Chapter 4: Staffing and the Mission Act – Shifting the Paradigm at the VA

On 25 June 2019, the following came from the Office of Inspector General (OIG), “Staffing and Vacancy Reporting under the MISSION Act of 2018.” Under the Mission Act, the VA has to report on steps being taken to correct the “chronic healthcare professional shortages since at least 2015.”  “The OIG found [the] VA partially complied with the law’s requirements, reporting current personnel, and time-to-hire data as prescribed. However, VA’s initial reporting of staff vacancies and employee gains and losses was not transparent enough to allow stakeholders to track VA’s progress toward full staffing.”

After having been terminated without cause, justification, or reason 51.5-weeks into my 52-week probationary period of employment, reading this OIG report was infuriating. Thus, I sent Secretary Wilkie an email. Apparently, my email was insufficiently clear, and additional information is needed.  I am not trying to get my job back; I am trying to help the VA to improve. With this purpose in mind, the following information is being suggested to the VA.

As a veteran, I am excited about the power of the Mission Act and the focus being placed upon the service member by I CARE. I CARE is a customer-focused approach to VA services combining WE CARE and SALUTE, and is intended to promote effectiveness, ease, and emotion into the patient/customer experience. Except, the VA has only rolled out the I CARE approach to management as the Union has not ratified this approach for non-supervisory staff. The disconnection between actions to improve and those thwarting improvements astounds and mystifies.

Let me tell you about my experience in the New Mexico Veterans Health Care System (NMVAHCS), to elaborate upon disconnections and point out where fundamental changes can begin to transpire for the entire VA System where staffing is concerned. Please note specific names have been scrubbed to protect privacy.

First, let’s talk about animosity and hostility. My director, while employed from June 10, 2018, to June 05, 2019, never wrote anything down as a way of avoiding her responsibilities, shirking her job, and allowing her underlings to act in a manner consistent with the worst dregs of humanity. The director would not look at you while talking with you, but would type an email or perform other work on her computer during the discussion, blaming she was “super busy.” The supervisor would offer platitudes, “plastic words from plastic lips,” and then blame you for not notifying him of problems, concerns, or issues experienced. From February 2019 to my unjustified termination, I was subject to daily abuses by fellow employees.  Nothing was ever done by the supervisor or the director, and the assistant director was off-site.  The women abusing me were promoted and moved, or transferred to a different department during my termination (quid-pro-quo, or a hatchet job, both come to mind).  Bringing the first three areas needing change to address the staffing shortages:

1. Clear, concise, written policies and procedures. The NMVAHCS is supposed to have three levels of governing documents to provide a metric to measure performance, to complete duties as prescribed, and to explain why things are done the way they are done. The overall document is an MCM (I do not remember what this acronym stands for), then policies governing, then work procedures. The MCM library, at the time I was discharged, was only about one-fourth updated and held only about 10% of the MCM’s it had displayed as available. When repeatedly asked for policies and procedures that spring from the MCM to govern my job, I was told they do not exist, “because that’s the way we do things here,” or “I have a verbal agreement with that department, and nothing further is needed.”  Lacking these guidelines, how can you measure performance? Lacking these guidelines, how can any employee hope to know they are performing the jobs they were hired to perform? Lacking these guidelines, how does a supervisor explain what happens, why things work the way they do, or for a process review to improve performance to commence?

2. The use and abuse of the probation periods to play favorites, pick winners and losers, and act in a manner that, while technically legal, is pitifully unethical, immoral, and demoralizing to the entire workforce. The private sector remains strictly controlled where probationary employees are concerned; why can the VA act in a manner inconsistent to the private sector, where probationary employees are affected?

3.  The probationary employee needs an appeal system, a justification for termination, and a mandated two-week notification unless separation is occurring due to behavioral or criminal action.  If an employee is promoted, they must give two-weeks to their current duty station before transitioning to the new role; why is a probationary employee terminated without this two-week notification? How can a probationary employee be documented as a top-notch performer all the way up to the end of their probation, and be discharged for failure to qualify?

