What “Going the Extra Mile” means in Customer Service: A Call Center Labyrinth

cropped-snow-leopard.jpgI met a unique call center representative, who when asked by management to “go the extra mile for the customer,” remarked, “I go the extra mile for the customer by simply answering the phone.”  Recently, “going the extra mile” has resurfaced as a customer service topic, and I think we need some parameters for understanding the term to really appreciate what it means to “go the extra mile.”

The saying, “go the extra mile,” has origins in the beatitudes as discussed in the New Testament, which includes a discourse on when asked to walk a mile with a person, go with them two.  Obviously, the customer service representative, especially in a call center, cannot walk with the customer two miles.  Thus, what exactly and specifically is intended when management wants the representative to “go the extra mile?”  Think about this for a moment.  In a metrics measured call center, does the representative have the time to engage the customer in idle chit-chat and remain productive per the parameters?  Is the representative expected to perform an account analysis for the customer while answering the customer’s questions and extend the call to ensure each customer is taking the fullest advantage of the available products and services offered?

In a related question, what organizational policies are prohibiting, interfering, or downright anathema to the agent “going the extra mile?”  As an agent, I worked in a call center with this exact problem; the company instructed agents “go the extra mile” for every customer, but then discouraged agents with policies, procedures, and back office personnel whose sole purpose, it seemed to the front-line agents, was to always say no before yes.  When these issues were brought to the attention of the business leaders, the solution was to add more bureaucracy and another person to the back office, which further complicated delivering upon the customer service commitment.

Raising the first point for “going the extra mile” organizational support for delivering a higher level of customer service.  If the front-line agents are being asked to “go the extra mile,” the entire organization already needs to be delivering a higher level of support to the front-line agents.  Business leaders, “going the extra mile,” begins with you exemplifying the “go the extra mile” attitude.  Then, get into the “how” of work performance including the logic of processes and procedures, the reasons “why” business is done in the manner and style of your organization, and smooth the transitions between the front and back office.  The best approach for this is to take each business process from origination in customer service and walk it through every whistle stop in your business to completion, and at every stop asking “why.”  I guarantee you will find ways and means to improve the process every single time.Kindness Quote

Second, when someone is asked to “go the extra mile,” it is human nature for that person to ask or think, “What is in it for me?”  If there is no discernable value in “going the extra mile,” the person asked to put forth more effort could become hostile, depressed, and/or simply put less quality into the action wasting potential and defeating the purpose of “going the extra mile.”  There will always be a psychological value aspect to this discussion.  As a business leader looking to deliver a higher level of quality service, are you prepared to reward agents for “going the extra mile?”

Third, be specific, detailed, and precise in communicating what is meant by “going the extra mile.”  My unique colleague has a point.  If the agent considers answering the phone “going the extra mile,” how will you as the business leader address the need to act differently?  Some might think my colleague was flippant in answering as he did, but the callers at this time were more hostile than normal, technology was changing and customers were experiencing more problems than normal with the services provided, and due to employee churn, all the agents were being asked to work longer hours.  It takes real courage in these difficult circumstances just to answer the phone, let alone resolve customer problems; forget “going the extra mile!”  As a business leader, are you fully cognizant of the issues in the front office?  When asking for an agent to “go the extra mile,” have you specifically defined what this means, detailing actions that fit the description, and do you know it is possible for others to accomplish?

Speaking of accomplishing an action, on the day I was hired as a call center agent, the call center had a six-month backlog of work in the back office, meaning six months prior to my date of hire a customer had requested a bill credit or some other change, and the issue remained open on my date of hire.  After 60+ hour weeks, for three months, the backlog had been reduced to 45-days, and this was considered acceptable by the business leaders.  Thus, the front-line agents had to be prepared to explain why it would take a minimum of one and a half billing cycles for the change to become visible to the customer and encourage the customer to continue to make the payments as shown on the bill to keep from suffering any adverse consequences.  Being possible to accomplish requires business leaders to know what is happening in the front-office and the back-office simultaneously and understand from the customer’s point of view the “why” behind business processes.

Fourth, training as an ongoing, regular, and value-added action is necessary.  Too often training is considered “one and done,” and then annual compliance training is required that everyone suffers through.  If this is the attitude of training in your call center and the training is not value-added, as in “is the training useful immediately” and the value apparent, there is a failure in training, a failure in leadership, and the failure is visible to customers.

The Extra Mile Just Ahead Green Road Sign Over Dramatic Clouds and Sky.I worked as an agent for a great call center that believed in ongoing training at the team level where front-line managers held daily training and the trainers held monthly refresher and targeted performance training.  The problem was that no one measured the training for value, and the agents began to see the time off the phone for training as an exercise in futility.  Value-added is a critical component of ongoing training and begins with asking where are you, as an agent, struggling?  Value-added training ends with an agent overcoming that specific struggle and growing to find another struggle and knowing that training is there to aid them in finding a solution to the new struggle.  Build value-added training as an ongoing conversation, which will be visible to the customer, and the agent is prepared to make the opportunity to “go the extra mile.”

Is the difference clear?  Be specific, clear, and concise when directing “going the extra mile,” and agents will begin testing the waters for organizational support based upon their current levels of knowledge.  Agents will want to make opportunities to “go the extra mile” when they are properly trained and are confident in the training to help them meet the customer’s request and desires.  Agents will make opportunities to “go the extra mile” for customers when they are confident that the business stands behind them in processing, in a timely manner, the agent’s requests made on behalf of that customer.  Agents will make opportunities to “go the extra mile” when their leaders are exemplifying “going the extra mile” for internal customers.Extra Mile  Agents will create opportunities to “go the extra mile” when there is value to them personally for the extra effort and when “going the extra mile” does not harm their scores in a metric based call center.  Finally, agents will create opportunities to “go the extra mile” when they know specifically what “go the extra mile” entails; remember, amorphous feel-good lines do not clear instructions make.

© 2018 M. Dave Salisbury

All Rights Reserved

The images used herein were obtained in the public domain, this author holds no copyright to the images displayed.


The Johari Window: A Tool of Incredible Proportion – Understanding a Key Psychology Tool in Call Center Relations

The Interest GridTo understand a principle takes time; to apply that principle involves experience; but to indeed change a person, the principle must be absorbed into the very fiber or essence of an individual, reaching comprehension through mental, physical, and spiritual understanding, some might even say the soul of the individual.  Freedom is one such principle; the tool for remaining free is the ability to choose, or agency.  When applied to organizations, the same path to success must be tread, but with many individuals onboarding the principles is a challenge.  Many people believing the same way is often described as a culture (Greenwald, 2008, p 192-195), or society, and when belief turns into dedicated and repetitive action, a paradigm is created (Kuhn, 1996), also called business processes and procedures.

Agency theory is a tool for understanding how organizational cultures become cultures.  Individuals apply agency, and when many make the same choices, the creation of an organizational culture occurs.  Emirbayer & Mische (1998) expand the term agency that gives reason why Tosi (2009) and Ekanayake (2004) both classify agency theory as an “economic theory” and how agency theory “… shapes social action [p 963].”  If Emirbayer and Mische (1998) are correct, placing more emphasis upon individual agency opens doors into re-shaping controls, control mechanisms, and affects the entire organization.  The power of agency to change people, organizations, and societies is immense.  Recognizing that people will always exercise agency, guiding that agency exercise is not so much a discussion of control, but of harnessing energy and momentum to develop individuals into a cohesive whole.

