Art or Ordinary? You Decide.

Image result for excellence vince lombardiMy job title is Director of Service Excellence.  I often get asked about excellence and what I think it means and the answer informs how I approach my job and it just might change the way you think about yours.

The dictionary says excellence is the quality of being outstanding or extremely good.  When I talk to a lot of people they take it much further and describe excellence as something approaching perfection.  For me though, I see it differently.

As a human who has experienced many other humans, I know that we are, as a species, riddled with flaws, we make mistakes and fail… a lot.  No one that I have every met is or has been perfect.  Perfection it would seem is simply out of our reach.  However, to relentlessly pursue it has the makings of a noble quest and is the essence of my definition of excellence.

To my way of thinking, to be excellent is to never sit still.  It is a daily endeavor to be better than the day before.  It is taking the tasks before us and turning them from mundane trifles into the stuff of art.  Seth Godin in his book Linchpin talks about the work we do as art and that each of us is an artisan.  Take a look at this blog post from Godin:

I define art as having nothing at all to do with painting.

Art is a human act, a generous contribution, something that might not work, and it is intended to change the recipient for the better, often causing a connection to happen.

Five elements that are difficult to find and worth seeking out. Human, generous, risky, change and connection.

You can be perfect or you can make art.

You can keep track of what you get in return, or you can make art.

You can enjoy the status quo, or you can make art. 

The most difficult part might be in choosing whether you want to make art at all, and committing to what it requires of you. 

What is more excellent than that?  Committing to the requirements of art rather than the laziness of the ordinary, this is excellence.  Are you creating art or just something ordinary?  How can changing your thinking change your work?

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Being the Calm in the Storm

Related imageHave you ever been in a situation where you felt like a service provider had no empathy at all?  I’m sure you have, it happens all the time.  Think about the number of times you’ve been on one of those dreaded Help Desk calls and the dull, monotone voice on the other end gives the impression that you are being ridiculous about such a minor issue.  It happens with mechanics, plumbers, electricians, and myriad other services.  The tone of voice and body language seem to say, “This isn’t that big of a deal, relax.”

This lack of empathy is largely a product of familiarity.  You see, as customers, we see many of the problems with things only once in a lifetime whereas professionals see them every day.  For example, when I go to the dentist and he says I have some issue that needs to be addressed, the nonchalant way he says it makes me think “I have to have all of my teeth yanked out but to you it’s just another day at the office.”  His initial language sounds so ominously serious and sets off a chain reaction of assumptions, rapid heartbeat, and worry.  Of course, once he slows down and explains it all in baby language, I calm down.

Think about your line of work, how many things do you see every day that customers rarely if ever see?  How many times have you dealt with someone freaking out over something that you know is not a big deal?  Why are they going crazy?  It’s not the end of the world and can be repaired.  We do it a lot more than you might think and it sends a horrible message to customers that they are overreacting, being childish, etc.

How do we change this? We need to be mindful that our world and the world of our customers are very different.  We, as professionals in our line of work, have a vantage point that is very different than that of our customers.  We see things they never do or maybe do once in their lives.  What to us is minor may, on first look to a customer, seem disastrous.  Being ever mindful of this and putting ourselves in their shoes can change the game.  Use of some honest language to communicate understanding and provide comfort can go a long way:  “I understand how you feel.  I know this looks bad but I’ve seen it many times and it can be fixed.  I want to help you and make it right.”  Talk like this can provide calm in what to a customer looks like a devastating storm.

Here are three steps for being the calm in the storm:

  1. See the customer not as someone overreacting but as a person who is fearful because they’ve never seen this problem before or may have had a bad experience with it before.
  2. Realize that although you’ve seen it many times, you need to show understanding, not superiority.
  3. Communicate your understanding and share that you’ve seen it before and you have options for making it better.

Why Coaching?

Image result for coach clip art

Coaching, coaching, coaching, it seems it’s all we hear these days. Why is coaching all the buzz right now?  What’s the big deal?  To answer this, let’s look at what coaching is and then how our landscape has changed to require more of it.

So, what is coaching? Counter to popular images, coaching is not barking out orders, suggestions, and advice, rather, it’s about helping people to focus on a specific challenge and then find solutions that they own and develop themselves.  Good coaches resist the urge to provide immediate answers, and instead, facilitate the discovery of solutions people have within them already.

Imagine a child struggling with their math homework. They’ve been taught how to add and subtract but get stuck when they are confronted with large numbers. What good would it do them for you to just figure it out and give them the answer? None. So you ask them questions. You start with basics. “How do you add 2+2?” Then you help them see that big numbers are really no different than small numbers.  “How is this big number any different? How can you take the same thing you did with 2+2 and apply it to this bigger number?” You guide them but they do the deep dig within to “remember” what they know. You guide them to be confident and realize they can do it.

