Demystifying Workplace Coaching

Related imageRecently, a manager asked me how to start a coaching conversation that provides clarity and doesn’t sound preachy.  Here is how I replied.

First, it is important to understand what coaching is and isn’t.  Workplace coaching is not, as some of our sporting examples might lead us to believe, about barking out the game plan.  It is rather about asking questions to draw out what people know based on what they’ve learned and/or experienced.  You may be wondering why this is the best way.  When you think about adults, the majority of your workforce, research in the last 30 years regarding adult learning suggests that they learn best when they can contribute their own thoughts and ideas.  This is opposed to children who, due to their relative inexperience, are more like empty vessels to be filled with new knowledge.   To approach adults the way you would a child typically demotivates them and makes them feel their knowledge, experience, and skills are not valuable.  Thus, in order to be most effective, it is best to use a questioning approach to drive as much input as possible.  This makes the role of coach more about guidance and facilitation rather than direction of all of the action.

Does this mean that workplace coaches never offer their suggestions or even teach?  No, not at all.  It just means that a workplace coach’s primary mode of operation is asking questions to guide and steer rather than providing answers.  In addition, they use this platform as a way to build confidence, praise good work, and drive self-direction.

Given that, let’s look at the details.  To begin and to be most useful, you, as leader, will need to do some LBWA (leading by working alongside) to observe the performance of your team members.  Only then, once you have a good idea of how they perform, can you begin to effectively coach.

There are many good coaching models out there, all with positives, negatives, and different formulas, however, the coaching models I have studied and experienced have three similar overarching themes that sit at their foundation – reflection, ideation, and commitment.  Overlaid on these three themes are steps that differ from one model to the next but the underlying themes are largely the same.  After establishing the focus of the conversation, the coachee reflects on how things are right now, the current state, and then ideates or brainstorms on ways they might make change or move to a more desired result.  Finally, the coach and the coachee commit to work together on next steps.

With these basics, here is a  simple method:

Begin with an icebreaker that opens the door to conversation.  A good practice is to begin with three pat-on-the-backs for things done well and then move to a focus area for improvement in a way that invites them to reflect and provide input from their unique vantage point.

MANAGER:  “Bill, I have been observing your work lately and you are doing a great job with completing customer calls, sharing creative suggestions, and following up and I think that if we improved the structuring of your proposals, we could really improve the customer experience.  What do you think?”

BILL:  “I think you are right.  I could use a little work on proposal structure as I have never really felt comfortable with how I am doing it right now.”

Next, invite them to ideate ways to improve given their experience.

MANAGER:  “What do you think you could do to make it better?  Do you have any ideas you haven’t tried?”

BILL:  “Well, I have always wanted to separate things by product function rather than just by product.  I have this idea about showing the customer how each part of the product works in sequence rather than just a string of parts on a list.”

MANAGER:  “That’s interesting.  What else can you tell me about that?”

BILL:  “It seems to me our customers need more of an approach that tells a story that fits their objective rather than just a grocery list with pricing.  I have an example I played with if you’d like to see it.”

Finally, invite the team member to commit to action by first demonstrating your willingness to commit to help them.

MANAGER:  “I love the idea and would like to see your mock-up.  How can I help move this forward?”

BILL:  “First, I would like you input and approval on my approach. Then, I would like to create my next two or three proposals in this style, show them to you so we are aligned, and then try them on customers.”

MANAGER: “Bill, that sounds fantastic.  I look forward to seeing your example and then to moving ahead.”

To summarize, here is the model:

  1. Get focus on an improvement opportunity and invite the coachee to REFLECT on the current state:

“I’ve observed your work and you do very well with 1, 2, and 3, and I think if we improved 4 it would make a big difference.  What do you think?”

  1. Define action steps by inviting the coachee to IDEATE possible solutions.

“What could you do to make it better?”

  1. COMMIT to help, and invite the coachee to commit to action.

“How can I help you make this happen?”

There it is, coaching demystified and uncomplicated with a few questions built on the three key themes of coaching.  Try it.


Customer Experience Isn’t About Thrill Rides

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“People don’t want experiences, that’s the stuff of Disney or cruise ships.  People just want what they want and they want it to work.”  I read that in a comment to a post on LinkedIn the other day and while I wasn’t overly surprised by the comment, I was surprised that it came from the CEO of a company.  It clearly reminded me of the fact that there are still people, and some in high places, who believe that only product concerns really matter. I am continually surprised by the ignorance of many business leaders who dismiss customer experience as a fad, however, dismissing it doesn’t remove the fact that experiences matter because they happen whether you think they matter or not.  They have since the inception of business and always will.

Imagine you have a leaky faucet in your kitchen and you call a plumber.  The plumber comes in grumbling about something or another, barely acknowledges you and simply asks where the problem is.  You usher them to you kitchen sink and they begin looking around.  They open the cupboard under the sink and begin pulling out everything while commenting that they have to get underneath to get it fixed.  Now sitting with your stuff littering the kitchen floor and the plumber sprawled under your sink you await some news as to exactly what to expect.  To no avail though, that conversation never happens, you just see the plumber madly working away and making a bit of a mess.