Johari WindowThe Johari Window is a tool for quickly assessing a situation before making a choice.  Consider the job of a call center agent; they must be technically savvy, adept at handling multiple tasks while engaging in productive conversation, and must be able to keep a caller enthusiastically engaged in reaching a solution quickly so that the agent ay meet business set metrics and production goals.  The Johari Window is suggested as a desktop guide in promoting self-knowledge in the call center agent to improve performance.  Having personally employed the Johari Window as part of logical thinking, I explicitly recommend, that before handing an agent this tool, training must be accomplished to help allow for clearer thinking that often leads to more speedy action.  The first Johari Window represented links to a .pdf that contains additional specific information for improving training in the Johari Window principles.

Open Area

Of all the locations in the window, the open area position is where the majority of people want to stay; wherein everybody and everything knows and is known. The unknown is frightening, and change in this location comes the slowest, if at all.  Each call center agent wants to, and needs to, feel confident in what is known and where they go when they do not know; hence, training as a continual process remains the catchword in this location, even though it might not be well received.

While the location is desirable, rarely will customers call in because they already know something.  Agents in a call center should leave new hire and continual employment training and start every working day from this location where they are known and know.  The open area could also be referred to as the preparation location.

Hidden Area

The hidden area is where business in a call center will occur most effectively.  The customer knows what they want, and the call center agent knows how to deliver what is wanted and through reflective communication mutual understanding is achieved to make the hidden area become known.  Imperative to understanding in this area is the power of choice, agency, to choose to reveal only pieces of what is wanted.  If the customer chooses not to disclose what is wanted, it is not poor service when the customer’s wants are not fulfilled. This point is especially important in understanding the voice of the customer (VOC) survey results and quality call review.  The only time the agent is in the wrong, in this location, is when the agent cannot choose and thereby communicates less effectively to the customer, delivering a poor performance in need of remediation.  Both the agent and the customer have something hidden and something known.  The importance of clear communication remains pre-eminent in this location.

For instance, two top call center agents were continally competing with each other for first place evaluation. The agent who routinely came in second asked why. The answer to improving performance is found in the hidden area, opportunities that guided the agent to drop AHT/ACW and increase VOC into productive communication towards a solution.  There is power in the hidden area to capture and employ. Train agents to be alert for hidden areas to gain improved performance, not through active listening, but through reflective listening where mutual understanding between the customer and the agent is reached.

Blind Area

Of all the locations in the Johari Window, the blind area is the most dangerous for call center agents.  When the customer has information the agent does not know, the result is lost resources, productivity, and customers.  Of course, the reverse is also true.  When the agent has information about the customer and does not voluntarily devolve the information, the customer is surprised upon becoming aware and is lost because of this blind area.  Then organizational reputation damage is complete.

For example, I was working in a credit card call center and regularly saw agents not bother to bring up account issues to save AHT/VOC and other metrics.  Hence, the customer upon learning of the negative actions would call back because opportunity in the blind area was sacrificed for potential short-term gains.  Operating blind means the agent and the customer are in danger.

Unknown Area

Chinese CrisisOf all the locations in the Johari Window, the unknown area possesses the most opportunity for delivering upon a service commitment.  Consider the Chinese character for a crisis that includes danger and opportunity as equals.  The unknown always combines danger and opportunity.  Danger is risk, risk of losing a customer, risk of saying the wrong thing and insulting, etc.  Opportunity lies in making the unknown known.  In the Johari Window, when the unknown becomes known, the unknown quadrant shrinks and the known quadrant grows.  The unknown quadrant could be considered the crisis quadrant.  Good skills in mastering the unknown to thwart a crisis, eliminate danger, and win the opportunity to create a powerful customer interaction.  The unknown area is where confidence in training overlaps with the customer’s crisis to maximize opportunities for service excellence.  If there is a single shred of doubt communicated to the customer in crisis, the opportunity is lost forever because the danger was not ameliorated. The unknown has many hidden dangers to be wary, but fear is not one of them because of excellence in training.

Working as an agent in customer retention was very lucrative.  When we could probe, dig, and investigate, generally we could save a customer and generate new business.  While the company spoke about, preached around, and dictated the use of active listening, the retention department was using reflective listening to glean details and save customers through reaching mutual understanding. In the unknown area, both parties struggle with not knowing and being unknown. Therein lies the opportunity for increasing business by becoming known and learning knowledge that is not currently possessed.

While the current Johari Window reflects proportional space for each location, reality rarely allows for such clarity.  Many times, an agent’s Johari Window will look like any one of the following, none of the following, or a mixture of all:

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The key for call center leaders is to train the call center representatives to first understand themselves and then to visualize who they are in the Johari Window in each call.  The more familiar the agent is with data gleaned from knowing themselves and the business, the more power each agent will have to handle the calls more effectively and efficiently.  In teaching the Johari Window, one of the many lessons I have learned is that people do not understand and second guess their limitations.  If a person has, or considers having, a small blind area, do they know their equally important unknown or open areas.  More than likely the answer is no; why, because of the need to invest time and other resources into improving themselves and their approach to others.

When discussing the agents understanding themselves, the call center trainer, first line supervisor, and managers will employ the eleven principles of change as discussed by Luft.  The agent will need to understand the energy lost in hiding, deceiving themselves, and the problems this causes them.  Cause and effect play a significant role in visually attuning the Johari Window to daily work activities.  The call center trainer, first line supervisors, and managers will need to be able to answer clearly and effectively “why” based questions about processes and procedures, while exemplifying the Johari Window principles.  Luft’s Point No. 5point number five is critical in this process, “Interpersonal learning means a change [is taking] place so that Quadrant 1 is larger, and one or more of the other quadrants has grown smaller.”  Do we understand what this means; as leaders, we exemplify making Quadrant 1 (Open Area) larger by learning.  Leaders are teachers, teachers are leaders, but both teachers and leaders must remain loyal to learning.

Consider Gilderoy Lockhart from Harry Potter.  Gilderoy Lockhart considered himself highly capable, gifted, and talented, but reality proved his ineffectiveness and limitations.  His example opens a second issue when using the Johari Window tool in a call center:  personal perception versus reality.  Gilderoy Lockhart would see his Johari Window as thus:

Johari Window - GL 1

Reality would suggest the following might be truer:

Johari Window - GL 2

The disparity between a person’s perceived understanding and reality causes significant problems in interactions in all types of societies.  In the call center, the agent will interact with various kinds of personalities; hence, the need to train agents in this tool and to understand themselves, including their likes, dislikes, triggers, emotional hooks, and talents brought to each call.  For the best opportunities for your agents to interact successfully, training them in understanding themselves is just as important as training the agent in organizational policies, business products, services, and sales techniques.

Ongoing, regular training remains a key component to highly effective call centers and capable workforces.  Without refresher training, regular training for new products, and annual training, the capable employee gets into a rut, the rut becomes a paradigm, and the employee becomes lost to attrition and slower productivity; but most especially, lost customer interactions hamper all levels of business performance.  One employee working slow can ruin a business, and the first indicator something is wrong is the higher cost of doing business.  Win the employee through training and then treat them respectfully to reduce operational costs and increase sales through training.

In conclusion, never stop asking why, encourage learning, and never fear using the answer, “At this time, I do not know, but I will find out and report back.”  When the discovery loop is closed with the individual, everyone learns, Quadrant 1 grows, and other quadrants reduce perceptibly.  Proving once again the veracity of the axiom, “Train people well enough to leave; treat people well enough to stay; and grow together as an act of personal commitment to the team.”