Second, I was physically attacked, my medical records were regularly reviewed until Jan 2019 due to the supervisor refusing to protect my medical files, and the details made known to many other employees. I was discriminated against due to my injuries, by the same employee who physically assaulted me, made jokes about my injuries to nurses, the other MSA’s, security staff, and housekeeping staff.  The NMVAHCS, specifically the Hospital Emergency Department, has a horrible problem with record surfing and then violating HIPAA by telling details of the medical records to other nurses and staff not directly caring for the patient. Providing the next four areas of staffing improvement:

1. Get the tracking system working to validate unauthorized access by insisting that every single person pulling up a medical record needs to leave a note justifying why that record was pulled; this will require a written policy and procedure, and IT improvements to track and report everyone, and every file. Why this has not been done previously remains a mystery, but does not matter. Fix the problem!

2.  Regardless of whether a complaint is filed on a Report of Incident (ROI) form or only emailed to the chain of command, the investigation process must be both similar, timely, and action producing. For the same senior employee to stalk me in the hallways trying to attempt further intimidation, for the security cameras to have witnessed her attack and no officers to arrive, and for this incident to be hushed up and covered over remains inexcusable! Management does not believe a female can harass and be the aggressor party, and this thought process must cease!

3. See or hear something, say something. Multiple nurses listened to the jokes in the ED about my injuries but never said anything to their boss, even though they knew it was a HIPAA violation.  MSA’s in clinics throughout the hospital knew about this employee’s abuse towards me, and she abused many others; HR (when I arrived there for help) knew about this aggressor party but could not provide any assistance. The Union knew about the problem employee, but because I was a probationary employee claimed they were bound and couldn’t help. People knew, but said nothing! The director, assistant director, and the supervisor knew and did nothing; this is a significant organization issue and needs to be addressed. I took the complaint to ORM, nothing; EEOC, nothing; OSC, nothing. As a victim of harassment and discrimination, male, service-connected disabled veteran, where should I go for help? I was not the only male being attacked in the hospital, several male employees I know quit their jobs over harassment and to my knowledge received the same treatment by the EEOC, ORM, OSC, and so forth.

4. There is a difference between following the law and using the law; the difference is a moral center. I stress the actions taken to terminate are legal, but not ethical or moral. The moral and ethical obedience to the law would improve the employee experience greatly.

Third, cultures of corruption are killing employee morale, and the intransigence of senior leadership is mimicked down to the lowest level employee in the VA organizational hierarchy.  The local labor union president claimed the following, “The HAS Director has been a HAS director for three years and served in three different VA systems.  She has two supervisors that are known for getting rid of employees before their probation period concludes costing the VA Hospital $10,000 per employee to onboard.” Again, technically legal, but the probationary employee process is wide open to the “legal” abuse of employees. Helping us to arrive at the next three issues for correcting employee morale and turnover problems.

1. When malfeasance is known, senior leaders should be providing extra scrutiny.  Put a formal appeal process into the probationary employee rules and regulations. This way, the fact-finding would have to have documentation over-time to reflect employee performance. Track probationary employee dismissals by the department, sex, veteran status, time remaining in the probationary period, and so forth, and track this data over time. NMVAHCS is known for getting rid of probationary employees within their last 10-days of probation; thus, it is apparent that the process is abused by senior leaders throughout the hospital.  The employee was a proper, functioning, and active employee, but suddenly within sight of the probationary employment period concluding that employee is magically unacceptable; I don’t think so! Nurses have this problem, but their probationary period is two years. I have heard of doctors having this problem in the Phoenix, AZ., VA Hospital. I have witnessed many staff having the same problem in the NMVAHCS. As a point of interest, I was warned by non-VA hospital workers in the Albuquerque Community that the VA Hospital is known for getting rid of probationary employees and to watch my back. The community is watching and cares about what happens at the VA Hospital and CBOC’s. Fix the probationary employee rules, regulations, and processes.