After an hour or so, your plumber announces that they have had to replace your faucet and the job is finished.  They pack up their tools and leave.  Of course, none of your under-the-sink items have been replaced, no, that’s up to you to get done.  In addition, your floor is a mess and you later find a small leak right around where the faucet attaches to the sink.  Now the product doesn’t work properly and you have to make another call.

Contrast that to this.

You call a plumber and they arrive.  They greet you professionally with a smile.  They are wearing those little “booties” to protect your floor.  They ask if it’s alright if they open the cupboard under the sink and explain that they will need to move everything.  However, before that begins, they take a picture and let you know they are doing that so they can replace everything the way it was when they came in.  Following that, they place small mats around the work area to keep things clean.

After surveying everything, they explain exactly what they will do, the costs and how long it will take.  When they are finished, they show you the completed work, test the faucet with you, encourage you to use it, and then replace all of your under-sink items exactly as they were per the picture they took.  Before leaving, they wipe up all around the work area and let you know they will be following up the next day to ensure everything is to your satisfaction.

Both plumber stories are examples of a stark reality, like it or not, for all of you disbelievers out there, customers have experiences whether they are designed or just happen by default.  And those experiences can be good or bad – and, by the way, they are all memorable, our brains don’t just dismiss them because the product is great and fault-free.

The comments by the CEO above show just how ignorant many business leaders are to the reality that the hubbub about experiences isn’t about making every customer interaction a thrill ride at a theme park, it’s about making the interaction with your business easy and pleasant while providing products and services that make customers successful.  Essentially, the experience is about getting customers what they need, how they want to get it.  It’s a two-pronged thing that involves product (what customers need) and interaction (how they want to get it), and again, like it or not, both of these elements have existed and will continue to exist forever, it’s just that business is only now coming to terms with the interactive piece and giving it the attention that has been neglected.

If you think about your business, how is your customers’ experience?  Is it easy, are your processes thoughtful of what the customer must endure?  How is the interactive, human element?  Do you welcome customers?  Do you accommodate their preferences?  Do you listen and allow customers to have input?  Do you provide information that keeps customers in the loop as far as what they can expect, pros and cons, how long things will take, etc.?

We don’t live in a product-centric world anymore, perhaps we never did.  Customers need things to be successful and they want them delivered in ways that make them feel good, confident and safe.  Is your business sitting in ignorance or is it moving forward with enlightenment?  Consider more than your product, consider the experience, improve it, and make the memory of your business something positive and noteworthy.

Three A’s for Making Your Customers Feel Safe

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Did you take psychology in college?  Do you remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?  If you do, kudos, if not, here’s a refresher.

Abraham Maslow was a psychologist who reached fame in 1943 when he published a paper called A Theory of Human Motivation where he set out the foundation of what would become known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This hierarchy postulates that all of us have basic needs that must be met in order to reach true happiness and fulfillment.  These needs include physiological needs, safety, belonging, esteem, and self-actualization., a term that can be defined as reaching one’s potential.

Why am I strolling down memory lane to a psychology class of many, many years ago you might ask?  I want to look at one of the most fundamental needs on the hierarchy, that of safety.

How does safety fit into the customer/provider world?  Is it about making sure customers don’t fall or get injured?  Certainly.  But it also means more.  Every customer comes into a business looking for help to get goods and services and this comes with some amount of fear and trepidation. Think about your trip into a store, you have to have a certain amount of trust in them to have what you want, to provide good advice, to provide support over the longer term, to be fair in the deal, etc.  When you have no past dealings with the business, you naturally put up some guard.  Face it, you don’t know how good they are, you don’t know whether you might get ripped off, there’s some, even if it’s infinitesimal, amount of distrust.  The challenge for businesses is how to create that feeling of trust, or safety, from the beginning.

Here are three As – Appearance, Attitude, and Ability – to lead the way.  If your employees demonstrate these three things, customers will be more likely to trust and feel safe so you can proceed in building the relationship.


Imagine you need a lawyer so you make a call for an appointment.  The meeting time arises and you go to meet this person for the first time.  The lawyer steps into the room looking disheveled wearing ripped jeans, a t-shirt and a tatty old ball cap. How do you feel about entrusting them with whatever important legal action you need to accomplish?  Do you feel safe?  Do you want someone else?  Appearance is usually the first indicator we have in the trust journey and a poor appearance can be very hard to overcome.  In fact, a poor appearance can end any further interaction immediately. How do your employees appear?  Do they send a message that your organization is trustworthy or do they just send up flags of distrust?