Ekanayake, S. (2004). Agency theory, national culture, and management control systems. Journal of American Academy of Business, Cambridge, 4(1), 49-54. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/222857814?accountid=35812

Emirbayer, M., & Mische, A. (1998). What is agency? The American Journal of Sociology, 103(4), 962-1023. Retrieved from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2782934

Greenwald, H. P. (2008). Organizations: Management without control. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Kuhn, T. S. (1996). The structure of scientific revolutions. (Third ed., Vol. VIII). Chicago, ILL: The University of Chicago Press.

Tosi, H. L. (2009), Theories of organization. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

© 2017 M. Dave Salisbury

All Rights Reserved

The images used herein, obtained from the public domain, this author holds no copyright to the images displayed.


Leading the Call Center: Flavor of the Month Philosophies

Chinese CrisisHaving just completed a project that saw me leading a team in a call center, I want to make something clear; quick fixes and flavor of the month philosophies do not work.  I cannot stress this enough; yet, the practice continues to the detriment of call center employees and the organizations served by call centers.  Flavor of the month philosophies is the latest bestseller to fix the problems in business.  We have all seen these programs including, FISH, WAIT, Strengths Quest, and so much more.  These ideas are good ideas, and they possess value, but when changed monthly, these programs, never do more than briefly mark the surface intellect of the call center.  I am not disparaging these ideas in the least; let me elaborate as to why the flavor of the month idea fails.

The project previously mentioned when concluded saw the call center director very much converted to a program of definite value in and using one’s strengths entitled Strengths Quest as presented by Clifton, Anderson, and Schreiner (2006).  The culture of strength promotes unity, and by extension, organizational power, when combined intellectually, becomes the corporate culture.  Integration in business, especially in call center operations, remains crucial to bottom-line health.  The call center director invested a lot of organizational resources to capture everyone’s strengths, publish these advantages, and use this information to measure the call center.  The problem was the staff has no idea why they are investing company time in completing the “Clifton Strength’s FinderÒ (CSF),” and many completed this assignment while taking calls and distracted.  How verifiable is the data if the attention of the person completing the task is diverted?

My assignment, as a call center supervisor, included gauging the employees in the call center about their strengths.  Of the 10-employees in the call center, two had forgotten and blatantly said they do not care.  Three expressed a desire to retake the CSF to more fully focus on the task instead of completing it between calls.  Four employees asked why and what is the purpose of taking the CSF.  Finally, all the employees, when asked how they use the CSF data in their daily actions, expressed the same answer, I do not know.

Let’s be clear; there is nothing wrong with the latest flavor of the month programs to improve an organization, provided the leaders understand change, embrace change, train and teach “the what” and “the why,” and then remain committed long after the excitement over the bright new object fades.  I had the misfortune of working in a call center where the entire corporate culture was expected to change with every fresh flavor of leadership, and the organization is a mental mess.  What is a leader to do when each new flavor-of-the-month is presented as a potential fix for organizational dilemmas?  I suggest the following as a launching point for corporate discovery and leadership support.

  • If the organization is going to invest resources in a particular program, do not change for a set period, which includes pre- and post- measurement and evaluation. If the organization does not know where they start, they can never know what happened or where to go in the future.blue-money-burning
  • Organizational change must be more than surface polish or potential money (Blue Money) is lost, never to be recovered. Organizational change needs to fundamentally affect the organization and be allowed to produce measured results.  Does this mean that if something is not working, we keep at it?  No!  It means to provide sufficient time and measurement to gauge the application and the organizational change.  Many times beta-testing the proposed change can identify the processes, procedures, and other trouble points to be mindful of, or correct in beta-testing, to ensure full organizational change may occur with a higher chance for success.
  • Get everyone involved, enthused, and a willing advocate for the change. Getting everyone involved is not producing marketing materials and desk references.  Getting everyone involved requires explaining why and detailing what in the organizational change.  Getting everyone involved means there will be feedback, pushback, and rebellion.  Expect pushback, but never allow pushback to derail reform.  Pushback is a healthy activity that provides essential opportunities for the leader to explore solutions, answer questions, and evaluate the results.
  • Teach and train; train and teach. Learning should be a constant and desirable outcome of organizational change.  Teaching is not training, training is not teaching; but, both are critical skills needed for leaders and learners.  Teaching is helping someone else acquire knowledge.  Training is teaching a behavior or ability.  Teaching is usually one-way communication using measurement tools, e.g., tests to gauge knowledge learned and retained.  Training should be two-directional communication, is completed through experience in closely monitored environments, and includes 360-degree feedback to improve the training environment.  Never allow teaching and training to become the same confused term; while the words are closely related, they are not the same action.
  • When was the last time you discussed what you are reading with front-line employees? When was the last time you engaged a front-line worker about what they are reading, thinking, and ask for suggestions to improve?  When was the last time you asked to be trained on a process, procedure, or organizational action by those who do it all day?  If recently, did you ask why, a lot?  I promise you will be surprised when you have these conversations, especially since they open up opportunities to explain and expound, learn, change, adapt, and engage with those you lead.
  • Organizational change requires enthusiasm from all parties to begin to engage and deepen the shift from surface polish to fundamental culture adaptation. Enthusiasm takes many shapes, sizes, and colors, including the loyal opposition of followers, opinions, and feedback.  The leader must exemplify and honor, or support, the enthusiasm around them as a tool for succeeding in changing the organization.
  • Clarify intentions. Clarify processes.  Clarify procedures.  Clarify by asking follow-up questions and reflectively listen to obtain mutual understanding.  Clarification remains one of the most critical tasks in organizational change.  When confusion rears its ugly head, respond with explanation and follow-up, as detailed in two-directional communication.  When the comprehension is doubted, ask for feedback as an opportunity to increase clarification.  Clarification is both a tool and an opportunity; do not waste this opportunity and tool by neglecting those needing clarification.
  • Organizational change needs a mechanism for gathering data from many sources, including the employees affected, the vendors, the suppliers, and the customers. Open the valve for data to flow back.  One of the most horrific organizational changes it has been my displeasure to witness was increased because the leaders operated in a vacuum and never allowed data flow that was contradictory to the previously agreed upon results.  The leaders in this organization worked hard to refuse hard data, which contradicted their bias, and this ruined the business, the employees, and the customers.

I cannot guarantee following all these points will make organizational change succeed, roses bloom, bottom lines inflate, rainbows dance, and all of life fall into organized lines leading ever upward.  I can guarantee that without these points, organizational change that promotes an environment of learning will never be more than polish.  Consider the axiom, “Lipstick on a pig.”  The lipstick is not bad, the pig is not bad, but placing lipstick on a pig is out of place and does nothing to improve the pig.  Flavor-of-the-month changes are lipstick on a pig, not bad, but out of place until the entire organization is on board and enthusiastically supporting the move, and proper measurements are in place to gauge, measure, and report the change.

Business theorist Chris Argyris put forth a model, later discussed by Senge (1994) explaining our thinking process as we interact with the world.  This seven-step method is called the Ladder of Inference; according to this model, as we move up the ladder our beliefs affect what we infer about what we observe and therefore become part of how we experience our interaction with other people.  Organizational change can be plotted along the same model or ladder of inference.

Leadership LadderOrganizational change begins with information output; then collect data, preferably through listening and observation while doing the work; interpreting the data includes obtaining data, evaluating meaning, deciphering intent, and understanding value.  Please note, the assumptions should not be made in a vacuum and could be wrong; thus, always return to the data producers and ask questions to ensure mutual understanding.  Once conclusions are mutually understood, they become beliefs; but, don’t stop until beliefs become actions.

