Thursday, November 03, 2016

Good Service is Good Business

Having worked in service industries all my life I hold customers in the highest of esteem, yet many of the organisations that I am a customer of seem to treat me with near contempt.

During the past 12 months I have had clashes with a variety of large organisations. They all have very polite and caring staff but are unable to make a decision based on my predicament.

In most cases they could have solved my problem at virtually no cost to themselves by simply being flexible on tiny matters of policy.  If they had done so, not only would they have retained me as a customer but I would, most likely, have become an advocate.

On every occasion they retort with the response; "I can't do that".  The real answer is that they could, they are either not allowed or they don't know how.  But what kind of a policy is it that leaves your customer fuming?

As a result of my background I am well aware that the cost of acquiring new customers is many times that of retaining existing ones.  My frustration is therefore based on the fact that not only could they solve my problem easily by simply being a bit more flexible, but that it would also be good for their business!

If you work for a company that has a so-called 'customer services' department, ask yourself whether the staff who work there are empowered to provide customer service, or simply to answer questions on company policies.


You’re half way through the week yet you still have a To Do List that is longer than your Outlook tasks window. How about prioritising? What are your Red Star items? A signed order form? A great client meeting resulting in more business? The finished article that got approved? Go for them first! They are the ones that make you rich and famous. Red Stars are the stuff that brings the most prominent results.

After that think about your Blue Stars. Thes are actions that are essential to the schievement of Red Star actions, such as aranging an important client meeting, producing a brochure, sharing information with your team.  They are important but they can often be delegated.

This brings me to the most annoying bit – White Stars. These are e-mails, internal meetings, admin that can take 80% of your time. Reduce them! Delegate them and concentrate ruthlessly on your Red Stars. Use the language with your team. When being disturbed, ask them: Is this a Red Star? If the answer is no, send them away to solve it by themselves. Soon you'll have fewer questions and more time, and your staff will be learning how to do more things for themselves.

Harmony vs Diversity

When you're looking to engage someone new, often the most important consideration is the "fit." This is extremely important -- having someone who doesn't get along or share the same ideals with the rest of the group can cause havoc and tension and make life at work uncomfortable.

That said it doesn’t mean you should be aiming to recruit someone just like you and/or your friends.

We often choose our friends because they think like us, like the same things we do, and laugh at our jokes. (At this point, you may think that this is wrong as you have, for instance, many political debates with your friends. But this just means that you both like arguing about politics.)

This makes for great fun, but it's not what’s needed in business - if you and your team agree on everything, you're going to be looking at things from the same vantage point and you're more likely to miss something -- perhaps something important to your business.

Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within groups of people when the desire for harmony in a decision-making group overrides a realistic appraisal of alternatives. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints.

The most well-known example of Groupthink is the United States Bay of Pigs Invasion. The invasion plan was initiated by the Eisenhower administration, but when the Kennedy White House took over, it "uncritically accepted" the CIA's plan. When some people, such as Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and Senator J. William Fulbright, attempted to present their objections to the plan, the Kennedy team as a whole ignored these objections and kept believing in the morality of their plan. Eventually Schlesinger minimized his own doubts, that is, he performed self-censorship. The Kennedy team stereotyped Castro and the Cubans by failing to question the CIA about its many assumptions, including the ineffectiveness of Castro's air force, the weakness of Castro's army, and the inability of Castro to quell internal uprisings.

Groupthink is more likely to occur in a highly homogenised team that lacks disparate views and challenge.

This doesn't mean you should take on someone just because she's different. Like any other contender, she also needs the qualities and experience and knowledge to do the actual job. And your new member does need to get along with everyone -- different doesn't mean disagreeable.

But if you normally recruit alumni from your school, or friends of current employees, you might want to expand your reach. Instead, try networking, social media, local job fairs to broaden your reach.

Otherwise, if you continue hiring people who think just like you do, you'll find yourself rapidly losing any type of outside perspective. And that box that you're not thinking outside of will become much, much smaller.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Whose standards are they anyway?

