Ending the Attitude Death Spiral

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I am sure you have seen this; you walk into a place of business and encounter an employee with a bad attitude or just indifference.  What causes this, and, more importantly, what can be done about it?

The Arbinger Institute tells us in their books about something called the Collusion Model.  I like to call it the Attitude Death Spiral.  What this model describes is a simple human tendency to mirror what we see and to justify our behavior by blaming others.

How the model works goes something like this: A customer arrives with a negative attitude for whatever reason; an employee sees this and labels the customer as a bad person.  This label then gives the employee the justification to react with a similar bad attitude.  This then allows the customer to label the employee and justify more bad behavior.  The process continues in a spiral or cycle that goes on and on leaving both parties feeling bad, angry, frustrated, etc. What’s worse is that over time, this cycle can create an overall attitude among employees that all customers are just bad people.  This creates that indifference we’ve all experienced as customers even though we haven’t even done anything.


Here’s the kicker though, we all do this, most of the time without even knowing it.  We do it at work, at home, and at play.  We see behavior or attitude and justify our reactions by blaming others for it.  This is a death spiral as you can see.  It leads to nothing very good, and good is what we desperately need more of these days.

So what is the solution, what is the way out?  Well, what needs to change is people’s frame of mind. Certainly in the case of customer service, there needs to be a change in thinking.  This change, not training, must be the first step. You see, too many businesses skip this and move right to task training; they set expectations, design procedures and scripts, teach employees how to do it all and then send them out to put on the show.  Unfortunately, this results in fake experiences and inconsistent results over the long term.  To create a long term difference requires a change in thinking to stop the instinctive tendency to fall into the Attitude Death Spiral.

Step one:  Businsses need to come to terms with the fact that money and profit are secondary results of performing their primary purpose of helping customers achieve their goals.  Once this truth becomes the driver of the business, it must become the central focus of every decision, process, procedure,and strategy.

Step two: The “helping customers” focus must be a regularly communicated.  This theme must be first on agendas, it must be part of all onboarding, marketing and sales messaging, and it must part of performance discussions.

Step three:  All employees must be trained to see customers as people with needs, wants, dreams, feelings, worries, and problems.  They must get an understanding that people are much like icebergs where what we see is only a small part of the reality that exists out of our view.

Step four:  Train employees to change their inner dialog before the instinctive death-spiral dialog kicks in.  By first seeing customers as people with complications lying beneath the surface and then thinking, “how can I be more helpful?”, employees can set their mind to helping rather than justifying bad behavior.


Step five: Managers must get out on the floor, observe employee performance, and coach the creation of a positive thinking habit that ends the Attitude Death Spiral.

Ultimately, the key to improving customer service is in changing the frame of mind of those in the business of serving…and that means all of us.  We must see others as people with needs, wants, and most of all complicated problems and challenges.  Once we see that, helpfulness becomes the way out and the way to better business and relationships.

For more on this, I suggesst reading any or all of the Arbinger Institute books:

  • Leadership and Self Deception
  • The Anatomy of Peace
  • The Outward Mindset

A Lesson For the Ages From Millennials

Image result for justin thomasThere seems to be a lot of talk these days about Millennials and much of the talk is negative.  While we could debate the pros and cons of Millennials until we’re blue in the face, it’s not something I want to explore.  What I do want to look at is a lesson we could all learn that came from some Millennials at the end of this year’s PGA Championship golf tournament.

Millennials, the generational demographic arguably defined as those born between the early 1980s and the late 1990s, are typically characterized by increased use and familiarity with digital communication, a liberal approach to politics and economics, heightened social consciousness, and  a focus on work-life balance with an almost selfish emphasis on individual advancement and job satisfaction.  And while these characteristics may or may not be true, they are by any classification gross generalizations.  As much as many might disagree and may be able to cite incriminating examples, I think, overall, Millennials mostly get a bad rap and it usually comes, in my experience, from the frustrated older generations that generally manage them in the workplace. What I witnessed at the end of the golf tournament taught me a lesson and it is one that those older generations, largely my generation, should learn as well.

You see, the winner of the tournament was Justin Thomas, born 1993, a Millennial by definition.  And other than such a young person winning with grace and style being inspiring, there’s nothing necessarily profound in his winning specifically.  Rather, the lesson came in what, or more accurately, who was waiting for him in the gallery on the 18th hole.  In the crowd were Jordan Spieth and Ricky Fowler, both Millennials, born 1993 and 1988 respectively.

So what?  What’s the big lesson here?  Well, think about it, waiting patiently for their friend are these so-called self-centered, digitally reliant, entitled, Millennials.  No, not the older generation, but these young guys, who, given what we read, should have been on their way home texting Justin.  Instead, there they were, fully present, supporting and celebrating the success of their compatriot.

What I took away from this was confirmation that we should never label people based on age, skin color, sexual orientation or myriad other generalized attributes.  And maybe more importantly, I learned that we should always stick around for our friends, whether personal or professional friends, to celebrate their successes and take time to lift them up.

Here’s a big thank you to these gentlemen.  They taught me that a much-maligned generation does have a lot to offer old guys like me if I keep my eyes open.  Best of all, they taught me to listen more carefully to my own kids, both Millennials, and to humble myself to the lessons they can teach.

Maybe that’s the biggest lesson for those older generation managers; don’t be so fast to dismiss the living curriculum around you, a little humility and willingness to accept that there might be better ways can go a long way to growing your mind and spirit, not to mention the mind and spirit of your organization.