If a model is needed, please benchmark Quicken Loans and Southwest Airlines, both organizations are doing a tremendous job with the ladder steps, especially moving organizational beliefs into motivated organizational action.  Remember, one does not climb a ladder to view the horizon and scenery, they climb a ladder to begin working, carrying the tools needed to perform the work, and possessing certain knowledge that the work can be accomplished.  Climb the ladder of success with the intent to work, achieve, and move forward.


Clifton, D. O., Anderson “Chip,” E., & Schreiner, L. A. (2016). Strengths quest: Discover and develop your strengths in academics, career, and beyond (2nd ed.).

Senge. P. M. (1994). The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Currency Doubleday.

© 2017 M. Dave Salisbury

All Rights Reserved

The images used herein were obtained in the public domain, this author holds no copyright to the images displayed.

An Open Letter to Trader Joe’s – Shifting the Paradigm on the Grocery Purchasing Experience

Image result for images, trader joe'sHello Trader Joe’s,

I want to thank you for an amazing shopping experience.  I have loved entering your stores across America, from Portland, Maine to Seattle, Washington, from Phoenix, Arizona, to Spokane, Washington.  I have enjoyed every location we have traveled.  I am so thrilled to buy products that are original, cleverly packaged, and where humor is a tool for improving food.  For example, during the last trip, I saw the packaging on the white potatoes relating how they (the potatoes) like hot places, cream, and much more.  The humor employed takes buying potatoes to a new, higher level as well as bringing a laugh and several smiles to the customers.

No other chain store in America pays so much attention to the customer experience.  Thank you for hiring amazing store associates!  I have never walked into a Trader Joe’s and had a bad customer experience.  Of all these years shopping at Trader Joe’s, only once have I had to return an item, and the return was done pleasantly and effortlessly.  I have had questions about products, and all the customer interactions regarding these questions were enjoyable and often entertaining.  Best of all, when I have had questions about products to buy, the crew members have had no problem offering a taste or supplying recipe information.  The freedom to meet the customer’s desires in a fun, friendly, and fresh manner makes an excellent shopping experience from coast-to-coast.

In fact, one of the most desirable things about shopping at Trader Joe’s is interacting with the crew members and the other customers in discussing recipes, flavors, and getting new ideas.  In fact, when I have had more information about a product than an crew member, the crew member has been gracious and thanked me for the helping hand.  Always, the customer experience promotes a desire to return and keep investigating for new opportunities to eat well.

I was having a rough day this past Wednesday (09/13/2017).  I went to Trader Joe’s for a quick stop and my mood began to lift.  Watching the little kids pushing the “Shopper in Training” carts, watching the kids get excited about food, and experiencing the Trader Joe’s difference was exactly what I needed.  Best of all, I saw raisin/cinnamon bread and mango chutney, and I was going to have toast upon my return home, one of my favorite comfort foods.  I cannot relate satisfactorily how much enthusiasm and smiles the customers show upon entrance at Trader Joe’s.  No other store sees this type of customer interaction, and I am grateful to you for fostering this environment for it helps other customers to enjoy the shopping experience, as well as improving the crew member’s day.

Related imageThank you for the murals on the walls, the interesting posters, the flowers, plants, cards, and new hidden treats to explore every trip.  I enjoy immensely the ginger granola, the dark chocolate crepes, the triple ginger cookies, and the list goes on.  I was in Trader Joe’s off Louisiana Street in Albuquerque today (09/18/2017) and tried “Trader Ming’s” products, a great gustatory and amusing experience.  Several times in my shopping history I have tried to taste every item, except the alcohol products, in a single Trader Joe’s store.  Never happened to date, but I have enjoyed the journey and the adventure where food and shopping meet.

I have to say, as Trader Joe’s is the sole provider of pretzel rolls in my area, I am always looking for new recipes for using pretzel rolls.  My love of all things pretzels continues to be a fun distraction and gustatory journey.  For example, two-weeks ago I bought six pretzel rolls and tried three different recipes, roast beef with sharp cheddar on a pretzel roll with some black pepper/olive oil mayonaise, which was absolutely amazing; fried egg with bacon on a pretzel roll was a great delight, your crew member suggested a coarse mustard that totally made this meal; and the coupe de resistance continues to be the pulled pork/chicken/beef on pretzel rolls with any flavor of cheese.  Hot or cold, these sandwiches make eating a new adventure.

My wife is vegetarian/vegan and appreciates having a variety of choices in her meal planning that she cannot find elsewhere from the tiny, tiny Brussels sprouts, the mini sweet potatoes and mini avocadoes, the beautiful, fresh, ripe, sweet fruit that you don’t have to wait to ripen, to coconut milk frozen desserts.  She loves the seasonal specialties, the beautiful murals and fun decor, the pleasing scents of flowers, the tidiness and cleanliness of the store, the wide aisles, and the people, the wonderful people, both customers and crew members, people who smile and laugh and share what they know and have experienced in their adventures with food in polite, kind, and fun ways.  She says it’s a little bit of heaven on earth.

I know when I see the Trader Joe’s sign, good food, good shopping, and good people are available and ready.  Thank you for more than two decades of wonderful food and people experiences.  Wherever the road has taken us, Trader Joe’s continues to follow, and it is very much appreciated.  In Ohio, I regularly traveled more than three-hours from northeast Ohio to Columbus for Trader Joe’s, a trip I was glad to make!

From a very satisfied customer, thank you!

Dave Salisbury

© 2017 M. Dave Salisbury

All Rights Reserved


14 Rules on Leadership – Gen. George Washington: Shifting the Leadership Paradigm

General George Washington wrote “Rules on Civility” (1887) and helped to mold and model a growing social environment in America.  These 110 rules for civility also encapsulate good advice to leaders applicable still today and fourteen of them are discussed below as they bear direct application to the current societal ills.  The hope remains that in pointing out these rules leaders may become more of an example, business improves, and American Society as a whole begins to lift itself up to a higher level of performance.

Rule 19:

Let your countenance be pleasant but in serious matters somewhat grave.

I worked with a manager who made the following statement about the director we both answered to, “I never know whether he is joking, jesting, or simply being serious.”  This is a failure of leadership and can cause disharmony, chaos, and no end to trouble.  Model and exemplify pleasant emotions.  Never try to confuse your audience, never adopt an emotion without a purpose, and never make your audience to think or wonder about your emotional state or demeanor.  More importantly, looking pleasant builds confidence in those around you to act with pleasantness and harmony; so smile, speak softly, and generate pleasantness.

Rule 25:

Superfluous compliments and all affectation[s] of ceremonies are to be avoided, yet where due they are not to be neglected.

This speaks to offering sincere praise, showing gratitude, and returning credit to the source for things that are progressing well and accepting failure when poorly.  I had the displeasure of working with an officer who gave insincere praise making a great ceremony out of giving that insincere praise and then laughing at the person being singled out for the praise for not knowing how to proceed correctly.  The morale of the unit was disastrous and deadly.  Several members of that group held a deep desire for a “friendly fire incident” involving this officer as the victim.  The same problems arise in business and if left to fester potential is wasted, and money follows lost potential.

Don’t forget to limit ceremony, pomp, and procession to the level needed to honor the awardee without allowing the ceremony, pomp, or procession to exceed the degree of the award or the awardee’s comfort level.  Know the audience and limit the service to the comfort of the audience.  Thus allowing those being awarded and those in attendance to celebrate in a manner conducive to the award and their individual comfort level.

Rule 35:

Let your discourse with men of business be short and comprehensive.