Many of us have lives dictated by rules telling us what we should be doing. Unconsciously, our inner demands flash through our minds as we struggle to live up to our own expectations about how the world should be. In so doing, we rob ourselves of freedom and choice, and we create unnecessary feelings of guilt or shame for falling short.

Some inner demands are necessary. They make up your value system - values like telling the truth, not stealing and not hurting other people. But other “shoulds and musts” create unneeded conflict such as the house must always be clean or I must never be late.

Think about it. Do you ever say to yourself things like “I can’t take a risk”, “I must lose weight”, “I should go to the gym”. Sounds familiar? We all have a set of self-imposed rules that we first learned from our parents, teachers, role models and peers who taught us what life requires. These became unconscious to us but have formed beliefs that dictate the way we behave.

In extreme cases, a person’s failure to live up to their own standards can set them on a downward spiral to lost self esteem, unhappiness and depression.

Look at the size zero trend today. Whilst external pressure is huge and the media and fashion industry have been named the “big bad boys”, it is in fact the girls themselves who have lost control of their priorities, giving in to the external pressures and their inner demands. Have you ever truly seen a fulfilled and happy size zero girl as she chomps on her lettuce, whilst sipping water?

The first step to changing your inner demands is to be aware of them.  Take some time to write a list of the demands you place on yourself, and then make a conscious decision as to which ones you will keep and which ones you will abandon.

Next, listen out for yourself saying things such as SHOULD, MUST, OUGHT TO, HAVE TO, then give yourself time to ask why?

Finally, give yourself the freedom to fail, to be less than perfect and a bit unsure.  Once you cut yourself some slack, you open yourself up to the possibility of becoming a person who doesn't know how things have to be and can begin to be relaxed about letting things be as they are.

I am now off to eat a chocolate bar, by choice – and I am going to enjoy it!

Rules vs Common Sense

Staff Sgts. Fred Hilliker and Robert O'Hair were boarding Delta Flight 1625 in Baltimore for the last leg of their trip home from Afghanistan with 32 others in their U.S. Army unit when their homecoming came to an abrupt halt. Delta personnel told the soldiers they needed to pay $200 for each person that had a fourth bag with them, even though their military orders stated that these bags were covered.

Unable to gain resolution with Delta, the two Staff Sgts filmed a YouTube video about the incident. The story generated considerable buzz for an obvious reason: the Delta employees were following the rules to the letter but failed to exercise any judgement or initiative. If they felt the fees were wrong, why didn’t they just waive the fees?

The Delta situation highlights a trend in management that favours the fulfilment of quantifiable, top-down metrics. Many of us have had a ‘computer says ‘no’’ experience. It is frustrating and pointless and seems to occur more and more. As psychologist Barry Schwartz has observed, many areas of life are increasingly bound up with rules that limit the ability of individuals to use judgment and make the best decision for the specific situation.

It would be wrong to place all the blame on workers for their failure to take initiative. Rather, the blame lies with management that sets rigid rules and metrics that disable employee judgment and makes employees jump through many hoops for mundane decisions, that the overworked employees say, "Why bother?"

It's not hard to see how we got here. Performance metrics are a critical tool for achieving excellence and motivating outcomes. But as important as performance metrics are, problems arise when performance metrics become overly dominant as a managerial principle, as they are in too many organisations.

Metrics earn an outsized role because managing by the numbers is easier than managing people. Employees make mistakes, their actions are difficult to predict, and the outcomes of their decisions are hard to measure. When employees make wrong judgements the resulting mess, in terms of customer satisfaction and legal liability, can often be difficult and expensive to clean up.

Rules are comfort food for management.

Yet customers need more judgement, not less, from the employees they come in contact with. When customers contact a call centre, it's because there is an exception within the existing process and they need judgement that only employees can provide. Corporations need to build guidelines and values — not absolute rules and measures. "Doing what's right for the customer" is a value that can drive appropriate action. Judgment requires coaching, practice and training.

