We would not need to come up with creative incentives to get people to tell us the data we are trying to gather because we will be gathering that data every day.


I hear you thinking 'We ask our customer service people to gather feedback and pass it on already.' 


It's not the same.


Getting a message from your frontline worker about what a customer said is not the same as talking to that customer yourself. For one thing, we all perceive things slightly differently and are likely to rewrite the complaint from our own perspective. For another thing, that customer service rep doesn't have the context to ask relevant follow up questions that gather the data you need. We know that talking directly to potential customers to get feedback about a new product or business idea is an invaluable asset that validates (or tells us to abandon) our idea. So why, once we are already in business, are we not utilizing this same strategy for customer retention/ program efficacy?


Set your employees free.


Tell them directly to refer those who contact them with problems that are not solved by procedures, policies and processes to you so that you can gain this insight.


Make yourself available when these calls, emails, or other messages come in and deal with them directly.


Thank them for referring that person to you.


What you will gain:

* insight from your stakeholders which leads to

          * better business decisions which lead to

                      * better customer/program beneficiary retention

                      * better customer/program beneficiary acquisition

                      * higher profit margin/ program efficacy

* trust of your employees which leads to

          * direct feedback from your employees which leads to

                     * lower employee turn-over

                     * higher productivity from your employees

                     * more ownership from your employees

                     * higher profit margin/ program efficacy

* more effective, efficient business processes which lead to

                    * higher profit margin/ program efficacy


What leader doesn't want their organization to thrive? None. You know you want to be effective.


Now you know one simple thing you can do to make it happen.


Need help figuring out how to do this? Contact us.


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