We have all heard, and many live by the axiom, “Time is money.”  This rule from Gen. Washington speaks to the need for comprehension, timeliness, and specificity.  Limit the words, tone down the tone, restrict the emotional content, and get to the point; thus saving the audience’s attention and exemplifying respect for the other person in the communication.

Rule 39:

In writing or speaking, give to every person his due title according to his degree and the customs of the place.

Did you work hard for your title, yes; thus, reflect the respect for your title to others.  I met two different people in authority, 180-degrees apart from each other that saw this principle from opposing extremes.  One manager refused to use titles calling the whole thing meaningless while demanding respect for their personal rank and title.  20-year employees who had obtained great honor and respect amongst their peers received no respect from the leader who demanded respect.  The other leader cared a great deal for their title because of those who had held that title before them and respected others who had earned titles for the same reason.  The second leader had higher morale, less behavioral problems, and loyal people who achieved greatness.  The first leader had nothing but trouble, never could reach goals and objectives, and passed the failures to produce onto others.

In our global working environment, knowing the culture where titles and showing respect is critical to creating success.  More importantly, if you as a leader have not already cultivated respect for titles, the ability to show genuine respect for those of titles will place you at a disadvantage and harm the businesses you represent.  Make time to learn and practice showing proper respect for those with titles.

Rule 44:

When a man does all he can, though it succeed[s] not well, blame not him that did it.

How many times has success been snatched from the hands of those trying and the leader then berates, castigates, and derides those who tried?  Since measuring individual effort is not possible, first presume everyone did their best, then promote a spirit of learning from failure and build people.  Even if the actions were thought to be malicious and vengeful, praise and support people, you never know and in not knowing, do not assume!  I would also interject the following thought, Juran’s Rule details that when problems arise, 90% of the time the process is failing and only 10% of the time are people failing.  Thus, look to the processes, the procedures, the methods of work for answers, employ training, and only blame people as the ultimate last resort; this includes blaming yourself.

Rule 45:

Being to advise or reprehend anyone, consider whether it ought to be done in public or in private, and presently or at some other time; in what terms to do it; and in reproving show no signs of cholar but do it with all sweetness and mildness.

(Please note, the term “cholar” has had a spelling update and is now spelled “choler” and is defined as showing irascibility, anger, wrath, or irritability.  From Latin is the origin cholera.)

There is great truth hidden here; this rule mimics another axiom, “Praise in public and reprimand in private.”  While speaking to timeliness, this rule allows the leader to select when and where praise and reprimand occurs.  Do not forget Rule 19 emotion is a leadership tool, not a weapon; tools guide and instruct, weapons destroy and demoralize.  Use emotion wisely or choose to not use emotion at all per the rule above, but make emotion a conscious choice!

Rule 48:

Wherein you reprove another be unblameable yourself, — for example is more prevalent than precepts.

During my military service, I had a mid-level officer that hated and punished severely those who slept on watch, for a good reason.  The problem, the officer regularly slept on watch.  The example was more prevalent than the precepts taught and destroyed morale.  Rules 19, 45, and 48, all discuss powerful leadership principles along with a general theme and should be considered both individually and collectively to make the lessons more powerful.  First, know yourself, then know those you aspire to lead, and finally lead well.

Rule 49:

Use no reproachful language against anyone; neither curse nor revile.

In the world today, many confuse reprimand (rebuke or admonition) with reproach (finding fault, upbraiding, blaming, censure, disgrace or discredit) and this has led to a lot of confusion in communication.  More to the point, the language of leaders has coarsened, hardened, and plasticized or transitioned into bluster and buffoonery instead of calm and controlled.  I know a brilliant person, photographic memory, incredible mental ability, no people skills, no technical expertise, and there is great pride in not having these skills.  This person was promoted to the level of senior officer in the US military.  Who, during an inspection, wept uncontrollably when the plan went to pieces, machinery broke down, and the inspection failed.  This brilliant person could not speak to inferiors without an attitude of superiority cursing and reproach everyone and anyone.  Leaders, especially those placed in command through rank, must understand this communication principle and the power of this principle for good and ill.  Failure to communicate remains the sole variable upon which organizational cancer metastasizes into a full-blown case of organizational chaos leading to destruction (Dandira, 2012).

Rule 58:

Let your conversation be without malice or envy, for ‘tis a sign of tractable and commendable nature, and in all causes of passion permit reason to govern.

The above “rule” is a choice, rather two options.  The first choice is choosing to speak without malice and envy as a sign of your personal nature.  The second choice is to restrict passion.  Leaders only show emotion as a tool, not a weapon.  Conversation requires restricted passion to convey to the audience logic and confidence in the leader.

Rule 59:

Never express anything unbecoming, nor act against the rules before your inferiors.

I used to think this was common sense, and then I met two Chief Petty Officers (CPO’s) in the US Navy and discovered that common sense is not very common.  These two CPO’s remarked upon everything they saw, verbally spewing whatever occurred between their two ears, and were always examples of what not to do and how not to act.  Feeling their rank and position secure, these CPO’s then punished those who did not act in their manner severely and those who replicated their actions were rewarded and protected from the consequences.  With the result being that the followers exceeded the examples displayed by the CPO’s with noticeable results for morale, good order, and discipline.

Rule 65:

Speak not injurious words neither in jest nor in earnest; scoff at none although they give occasion.

I worked with a brilliant and incredible person who took a little time to learn and was very clumsy.  Once the topic being taught was then known, this individual knew that task and performed it in an exemplary manner.  Because of the clumsiness and time, it took to learn, this person was always the butt of his command’s jokes, jibes, insults, and was on every single petty detail possible, and performed those tasks poorly.  When respected, honest and sincerely praised, this person performed incredible feats.  The difference amazed and shocked his command and division, but did not silence these voices of derision to the detriment of the quality of work performed.  Did my friend give occasion to be laughed at, certainly!  Did he deserve to be laughed at, certainly not!  Leaders need to be doing better at controlling themselves and exemplifying the behaviors they desire to see in others.

Rule 67:

Detract not from others, neither be excessive in commanding.

While much of this rule can be considered to be part of Rule 65, detracting from others goes beyond verbal haranguing of Rule 65.  Detract is to reduce in value usually with the intent of making yourself larger.  Managers detract from their workers by taking credit for all the good and passing off all the blame.  Leaders attract the blame and detract the praise to the source.

The final aspect of this rule is necessary to understand, excessive commanding.  Commanding with excessive commands is nothing more than dominating in an authoritarian manner to the destruction of others.  Even commanding without excessive commands but with an attitude of domination can destroy.  Commanding well is an attitude of servitude coupled with a desire to build, grow, and develop people to meet their individual potential and doesn’t generally need commands, but always needs guidance or if you prefer, coaching.  Consider the life of a tree planted in good level ground.  The tree spends the first 10-15 years of life with a guide wire to help the tree grow straight.  Not a command and forced growth, but a guided growth into growing straight and true.  People are like the tree; the leader is like the guide wire, build people through guidance or coaching, not commands.

Rule 73:

Think before you speak; pronounce not imperfectly, nor bring out your words too hastily, but orderly and distinctly.