There are many exceptions to these rules bound cultures. See our later email on Zappos, a highly successful, customer focused retailer who recruits solely on culture fit and then gives employees huge discretion to solve customer problems.

However, without investing in your front line staff you'll be managing a group of automatons who, when confronted with situations outside the rigid rules, will be virtually guaranteed to make the wrong judgement.

Metrics, policies and scorecards are not bad per se. There are many benefits when used appropriately. The pendulum seems to have swung too far away from employee judgment, though.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Apologies for my bad language

I must apologise to everyone who did not receive our last newsletter – this was entirely as a result of my own incompetence in including an item entitled ‘Don’t be a Tosser’, which referred to Northamptonshire County Councils anti-litter campaign of the same name.

Obviously the purpose of the campaign name is to gain attention through the use of a double entendre, although the dictionary (the proper one that is rather than the ‘urban dictionary) defines a tosser as ‘one who tosses something’, for example, a pancake-tosser.  It therefore appears that if I wrote an item detailing the antics of a typical Shrove Tuesday at our local primary school that the over-zealous puritans who produce spam filters and the such would block that too.

In a similar instance a few years ago I was struggling to get an email through to one of the Directors in a large UK company.  Eventually we determined that it was due to the use of the phrase ‘cross-pollination of ideas’.  Once the phrase was removed the email went through without any difficulty.  It appears that the smutty-minded authors of spam filters can even see sexual innuendo in a horticultural reference!

Wishing to clean up my act I thought I would investigate what words spam filters would deem inappropriate.  According to Mailup the list is huge and includes outrages words and phrases such as ‘stop snoring’, ‘free installation’ and ‘mortgage rates’.  According to Karen Ruben, author of The Ultimate List of Email SPAM Trigger Words, the list even includes terms like ‘laser printer’, ‘terms and conditions’ and, most bizarrely of all, ‘stainless steel’.

Why would anyone want to filter out anything contain the words ‘stainless steel’?

However, the phrases that concerned me the most were; ‘win’, ‘winner’, ‘winning’, ‘won’ and ‘you’re a winner’.  This could explain why I am yet to receive my email from the National Lottery telling me I have won!  Better give them a call just in case.

PS – If you are not of an overly-sensitive nature and feel robust enough to have a look at our offending newsletter, click here.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Attributes of a Truly Great Place to Work

More than 100 studies have now found that the most engaged employees — those who report they're fully invested in their jobs and committed to their employers — are significantly more productive, drive higher customer satisfaction and outperform those who are less engaged.
But only 20 per cent of employees around the world report that they're fully engaged at work.

It's a disconnect that serves no one well. So what's the solution? Where is the win-win for employers and employees?
Tony Schwartz of the Energy Project, has identified a set of attributes of a truly great place to work. How many of these attributes exist in our own companies?
  1. Pay employees a fair wage and give them a stake in the company's success, in the form of profit sharing, or stock options, or bonuses tied to performance. If the company does well, all employees should share in the success, in meaningful ways.
  2. Design working environments that are safe, comfortable and appealing to work in. In offices, include a range of physical spaces that allow for privacy, collaboration, and simply hanging out.
  3. Provide healthy, high quality food, at the lowest possible prices.
  4. Create places for employees to rest and renew during the course of the working day and encourage them to take intermittent breaks. Ideally, leaders would permit afternoon naps, which fuel higher productivity in the several hours that follow.
  5. Offer a well equipped gym and other facilities that encourage employees to move physically and stay fit. Provide incentives for employees to use the facilities, including during the work day as a source of renewal.
  6. Define clear and specific expectations for what success looks like in any given job. Then, treat employees as adults by giving them as much autonomy as possible to choose when they work, where they do their work, and how best to get it accomplished.
  7. Institute two-way performance reviews, so that employees not only receive regular feedback about how they're doing, in ways that support their growth, but are also given the opportunity to provide feedback to their supervisors, anonymously if they so choose, to avoid recrimination.
  8. Hold leaders and managers accountable for treating all employees with respect and care, all of the time, and encourage them to regularly recognize those they supervise for the positive contributions they make.
  9. Create policies that encourage employees to set aside time to focus without interruption on their most important priorities, including long-term projects and more strategic and creative thinking.
  10. Provide employees with ongoing opportunities and incentives to learn, develop and grow, both in establishing new job-specific hard skills, as well as softer skills that serve them well as individuals, and as managers and leaders.
  11. Stand for something beyond simply increasing profits. Create products or provide services or serve causes that clearly add value in the world, making it possible for employees to derive a sense of meaning from their work, and to feel good about the companies for which they work.