Now, why is coaching so important in workplaces today? It has everything to do with the changing landscape of business and work in our time. We are at a key place in the evolution of management. The old, Industrial Age, command and demand styles of management are simply ineffective today. Controlling management worked when workers were less educated and customer demands for quick and immediate gratification were non-existent. In this era, employees were thought of as replaceable cogs in a machine that managers felt they had to control in order to get productivity. The standard thinking was that employees were producers, they were there to do not think. In addition, as a byproduct, given the slower pace and common belief that only managers were thinkers, customers would wait for answers because it was accepted that only managers had them.

Move to today. Advances in technology have created a demand for a more educated, thinking workforce. Systems are complicated and require everyone to have problem-solving ability. And, as if that’s not enough, the ability to get information at the push of a button has moved customers from patient and considerate to impatient and demanding. They want answers now. Waiting for managers is unacceptable. Thus, in contrast to the man-machine of the past, today’s worker must, at minimum, be competent with ever-evolving systems and empowered to make immediate decisions for customers.

This should make it clear why the controlling management of the past is ineffective. The foundation of this approach is the belief that there are two groups of people, Leaders and Followers. Leaders are the thinkers and Followers are the doers. If you want answers, you have to speak to the leader. But this setup is slow and cumbersome, and today’s environment requires speed with leaders (thinkers) available to step up anytime throughout the organization. In other words, today’s needs require a team of leaders where everyone thinks and does which necessitates a management approach that expands rather than a controlling one that limits.

Our workplaces though have been slow to evolve. Many, many managers are still working with an Industrial Age mindset, a mindset that conflicts with today’s smarter employee who has a desire to contribute not to mention its incongruence with the ever-increasing expectations of today’s customers. If we think about the increasing prevalence of two of today’s biggest business challenges, 1) disengaged employees who feel undervalued and marginalized, and 2) dissatisfied, frustrated customers, and then consider the impact traditional management approaches have had in their creation, it is clear that we need to speed this evolution.

Enter coaching and our definition of it above.  Its value as a tool in this team-of-leaders evolution is starkly apparent.  Imagine managers asking employees for their ideas for improving problem areas instead of just telling them their way. Imagine managers committing to help their employees implement their ideas and recognizing them for their efforts. How would engagement increase? How much more would employees take interest in the business’s success? How might customers benefit from this more engaged and committed workforce?

Leader-follower mindsets focus on telling others what to do and are limited to one way. This is ineffective and inefficient for today’s needs. Team-of-leaders mindsets focus on asking questions to get insight from experience and fresh ideas.  And, as asking is the essence of good coaching, we have our answer to coaching’s extreme relevance to today’s environment.

Want to engage employees and delight customers? Learn to coach; ask instead of tell, engage instead of manage, build a team of leaders.

Don’t let your employees make any customers invisible.

Related imageI read a story in the paper about an elderly woman named Nancy who is largely bound to a wheelchair.  As she cannot manage the wheelchair alone, she tends to have a friend or relative push her in the chair.  In the article, she tells about how being elderly and in a wheelchair has somehow made her invisible.

By invisible, she is referring to the number of times she is assumed, due to her age and infirmity, to have no competence, physical or mental.  As it said in the article, she is edited out of the frame.

Here’s an example.  She tells the story of going into her doctor’s office and approaching the front desk.  The receptionist only acknowledged her friend behind the wheelchair.  And then, to add insult to injury, the receptionist’s language, “Does this lady have an appointment? Does this lady have her medical card?”  This lady?!  Really?  She’s elderly and in a wheelchair, not brain dead.  That’s all I could think as I read on.

Nancy goes on to tell us that it’s not just doctor’s offices, it’s everywhere from flight attendants to movie theaters, dismissive language and behaviors that make her feel unwelcome and marginalized.

With all of this in mind, what about your employees, have you ever had a discussion with them about how they need to treat customers, all customers?  Are they welcoming people regardless of ability or disability?  Are they showing respect by speaking directly to them and looking them in the eyes?  Have you ever thought about the language they use?  “This lady” is definitely not it.

As you lead your business, observe, look for behaviors that are marginalizing others, look for language that assumes things about people…and take action to raise awareness and make changes.  There’s a quote that I love from Plato, “Be kind, because everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”  These are great words and ones to heed if you really want to make a difference to people.  It’s good business, and just the right thing to do.