I was raised in a home where pronunciation and annunciation were as critical to speaking as spelling, grammar is to writing well, and the rules included proper and logical thinking, before speaking.  The process of communication is aided and abetted by properly pronouncing and announcing your words when speaking, after carefully thinking and crafting your desires into coherent thoughts.  In the US Army, I did not have trouble with my upbringing interfering with communication.  In the US Navy, I had nothing but problems with how I was raised interfering with communications.  One day, I spent 45-minutes being verbally upbraided by a second-class petty officer that choose to speak with no regard for the rules of the English Language, no understanding of grammar, and no logic, where Ebonics were displayed as a symbol of pride intended to confuse the receiver.  I was then referred to the CPO for not listening and being disrespectful.  I explained I could not understand what was being said and was told that my understanding of language is not his understanding of language and that I am in the wrong for not working harder to show empathy to a higher-ranking person.  Remember, the second-class petty officer chose, while on duty, to speak in a manner that intentionally could not be understood and always spoke in an understandable style when off duty.  If placed into a position of authority, managerial or leadership, that role comes the expectation of communication using logic, common rules of English pronunciation and annunciation, and proper grammar to ensure mutual understanding has the potential to be achieved.  When confusion in language occurs, it is the leaders, or managers, job to then rephrase and change language to meet the understanding of the listener.

These rules as mentioned form the bedrock upon which long and fruitful careers of leadership are built upon.  If weak in a particular rule, choose to obtain training and counsel in how to improve.  Find people exemplifying these rules and support them in their good works.  Train and develop those not employing these rules into better people, and our entire society improves.


Dandira, M. (2012). Dysfunctional leadership: Organizational cancer. Business Strategy Series, 13(4), 187-192. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/17515631211246267

Washington, G. (2009). George Washington’s Rules of Civility (and decent behavior in company and conversation). Retrieved December 30, 2016, from http://www.digireads.com

© 2017 M. Dave Salisbury

All Rights Reserved

Man’s Inhumanity Towards Man: Shifting the Leadership and Customer Service Paradigm


Recently, I was asked, “What does customer service mean to you?” The question continues to reverberate in my mind. Drawing upon several recent experiences, let’s discuss why customer service continues to be useless, debilitating, and demeaning. Finally, let’s imagine a way forward, a new paradigm for understanding the relationship between people as human beings, customers, and employees, who all deserve the best customer experience we, the professional customer-facers, can provide.

For the record, my wife considers the first example a genuine customer service success and remains a pleased customer. Since the first example concerns both of us, I see the customer service provided as a fail and will explain in greater detail below. According to my wife, this example is a win because of the treatment and ease of concluding her part in the customer service example. This separation of beliefs highlights another reason why voice-of-the-customer surveys (VoC) should not be a knowledge performance indicator (KPI) for service professionals. Service delivery is ambiguous, and as the disconnection between my wife and I represents, service value is in the eye of the beholder.

The first example begins with Amazon.com. The end user received their order for a product (the customer was served), which also contained two items not requested, not ordered, and not paid for (an additional hassle for the customer). The customer service department, at Amazon.com, was consulted and the agent informed the customer, “Since the cost to return the products did not justify shipping the products back to Amazon, the customer could keep the products” with Amazon’s blessing. This is not a good customer service experience for several reasons:

  1. The customer now has to dispose of new products not needed or wanted.
  2. The only justification for not returning the products was the cost, e.g. inconvenience, to Amazon.
  3. The underlying problem, receiving parts not requested, did not come with a solution that served the customer; nor, did the option to keep the parts improve the customer experience.

While the customer-facing agent was kind, considerate, and per the company guidelines acting in all good faith to the customer, in the interests of the company the customer was not served even though a solution was generated and the customer went away. Consider the person who was supposed to receive these parts. They will have to call and either receive a bill credit or the parts need to be shipped, thus delaying the other customer as well as not serving that customer by respecting their time, resources, and honoring the customer’s commitment to using the retailer Amazon.com. With both customers not being served, how can Amazon.com, or any business organization, dare refer to these customer interactions as “service.”

Regarding the next two examples, I am purposefully vague about the entities committing the customer “dis-service” at this moment, for a reason. I do not want distractions, e.g. reader bias, to interrupt or interfere with the focus upon the incidents by naming the organizations. The second example comes from an infamously poor government office that has a reputation for providing poor service to their customer base. The third example comes from a truly infamous retailer who is already struggling but generally has much better customer interactions. The second and third examples’ names will be provided later in this article.

While dealing with a large government entity, both in person and over the phone, three separate and divergent answers to the same problem were received over the period of five different opportunities to assist the customer. By stating this experience happened with a government entity, many people already are presuming the experience was bad. It was, and this is an acceptable and reasonable policy for bureaucrats to exemplify. I disagree most heartily that any government office can produce poor customer interactions and skate by blithely. Since all governments cannot operate without forced taxation, the government entity should be providing better, not worse, customer interactions than those found in the private sector and the need to hold the government to a higher standard is sorely lacking. More to the point, the original problem remains unresolved more than 15-days after the problem was promised a solution within 5-business days. What amazes me the most in this affair is the nonchalance, non-interest, and forthright noncommittal that government employees are allowed, nay encouraged, to get away with in customer interactions with those same taxpayers, who both need help and pay the taxes to keep the government employee employed.

Third, a recent example occurred during this now past holiday season; a customer approached a company representative for directions; the company representative did not have any pressing duties to occupy his/her time and can leave his/her assigned post to aid customers in improving the customer experience. I know this, as I checked with the manager and witnessed the customer service provider playing on a cell phone moments before being asked a question. The company representative gave a broad hand, and arm gestures yelled at the customer and appeared in all appearances to be inconvenienced by the customer’s request for directions. The company’s policy states the company representative is to walk the customer directly to their desired destination and await the customer’s pleasure to return to their original post as the only method to handle this type of service request. When this was brought to the manager’s attention, the manager acted shocked in front of the customer raising the complaint, and then took no action, as the additional action was deemed “not warranted” per the manager’s murmured comments to other employee’s in the vicinity. More to the point, the manager took the opportunity to bad mouth the customer raising the complaint and presented the complaint to other employees, who “snickered” at the language the manager used to describe those making complaints, while falsely thinking the customer who is raising the concerns was not paying attention.

Finally, a recent example from a major fast food franchise, while Burger King as a corporation should not be held accountable for the work the franchise performed, the customer service example remains priceless in showcasing the uselessness of serving the customer and the need for training customer interaction professionals. While using coupons, the customer became confused in the “legal print, ” and the order took longer to place and pay for than normal. The cashier at this point does three things: 1. Assumes the confused customer cannot hear; 2. Bad mouth the confused customer to the next three customers who were waiting patiently; and 3. Blames the customer for taking too long to order their food. Later, the cashier approached the confused customer, blamed the incident on him, offered a faux apology, and walked off muttering about stupid customers not understanding the reality of fast food restaurants.

In the third example, do not be distracted by the poor leadership being presented by the manager. Focus instead on the customer interactions: two different customer experiences, both deemed “acceptable customer service” by the powers that control the experiences. Neither customer was served nor was the problems solved. The first customer found a more helpful company representative who followed the company policy, and the second customer interaction with the manager only strengthened the customer’s resolve to continue to avoid the retailer. Two opportunities to grow a new relationship, enhance a new paradigm upon the customer, and promote goodwill and loyalty with the local customer base were missed. Customer interactions can and should be held to a higher standard, and the following defines my position that focusing solely on customer service is useless along with steps to improve.

Focusing solely on “serving the customer” is useless as all the customer receives is a meeting of their stated needs. In the third example, the customer received directions; thus, the customer’s need was met, and service was provided. In the first and second examples, the customer needed information and a plan of action to overcome the situation experienced. Even if the work resulted in the customer needing to take more action, the customer was “technically” served. In the fourth example, the confused customer received his food, was able to use a coupon, and was thus “served.” Is it apparent that merely serving the customer is useless?