How does your company measure up? What's the impact on your performance? Which needs would your company have to meet for you to be more fully engaged?

Crispin White is a Partner at interim management agency Talentfield

Monday, March 30, 2015

Choose Your Attitude

The other day I was reminded of a time I was listening to my kids bickering. My youngest had run up to me and announced that her brother was making her upset. Difficult as it may be for a 4 year old to understand, I told her that she was choosing to be upset and she could respond in a different way! It may have confused her, but at least it stopped the bickering for a while.

It is so true that anything is possible if you have the mindset and attitudes that support your success. Many people spend a lot of time looking at the negatives in their lives – how they hate their jobs, their smoking or don’t want to be overweight. By conditioning yourself to concentrate on what you do want, positive results can be achieved – and quickly. What you hear and tell yourself on a consistent basis has an effect on your thinking and wellbeing – marketing people know this to be true and use it often to motivate people to buy. Similarly, people who praise you will build your confidence. Many of my coaching clients who are lacking in confidence have consistently been surrounded by negative talk – from others and then their own inner dialogue. This affects the world they are in and permeates into their mindset, becoming a negative belief that they then hold as true.

What you say is what you get! Often what we say to ourselves dictates our results in life. The good news is that we can make some choices to help us become more focused and bust our old beliefs. We need to raise our awareness of what we are telling ourselves – what stories we are running in our minds and like any new behaviour, we need to consciously make choices and control our inner voice, until it is replaced unconsciously with a positive voice. Here are some tips:
  • We can control our feelings through physiology – just by altering our posture. It is well known that exercise makes you feel happier and reduces the effects of stress – when we are down we reflect this in our body so check your posture and become aware!
  • Take pleasure in whatever you are doing, whether it is ironing or booking a holiday. For most people the latter holds more excitement and anticipation, however if you adopt the attitude of “I’m going to do a job and I’m going to do it well”, then choose to smile and allow yourself some satisfaction around it – isn’t it great to see that pile of freshly ironed clothes?
  • Write a list of what you do really well and make choices to repeat them in different situations
  • Learn to praise yourself for a job well done. Choose to praise yourself at least 10 times a day. When you catch yourself criticising your actions, stop and turn it around – ask yourself what you can take from the actions to become even more effective next time. Start noticing when you do things well and congratulate yourself for it. Sometimes it helps to congratulate yourself out loud – go on, do it, it works!
  • Make small, conscious changes in your behaviour to break a cycle. For instance, turn your mindset from “I don’t contribute at meetings” to just making a small observation or agreement or even a nod at the next meeting you are at – it’s all contribution, you don’t need to plan to contribute in a big way, you may be waiting for a perfect opportunity to chip in, that may not come and at the end of the meeting you will reinforce your belief that you don’t contribute. So small steps make big differences!
The really good news is that research at the University of Texas has found that having a positive attitude to life can delay the aging process – and that people with an upbeat view on life are less likely than pessimists to show signs of frailty.
I am reminded of Victor Frankl, the internationally renowned psychiatrist who endured years of horror at the hands of the Nazis, who lived to 92.
"We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one's predicament into a human achievement." 
Victor Frankl’s quote was a bit too much for my daughter – but she did go and tell her brother that she had chosen to cry – and it was his fault!  Still some more coaching to be done there.