2. Training should be maximized for all employees, but shift the focus to train and develop, not merely to check a box annually. I taught other MSA’s. At the request of the assistant director, with full knowledge of the director, I wrote a training packet of how to perform computer tasks, and can tell you as an adult education professional, the focus at the NMVAHCS is not on training people! When I mentioned this, I was told training is controlled at the national level, which is why the training is so inadequate. Training philosophies govern attitudes surrounding training value.

3. Organizational trust starts with the leadership team and requires time, engagement, and experiences. The leadership team I was subject to did not try to build trust, actively abused employees, and generally aided and abetted the miscreants to the detriment of all. Hence to correct staffing problems, there must be changes to the mindset and examples of the senior leaders first and foremost.

I reported how to fix the problems mentioned above to my chain of command first, to the sound of crickets and platitudes. I made suggestions on hardware and software to reduce fraud, waste, and abuse in the ED. I openly discussed options and made process suggestions for the entire 51.5-weeks of my employment.  I stand in amazement that my reporting these issues to the VISN head, the hospital director’s office, regularly to my chain of command did not make me a whistleblower according to OAWP and the OSC. To have whistleblower protection, you need to be employed. If a probationary employee does not qualify for whistleblower protection, why all the training on whistleblower protections? Why is the caveat about being employed not mentioned in the whistleblower protection training materials? What else is missing from the training materials on whistleblowers that would improve the employee experience? Is one of the ways the VA defends itself from change by terminating employees before whistleblower protections can be applied? If so, how does the VA leadership expect to change the mid-level managers, supervisors, and directors?

My termination was initiated by a letter written by one MSA who blamed me for the actions of another male MSA in the ED. The letter was co-authored by an MSA who was incompetent in her duties, lackadaisical in following her schedule, and who preferred to be a social butterfly than manning her post; all issues raised to the supervisor and chain of command, which were dismissed without review, who was a probationary employee until early 2019.  These authors actively solicited for signatures to the letter, what was promised to the signatories? When all this was mentioned to the HAS director, the supervisor, the OSC, the EEOC, ORM, etc.; I was advised that there is no case here because I was a probationary employee and the HAS director can exercise her right to terminate without cause anytime during probation. Is the legal abuse of the probationary employee clearer? If all new hire employees of the VA, and all those employees being promoted, are considered a probationary employee for their first year then the probationary employee abuses are the central problem in correcting staffing issues at the VA.

One Emergency Room doctor is a perfect example of biased leadership and how underlings were influenced. The doctor treated people according to their political leanings. A patient came into the ER for help wearing a MAGA (Make America Great Again) hat and proudly wearing his support for President Trump, his treatment in the emergency room under this doctor was deplorable, delayed, and detrimental; I was ashamed to witness this travesty. Another time, a patient comes in proudly wearing his support for previous President Obama, and his treatment by the same doctor was 180-degrees different. The political leanings of nurses on his staff determined if the doctor was friendly or not. The health technicians’ political leanings determined the attitude the doctor showed toward them. Is the problem apparent; biased leadership caused tremendous problems in staffing treatment, patient services, and employee morale. Because this doctor only works day shifts, several nurses and health technicians shifted to nights to have a higher level of professionalism in the doctor’s they worked with, the other nurses and health technicians either quit the VA or found work in different departments or jobs. One nurse left her profession entirely and took a significant pay cut to escape harassment by this doctor. She was a probationary nursing employee who used the stress affecting her health to change jobs.

I spent 51.5-weeks without reasonable accommodation because my chain of command was not interested in my health, but used my missed days as an excuse to seal my termination. Not having the proper reasonable accommodation equipment meant every day was painful, challenging, and detrimental to my health. I had to drive, follow-up, track, and push for the material that was provided; yet, according to ORM, EEOC, OSC, etc. there is nothing to see here, probationary employee. Another example of the legal abuse of the probationary employee.