The service to the customer, while technically meeting the customer’s needs, remains not just poor but pointless; all because the focus of the organization is honed to simply provide “service” or meet the customer’s stated need at the lowest cost, the fastest interaction, and the least amount of effort for the company and those employed to provide customer service. Sometimes all that is wanted by the customer is to resolve the problem quickly and efficiently and courteously and move forward with their lives. This is yet another reason why freedom is needed in customer interactions to serve as needed for each customer making contact. Customer facing professionals deserve better from their leadership than simply “providing service to customers.” Customer facing professionals need leadership, guidance, and freedom to develop the rapport necessary to shine their personal, professional pride into the customer interaction, all with the intent of not merely “serving a customer’s needs,” but providing opportunities for the customer to be motivated to brag about their unique customer experience.

In practice, the following steps should be the underlying governing principles to move from service to professional pride.

  1. No matter the method for customer interaction, make the time to show genuine interest in the customer. This will require making conversation, employing reflective listening techniques to ensure mutual understanding of the customer’s position, and representing the company with professional pride. For the customer-facing employees to show pride in the company the company leaders need to ensure the “What” and the “Why” is known to the employees’ so the employee can exemplify the “What” and the “Why” to customers. Leadership is key to communicating with a purpose and promoting the spirit of reflective listening in an organization. Make the connection of mutual understanding and most of the customer problems shrink in size.
    1. Active listening is good, but it doesn’t make the grade anymore.
    2. Reflective listening is all about making sure mutual understanding has been achieved.
    3. Mutual understanding provides one interaction resolution, goes beyond simple servicing needs, and displays the pride and professionalism of the company’s commitment to customer interactions.
    4. Reflective listening can be employed in voice, email, instant message, and face-to-face customer interactions and reflects an easily attained step up from only actively listening.
  2. Promote the customer experience by not differentiating between external and internal customers, treat them all as valuable customers deserving attention, focus, eye contact, and validation that their concern is justified and worthy of attention. Act in a manner that the customer deserves the best, and the spirit of customer interactions will infuse all the customers with a commonality of desire, hope, and professionalism. As a customer interaction professional, how much better do you offer superior interactions with customers when you, receive excellent customer interactions from the company you spend time representing?
  3. Remember to make the human connection in human interactions. Using reflective listening, focus on the clues, the body language, the tone of voice, and acknowledge these communication streams through competent action. For example, if the customer is perceived as stressed and is speaking in a clipped and hurried manner, respond kindly, but through accurate and speedy action acknowledging the customer’s stress and meeting the customer’s need by respecting their time. Human interactions are improved through human connections that reflect respect and that embody this principle in every human interaction, and the customer-facing employee becomes a customer’s hero. Using the information above, are we not all customer-facing employees; yes, we certainly are!
  4. Freedom to think and act in the interest of the customer, based upon sound critical thinking skills, is exemplified at the time of the interaction without second-guessing after the interaction. This happens more often in call centers, but every customer-facing employee has had this occur to them. At the moment, the decision appeared the best course of action, but after the interaction/interference of a manager or a quality assurance (QA) employee has second-guessed and provided “advice” that does not provide value to future customer interactions, doubt is planted removing confidence in acting appropriately in the future. Does this mean allowing poor judgment to survive? Absolutely not; it does mean that the “advice” needs to model and reflect value for future decisions, not cast aspersions upon the previous decisions.
  5. SMART Training. Everyone knows the axiom for SMART Goals; training should also embody the principles of and reflect SMART, “Specific, Measurable, Applicable, Realistic, and Timely.” If the training does not meet SMART levels, the training is not valuable to the persons receiving the training. Make the training SMART, and the potential for improving professionalism in customer interactions grows exponentially.
  6. Never stop learning, never stop reaching, and never stop growing. How often does training cease for employees after the new hire training concludes? How is a new employee supposed to meet the demands of a constantly changing customer population without ongoing training? More specifically, should managers, team leaders, directors, VP’s, and the C-Level leaders also continue to learn and receive training in their positions, roles, and company? If the front-line customer-facing employees need constant refresher training, then every customer-facing employee needs constant refresher training that meets the SMART training guidelines and provides value to the individual using that training.
  7. Stop wasting resources on unproductive goals, e.g., serving customers with excellence. Serving customers, even with “excellence,” remains a useless and wasteful activity; eradicate the term “customer service” from the company vernacular and memory. Begin by realizing the opportunity provided in customer interactions to grow the business, supporting customer interactions through reflective listening where mutual understanding is the goal, and by acting upon the mutual understanding achieved.

We, the professional customer-facing providers, can and should be able to onboard these principles and lead the eradication efforts to remove customer service from our focus and professional labels. The importance of not serving the customer, but elevating the customer interaction, cannot be understated. The customer experience needs to be elevated with reflective listening and prompt action to mutual understanding and a sense of mutual growth as partners in using the company’s products and services. The customer is too important to continue to waste resources only to serve. Make the opportunity to deliver and elevate, and the bottom-line will take care of itself abundantly. The organization in the second example is the Department of Veteran Affairs. The organization in the third example is Target.


© 2017 M. Dave Salisbury
All Rights Reserved – Image Copyrights used under Fair Use and are not included in the authors copyrighted materials.  AZ Quotes retains image copyrights.

Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s): Shifting the Paradigm and Bringing Balance to Measuring Employees


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Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) continue to be a “buzz phrase” and a measuring tool, a flavor of the month managerial concern, and a disastrous issue in employee relations.  Why is this a disastrous issue in employee relations?   KPI’s have no meaning, no value, and are not grounded in reality.  For all the resources invested, KPI’s continue to reflect a bad investment at best.  Yet, hope remains for KPI’s if the paradigm is shifted and new thinking on an old topic is undertaken.

KPI’s are to reflect what is needed for an employee to be adequately measured for performing the role of the position hired.  This KPI definition is the simplest statement on this topic and forms the backbone of the discussion herein.  Since KPI’s are all about measurement, knowing what is being measured, and why this particular aspect is being measured, the specific actions required to improve must be clear, concise, and easily discussed.  Please consider a common thought:  when was the last time KPI’s were reviewed for accuracy and the information being produced evaluated for veracity and actionable application?  If the answer is “I don’t know” or longer than 24-months previous, this is the first problem.

KPI’s should be producing actionable data.  For example, Net Promoter Score (NPS) is a KPI in which a baseline is established.   What is the baseline?  What are the parameters for high/low?  What specific actions can an employee take to improve NPS to meet the parameters?  Does the KPI standard make sense to the new employee?  Can a seasoned employee easily explain improvement to a new employee?  Actionable data is crucial in KPI discussion.  If the KPI is not directly tied to actions, why is this a measurable KPI?

Here is another point regarding actionable data in measuring KPI’s. Active Issues (AI) is a general KPI in many service related call centers.  Can an employee receive a zero (0) as a measurement?  The most frustrating conversation I ever had on a project was being charged an AI because the measurement system could not accept a zero in this category, even though the company preached zero-AI to all employees.  Obtaining the desired KPI meant the employees had to be charged an issue and, in being charged the issue, were then held accountable for not reaching the desired AI goal of zero.  Actionable data must be able to accept the performance desired and achieved to meet the employee performance.

KPI veracity is found in the usefulness of the data to the individual employee and direct supervisor.  KPI actionable application is found in being able to specifically identify actions the employee can take to improve performance on a single indicator.  This actionable application hinges upon the need to understand what is being measured and being able to explain why it is being measured along with the value of that measurement to the overall organization.