Don't be a Tosser

I have just returned from a holiday in the French Alps and, as a result, have had the pleasure of driving more than 1,000 miles across France and Switzerland.  I say ‘pleasure’ because that is what it is.  The roads are well maintained, the service stations (or Aires) are clean with good coffee machines and you can cover huge distances relatively quickly.  But the thing that impresses me most of all is the lack of litter.
Contrast that with the journey this side of the Channel to and from the ferry port at Dover.  Setting aside the much higher levels of congestion, as that is simply a function of the level of economic activity and population relative to the size of our country, road works on at least some part of the journey are almost constant and there is hardly a square meter of verge that doesn’t have at least one item of litter on it.
After returning home some volunteers in the village I live in had organised a litter pick on the roads into and out of the village.  In just a couple of hours ten people collected 58 sacks of rubbish – larger cans, fast food containers, cigarette packets, old tyres.  All of this despite the fact that the same verges were cleared of litter only twelve months earlier.
What is it about the British that makes us such a messy lot.  Clearly the French and Swiss manage to resist the temptation to through unwanted items out of the car window.  And in my experience so do the Germans, Belgians, Italians.  Even in America, the ‘land of excess’, roadside litter is nowhere near the problem it is in Britain.
But finally people are starting to fight back.  A number of Town and County Councils across the UK have launched ‘Don’t be a Tosser’ campaigns - the latest being in Northamptonshire. 
The wording of the campaign may seem a little strong, but the truth is that to call people ‘litterlouts’ or ‘litterbugs’ trivialises the act.  Did you know that research suggests that litter in the streets near your home can reduce its value by as much as 12%, that he Highways Agency cleans up more than 180,000 sacks of litter from motorways and A roads every year, that fly-tipping on land owned by Network Rail costs £2.3 million a year to clean and that local authorities in England spend close to a billion pounds a year picking up litter.
That billion pounds is money that could come off your tax bill.  Or alternatively it could be put to better use.  For example, a billion pounds would fund 38,633 social care workers, pay the running costs of 4,400 libraries, or pay for 33,200 additional nurses.
With the looming election there is a possibility you may bump into a prospective parliamentary candidate during the next few weeks.  If so, ask them what they intend to do to reduce littering in your area.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Are you an over-thinker?

I have a friend who loves to analyse and evaluate all aspects of her life. This habit has served her well in many ways and has led to good, well thought out, weighted decisions. Indeed I admire her measured way of thinking things through before acting. However in the last few years she has realised that her analytical skills sometimes limit her and get in the way of reaching a decision, even leading to the situation of “no decision is better than the wrong decision”. She has become one of life’s over-thinkers and in so doing she magnifies problems so that they becomes bigger and more frightening than they actually are.

Over-thinkers can end up holding themselves back and just doing nothing. They analyse and deconstruct things in order to create meaning and make sense out of the world. They even over analyse positive parts of their lives so they don’t seem so good anymore! So they end up self-sabotaging the good news in their lives which results in a spiral of negative thinking, inaction and then beating themselves up. And so it goes on…..

So here are some strategies to help.

Recognise you can’t control everything. If something doesn’t work out in the “best” way (whatever that means) at least you have had a go. And had the opportunity to learn.

Disrupt your thinking – when you are in a spiral of over-thinking, break the pattern by moving into another environment, changing the scenery, filling your senses with different stimuli.

Practice the third person technique – pretend you are your best friend observing your over-analysis as if they were a fly on the wall.  What would they say to help and coach you? Hear their voice, take their guidance.

Be more in the moment – don’t think about the possible mistakes of the future – remember the future hasn’t happened yet!

Set yourself a rule for quick decisions – when you catch yourself over analysing allow yourself say 30 seconds or 1 minute to get to a decision.

Teach yourself a simple analysis technique to guide your thinking – something like a SWOT box (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats). With practice, you can “speed-SWOT”, trust the method, get to a quicker conclusion and move on.

Don’t let previous mistakes fuel your over-thinking. Remember yesterday’s failure could be today’s opportunity. Today is a different day with a whole new context.