All Customers Are the Same

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“All customers are the same.”  Thus spoke the contractor doing some work on my house.  Now that phrase probably sent waves of concern over customer experience professionals everywhere because they would say you need to create personas for every different type of customer and adjust your experience design to fit them, etc., etc.  But I am not talking about that perspective. Let’s take a step back to understand what I mean.

Last week, I was speaking with my contractor, Chuck, and we were talking about customers and how they should be treated.  He recounted a story where he met a plumbing contractor who needed some railings for his staircase at home.  This is Chuck’s specialty, really beautiful stuff.  Anyway, sometime later the plumber called him to enquire about costs and style, etc. and said he would call Chuck back.  Much later he called again and they talked about things but with no commitment.  This went on for a while to the point of some frustration on Chuck’s part but he soldiered on as they say and continued being patient and answering questions with a positive attitude.

Then, after much time passed and Chuck thought the opportunity had passed, he got a call from the plumber saying he wanted to get the railings but needed them somewhat quickly.  Chuck, although a bit irritated by the somewhat demanding timing and all the going back and forth on this relatively minor job, went into action and completed the work on time and with the customary “professional” discount.

So, imagine Chuck’s position, he quoted a job at a discount given as a courtesy, then spent time and energy on it even though it seemed like it was going nowhere, was finally given the work but with timing demands, yet he maintained his professionalism and positive-service approach.  Would you have kept your service focus or would you have said no to it and moved on?  Well, Chuck said yes and kept a service focus, and it paid off, the plumber ended up recommending Chuck for a job that resulted in six-digit revenue.

Now I tell this story because I hear and read a lot about the importance of taking care of your top customers, your highest revenue clients first, but Chuck’s real-life example says something different.  Many a contractor I have dealt with before would have blown this job off as being too minor, too much trouble, and not financially worth it, but not Chuck, he was aware of a simple truth, you must treat all customers the same regardless of trouble or revenue, all deserve the same treatment.  You see, you never know who customers talk to and exactly how big a billboard they can be for you.  Customers, large or small, easy or difficult, are all potential marketers.  Their words can make or break your future.

So, my question to you is this, how do you treat your customers?  Are some VIPs or are they all VIPs?  Are you an equal opportunity service provider or do you put the big spenders to the front of the line?  Take a look at your operation and examine things through the lens of customers all being treated the same, what do you see?  What do you need to change?

Standards, Habits, and Success

Airbnb is working these days to establish more standards that their hosts are asked to maintain.  The reason for this is because it is becoming clear to the company that their customers expect fresh linens and little amenities like soap and shampoo.  They also want a bit more of a hotel experience where the staff are courteous and blend into the background only to come to the foreground when asked or approached.  Nothing crazy here, just basic service standards that any hospitality professional would be familiar with yet Airbnb is struggling to make them a reality across their enterprise.

Part of the problem is the business model where hosts are supplying their personal space to the company; they expect a certain amount of leeway with how much control Airbnb has over them.  On Airbnb’s side though, they know customers want a reliable experience where they know what they’re getting with no major surprises.  This is true of just about any customer experience; people want certainty and little risk but with Airbnb, you are at the mercy of the host and that makes for an unreliable, uncertain, risky venture at best.  It’s a real problem that Airbnb must solve.

This predicament reminded me of problems experienced by many companies with consistency and quality of customer experience, mostly due to a lack of clear standards and accountability.  When new employees are onboarded, most companies have some sort of training where standards are communicated with laminated cards handed out to act as reminders, etc., however, from there the employees are on their own to sink or swim, and in my experience, it would seem many drown once they get in the real world on the front line with customers.

Think about how many times you’ve been in a store where no one said a word to you or where price tags were missing from a vast number of products.  Saying hello and pricing items are standards one would think yet they are missed or simply forgotten and it is the customer who suffers.  I n this case, because they feel unwelcome and uncertain about what they are paying.

While Airbnb’s problem is due to trying to make the rules during the game because they didn’t establish the standards from the start and now they are playing catch up, most companies have a slightly different problem, keeping the standards they set alive.  At most companies, it would seem standards are on life support at best.

So how is it done?  How do you set standards and keep them going?  How do you make these things habitual?  I believe there are three keys to making this happen and these keys are true whether you are trying to create a personal habit at home or trying to help employees develop habits at work, Remind, Do, Reward.

REMIND – Clear communication:  At the outset, every team member must understand and embrace the standards, but it doesn’t stop there, you must have ongoing communication, call it reminding if you want to, but it must be regular and consistent.

DO – Performance coaching:  As team members are performing, managers must be observant and coach them when they see standards being forgotten, and this coaching doesn’t have to be complicated.

Manager: “I was watching you work.  What would you say is working really well for you? … Are there any of our standards that would make it even better? … What can I do to help you do this regularly?”

REWARD – Recognize great performance:  When an employee is doing the right things, they deserve to be recognized for it.  The brain is a great thing, and when we get acknowledged, it gives us a hit of chemical love in the form of dopamine, a little shot of “feel good”.  And feeling good is not all, when we get that hit, it makes us want to do it again, we want that feeling again.  Hence the power of reward in creating habits – reward, feel good, do it again, reward, feel good, do it again, and so on until, voila, it’s a habit.

Airbnb has a big task ahead trying to establish new habits in the midst of the game but hopefully your business established the standards at the start and all you need to do is breathe new life into them.  Get going with Reminding, Doing, and Rewarding and you will see your own reward in happier customers and higher revenues.