For example, Average Handle Time (AHT) is a common call center KPI measurement.  Is AHT being measured because you do not want employees on the phone too long or what about too short handle time?  What value is AHT measuring and how does AHT benefit the company overall?  Can the direct supervisor specifically speak to actions the employee is making to improve performance?  All of these questions must be addressed to empower the employee in how to improve based upon KPI measurement.

During my first performance interview in a call center, I asked about KPI’s, specific actions to take, what the numbers meant and what did improvement look like for each of the 40 KPI’s being discussed.  The answer on the majority of the KPI’s, from my front-line supervisor, was “I don’t know.”  More egregious was the insistence that “it works” and to not “rock the boat.”  The supervisor refused to find out what the KPI’s meant because the supervisor had no idea where the measurements came from, who was responsible for the KPI’s, and did not want to “rock the boat.”

Another issue regarding actionable application and veracity is the power of surpassing expectations.  Should an employee surpass the expectation, is the employee harmed because of being better than the KPI dictates?  An example of this is found in another common call center KPI, After Call Work (ACW).  If the standard for ACW is 10 seconds and the diligent employee drives their ACW to zero (0), per the published company desired goals, can the KPI measurement accurately reflect the employee’s performance?  If not, the KPI process is having significant issues in delivering actionable and truthful data to organizational leaders.

Here is another real world example on KPI failure.  While working a project in a call center, I discovered how to obtain KPI excellence in ACW and taught managers and other employees how to obtain KPI excellence in ACW.  At the end-of-the-month meeting for KPI adherence, I won an award for obtaining 0 ACW, but the bonus check was based upon 1-second ACW because the KPI measurement system could not accept a 0.  More to the point, I also received a counseling statement for having time in ACW.  The award and counseling statement were delivered the same day, and the manager did not see the irony or problem with the KPI issue.  The insult to injury came when pointing out this error and being told by the VP of Customer Service that the business will not change to accommodate.

When working with KPI’s, the data must be able to be tied to specific actions of those being measured.  The actions are being measured and weighed, and the actions need to make sense by providing logic to the employee.  The KPI might make sense to an organizational leader or a high-level manager, but if the employee being measured cannot logically understand the KPI, the measurement cannot accurately reflect actionable data.

For example, “Voice-of-the-Customer” (VOC) remains a favorite call center KPI, but many times, the VOC score does not make sense as the actions the employee is told to take often do not impact a VOC because the customer survey is all about the perception of the customer, not the work of the employee.  If the customer does not like the data presented and with spite and envy fills out the VOC survey with malice and vindication, how is the customer agent expected to make improvement inVOC?  The customer service representative cannot influence the customer after the call and before the survey is completed; the customer is making choices; providing the best service is irrelevant and the employee is punished for a low VOC.  If the agent delivering service does not control the actions, the KPI is both inaccurate and ineffective!

ACW and AHT bring up an excellent auxiliary topic, baselines.  Baselines are averages and beg the questions as to when and who established the basic data being averaged to measure performance?  How were the baselines established originally?  Have the baselines been reviewed for application in the current business environment?  Do the baselines still make sense?  More specifically, if the baselines and averages do not reflect current reality, why are they still a KPI?  If training to meet the KPI is insufficient, how can an employee meet the rigors the KPI demands?

On a call center project, I asked when the AHT/NPS/ACW/VOC and other KPI’s were established.  The front-line supervisor was part of the project in their first year of employment to establish KPI baselines.  The supervisor was a 15-year veteran of the company and I asked when the baselines would be reviewed due to new technology, new processes, new procedures, and business changes since inception of the original baselines.  The response remains classic, “Why should the baselines change.  This is why they are called baselines.”  Baselines should change as the KPI’s are reviewed.  When products and services change, the baselines need to be reviewed to ensure veracity and applicability.  More specifically, actionable data takes a downturn when baselines are insufficient to proper measurement of performance.

What does this mean for the paradigm?

  1. Plan to review the KPI as a process at a minimum of every 18 months and sooner if products and services change. Review sooner if technology shifts and every time a trigger in the company processes occurs, e.g., back office changes, legislation, etc.  Regardless, set in place plans to maintain KPI shelf life and allow the KPI process to live, change, and become a tool to improve people.
  1. Make a single person responsible for each KPI being measured. For example, if there are 15 KPI’s in an employee’s performance review, then 15 different people should have a collateral duty to be responsible for the life of that KPI.  These people should be approachable, knowledgeable, and have an in-depth knowledge of the job being done to adequately measure the performance of others and how this influences the company’s goals and objectives overall.  More specifically, if those in charge have not performed the job, why are they in charge of the KPI to measure the job?

I worked on a project where the senior leaders, team leaders, directors, etc., were required to spend 8-hours a month on the phone as a front-line customer-facing representative in an effort to keep the leaders knowledgeable of the front-line tasks, current customer environment, and to gage process and procedure application in a real-world.  The customers and the customer-facing employees appreciated seeing this, and it made the leaders more cognizant of what is happening in the business from a front-line perspective.

  1. Never allow the KPI to be a punishment tool. Training, yes; development, absolutely; punishment, never.  Should actions have consequences, yes; but these consequences must be separated from the KPI measuring system.  Triggers for front-line supervisors from the KPI’s need to be removed and placed into the hands of human resource managers and non-frontline superiors/directors.  This allows for the relationship of training to remain with the front-line supervisor and places the control for KPI consequences at a level where the employee can receive a neutral assessment of performance.
  1. Never allow a KPI to be measured if the employee does not have 100% control over how to improve that KPI. While NPS is a fine item to measure, do not allow NPS to be a performance item, use this as a bonus item at best or a team item for judging team performance, but individuals must have 100% control over their own performance for a KPI to be actionable.
  1. Simplify KPI’s. Remember the elevator speech.  Can the KPI measurement be discussed in an elevator speech?  If not, the KPI’s need to be simplified, honed, and focused.  Imperative to effective KPI’s remains actions the individual can control.
  1. Drop the canned phrases, key words, and other “flavor-of-the-month” managerial gimmick. KPI’s should never be based upon word adaptation.  Every person does not successfully use terms someone else uses to succeed.  Personalization helps the customer feel their problem is original.  Canned responses rob the customer of this feeling and the customer feels “shoehorned” into the one-size-fits-all answer.
  1. Remember the individuality of the employee when choosing which KPI is to be measured and how that measurement is created. For example, once a baseline is established, does the employee retain the freedom to control their own destiny in meeting the KPI or is the employee “shoe-horned” into one-size fits most measurement device?
  1. Action plans need KPI’s; KPI’s need action plans. As a measurement tool, gauging actions and placing a statistical variable onto that tangible, a non-static atmosphere enveloping the KPI conversation is needed.  If the plan needs measuring, there must be a KPI.  If the KPI is to achieve the most use, an implemented action plan to be measured must exist.
  1. Don’t settle for what every other business measures in the industry. If AHT does not fit your call center, remove it.  If a manufacturing employee cannot control cycle time, do not use it to gauge employee performance.  KPI’s should be a hybrid solution to measuring employee actions and not represent KPI measuring to an e3-direectional-balancentire industry.  Allow the KPI measuring system to be individual, explainable, and conducive to all employees being able to detail the “why” and the “what” in measurement.
  2. Do not forget to include the “how.” How does an employee improve?  How do the numbers directly represent actions?  How easy is the KPI measurement system explained to another person?  Once the “why” and the “what” are known, the “how” should be a simple extension of the logic in the KPI process.

 © 2016 M. Dave Salisbury
All Rights Reserved – Note: I do not own the rights to the images used.