Think of the bigger picture – say goodbye to the minor things – will it really matter this time next year or even next month? Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Over-thinking is often a strategy to stop us moving out of our comfort zone. But there will have for sure been times in the past when we dipped our toes in the water of something new. Being an over-thinker can stop us enjoying the possibilities that the world can offer us if we let it. Over-thinking limits us, doesn’t allow us to progress and we end up standing still. So practice the ideas above and in the words of Disney’s frozen “Let it go”.

Monday, January 26, 2015

How Failure Breeds Success

The UK and the US have historically viewed failure in very different ways. Here in the UK we see ‘failure’ as a dirty word.

But is that changing?

The unpalatable truth is it is rare that any business is an overnight success; much more likely it's going to be an incredibly long, hard slog with a fair number of false starts. In fact, for many, failure is just the beginning of the journey.

David Gann, professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at Imperial College, cites the example of the Millennium Bridge across the Thames, which had to be closed after two days because of its famous wobble. 'Everybody said it was a big failure, but it was turned into a success because the engineering company behind it, Arup, learnt about what had gone wrong with the bridge design, published its findings and then actually won new work off the back of it. So it turned it into a business success as well.'

British engineer and entrepreneur James Dyson famously described the inventor’s life as ‘one of failure’ after it took him 5,127 attempts to get the prototype of his vacuum cleaner right. And, of course, Thomas Edison said about the light bulb: "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that wont work."

However, we are still not as generous as our American counterparts when it comes to the belief that failure is merely a pit stop on the road to success.

'One of the reasons Silicon Valley and the US system have been so successful,' says Oscar Jazdowski, head of origination at Silicon Valley Bank UK ‘is that entrepreneurs are allowed to fail quickly.' Indeed, failure is so central to the start-up model in Silicon Valley, there's now a sell-out annual conference dedicated to the topic.

'Keeping businesses going too long is the kiss of death. You look back and say: "You know what, we should have closed this company down a year and a half ago,"' says Jazdowski. Imperial's Gann agrees. His institution gives fledgling entrepreneurs the space (and crash mat) to try things and fail 'safely', he says.

And their success is our success. As we've heard from David Cameron time and time again, the UK's entrepreneurs could be the ones to pull us from the doldrums. And a true entrepreneurial economy can thrive only in a culture that allows people to make mistakes, learn from them, and try again.

As Henry Ford once said: 'Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.'

It's time to invest in something useful

I have long since been irritated by the continuing proliferation of wind turbines that keep appearing across the country, many in some of the most naturally beautiful areas of the countryside.
My irritation is compounded by the fact that they rarely seem to be turning.  Sometimes this is due to a lack of wind, at others it is due to the wind being too strong, and at other times it is because the grid is at full capacity and the turbine owners are paid to switch them off.  Industry figures reveal that in 2014 £53.1 million was paid to green energy companies for shutting down turbines.
The reality is that wind-generated electricity is ludicrously inefficient.  It has received billions of pounds in subsidies from UK taxpayers as a result of ill-conceived and misguided Government policy, yet it still only manages to contribute a pitifully small amount of electricity to the national grid. 
Between 5 pm and 5:50 pm on Monday 19th January 2015 UK electricity demand hit its highest level this winter – 52.54 gigawatts, yet despite the fact that the UK now has more than 30,000 onshore turbines, wind contributed less than 1% of the total (Gas 42%, coal 29%, nuclear 16%, hydro 5% with the remainder being imported). 
If you are interested, you can view a summary of recent consumption by clicking here.
I am not averse to either energy levies or taxation money being used to develop and subsidies green energy technologies, but I do object when Government spends our money in idiotic ways.  The UK once led the world in power generation; be it coal, hydro, gas or nuclear, but now we lag behind other nations in all forms of power generation including solar and, most importantly of all, nuclear fusion.

We should therefore stop the stupidity of subsidising ineffectual and unwanted wind projects and divert resources into the types of projects that have the potential to provide for our energy needs well into the next century.