What attitude do you want when someone is serving you?  How many times have you experienced indifference or that fake smile that says “I’m smiling because I have to”?  The best attitudes I’ve found in people serving customers are ones that say “I want to help you”.  This requires a mindset that first understands that customers are not a means to an end or obstacles to getting work done.  Rather, it’s a mindset that understands that customers are unique human beings with their own objectives, needs and challenges.  It’s a mindset that understands that customers, like all human beings, have bad days, frustrations, personalities, hopes, dreams, fears, the list goes on.  The key here is using this understanding of people to inform that overall desire to be helpful, to always be looking for ways to make others successful and life easier.  How much safer might customers feel when they genuinely feel your employees truly have their best interests at heart?  How much more trust might they have in your business if they experienced that attitude?


Last, your employees must not only express that they want to help, they must demonstrate that they can help.  Your employees must be trained in your products and services so they can provide good advice and counsel.  They must be trained to troubleshoot and provide answers and solutions to problems.  And as a mandatory outcome to training, they must be empowered to make decisions on the spot to do what’s necessary to make customers successful.  This means trusting employees to do the right thing and supporting their decisions.  However, if that idea sends chills up your spine thinking about the possible bad choices that could be made, you need to assess your leadership and make some changes.

Good leaders help employees learn to see things the way they do and make the decisions they would make.  This means showing them how to do things in real life, not role plays, real life.  It means getting out there and demonstrating how to do it.  People need models to clearly see what’s expected. Then, to refine the behavior, they need coaching.  And by coaching I don’t mean more telling them what to do, I mean asking them questions to draw out what they know so that they get engaged and take ownership.  As with attitude, how much safer will customers feel when they know your employees can quickly solve their issues without undue complication?  How much more trust might they have in your business if they knew that they didn’t have to wait for answers or solutions?

Three simple As – Appearance, Attitude, and Ability – that can build initial trust and make customers feel safe working with your business.  Is it worth it to you?

What Is Service Excellence?

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I recently was doing some work where I was asked the question, “What is service excellence?”  It was a good question, and although it may seem easy to define, it is often misunderstood.  Answering the question brought to mind some interesting thoughts from Ron Kaufman, the author of Uplifting Service, about what service excellence really is.  This post is inspired by his thinking.

First, we need to come to terms with the first word – service.  There ae a lot of definitions floating around out there but service is, in its most uncomplicated form, simply helping people.  If you help your kids do their homework you are providing service.  If you help make dinner or clear the table, yep, you are serving.

In business though, service has oddly taken on this dense mystique.  It has picked up a bunch of modifiers to define it.  When I ask people to define service, I usually hear something like, “exceeding customer expectations” or “responding to customer needs with an approach that creates a memory” or some such construct.  While these may describe good or great service, they fail to get to the fundamental, no-qualifier, no-adjective definition.  Service is very simply helping others to accomplish things they want or need to accomplish, period.  The dictionary even confirms this with “the action of helping or doing work for someone.” Nothing fancy, no criteria, just helping.

With that out of the way, what about excellence?  Another look into the dictionary says “the quality of being outstanding or extremely good.”  That makes it sound like excellence is some sort of judge’s score with a finite end, a kind of perfection.  “If you get a 10, it was excellent.”  However, does excellence have a finite end?  If we reach what we believe is outstanding or extremely good, is that excellence?  I don’t think so. Excellence is something that is never reached in its totality, it is an ongoing journey.  It is, in my mind, the relentless pursuit of better.  To make sure you got that I’ll say it again, the relentless pursuit of better.  You never really get there but you keep striving, trying, failing, trying again, incrementally getting better and better in fits, starts, leaps, and micro-steps.  The point is that you never settle, you never get complacent, you always know you can do more.

So, what is service excellence? If we put the two things together, it’s the relentless pursuit of better ways to help others in every interaction.  Thus, excellence in service is not just performing a set of best practices; rather, excellence in service is taking action in the moment to assess the situation and provide more value, more care, and/or more understanding for someone else whether that someone is a paying customer or a colleague in arms.

While best practices or standards may help us to provide a consistent experience with prescribed behaviors at defined points in the journey, excellence is the icing on the cake that makes each experience something special because the points between the defined points are made personal and more meaningful for the customer.  For example, you may have a service standard that your employees smile at each customer when they walk into your business.  The move to excellence though would be not only the smile to the customer but the genuine good word and show of concern that includes listening and engaging with them as if they were the only person in the room.  It’s simply a step up from the script to an expression of something better.

Here are four tips for creating more service excellence in your organization:

  1. Don’t make your standards too complicated and ensure room for flexibility. Allow employees to adjust and adapt to the unique needs and personality of each customer.
  2. In your training, talk not only about standards but also about the frame of mind needed for excellence. Don’t just talk about the scripts; ensure your staff understands that people are all different with distinct needs, challenges, and objectives which will require personalized approaches.
  3. Celebrate not just meeting service standards, but, perhaps more importantly, instances where employees add value and make the experience better by stepping up from mere standards.
  4. Ensure your team meetings and conversations include talk about ways to step up from an experience of scripted best practices to something more excellent that provides more value and more care.

How will you take this thinking forward into your organization?  How will you pursue better ways to help others every day?