I advocate for veterans and thought I had found employment where I could make a career, I followed the rules, and I worked hard. I would see the VA succeed, and the staffing problems become more manageable. The majority of the staffing problems have their root cause in poor or biased leadership; hence, to address these problems and begin to rectify the staffing issues, the administration must change. Policies and procedures need to be written down, communicated and trained, then staff can be held accountable, and transparency in the employment staffing process is available. Accountability and transparency are both missing in the staffing process to the detriment of all veterans, taxpayers, employees, and the communities housing a VA Hospital system.

 © 2019 M. Dave Salisbury

All Rights Reserved

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

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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.”

References

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.

 

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

 

Fundamentals of Customer Interaction: A Leadership Primer

Gitomer (1998) was very specific about why customer satisfaction is worthless and provided keen insights into how to build loyalty.  While many businesses value and find the “voice of the customer” desirable to the organization, the focus is on satisfying the customer and not interacting with the customer.  Sinek (2009) adds the variable needed, why, as in why are businesses still trying to satisfy when loyalty is needeAre we in trouble?  We didn't do it!!!d?  Why are customers still being taken advantage of when logic claims the long-term relationship is more critical than short-term gains; thus, making the need for loyalty that much more valuable in dollars to the business.  Why serve the customer when the customer needs more than simple “service?”

Customer service is simply geared to expeditiously interacting with the customer in a mass environment.  For example, a recent call to a cell phone provider remains an excellent illustration of mass service hysteria.  During this call, a simple question was asked, why is my statement so high?  The representative placed the caller on hold four separate times, never answered the customer’s question, and because the customer changed their plan, the call was considered a success.  The customer then went online, spent an additional hour in Instant Message (IM) with a second customer service rep, and finally was given less of an answer before quitting in exasperation.  Foolishly, the call center sends an automatic survey to the customer asking for his or her opinion.  The customer is going to express his or her dissatisfaction in the “customer satisfaction survey.  Why was it sent?  Why place the financial future of a low-paid customer service rep in jeopardy simply because the customer remains upset, and the managers deem that information valuable?

The customer call center remains the epitome of the carrot and stick approach to customers with the customer and the front-line customer-facing representatives squeezed into numbered boxes, small cubicles, and an individuality draining environment making the customer and the customer representative soulless zombies held captive in an endless cycle of frustration.  Offer a carrot to a customer to go away, threaten the customer representative with a stick if they do not fit squarely into the business environment and achieve all the key-performance indicators (KPI’s) demanded by the business, although the KPI is in direct opposition to serving the customer.  The above incident is a perfect example of KPI’s being anti-customer.  The representative needs to make a quota for call plan changes and sales, the customer needs serviced, but to actually answer the question means that the time the representative spent on the phone would have surpassed a KPI.  The carrot and stick approach is to offer the customer bill credits to go away quickly so the representative can move onto the next call, a KPI mindset causing frustration for the representative and the customer.

Let’s use one more recent example as a comparison.  The Department of Veteran’s Affairs has been in the news a great deal recently.  Veterans remain the forced customer trapped in an endless cycle of bureaucratic red tape.  The result is that veterans are now being called for a customer service survey to determine how veterans feel they were served.  Why would this information be valuable with all the customer hostility in the veteran population?  Why waste taxpayer dollars to obtain veteran “customer” insight when the bureaucracy has not changed, the red tape remains stifling, and the officers enforcing the bureaucracy continue to kill and harm veterans as the captive customer?  Veterans are reporting that after every interaction with the various VA bureaucrats a customer satisfaction survey is thrust upon them and sold to them as an improvement tool.   Doubt remains as to the value to the veteran, and to the VA as a whole, and provides more KPI’s harming the customer, eliminating service to the customer, and destroying any hope of correcting the actual problems; but the VA is gathering a ton of additional information for office clerks to sort through and make reports upon.

With these thoughts in mind, what do we do and where do we go from here?  Better yet, why are these the preferred actions when logic relates there is a better path forward?  Finally, since KPI’s are needed, how should KPI’s be adjusted to provide more actionable data personalized to the individual employee while remaining valuable to the entire business?

On the subject of KPI’s, when was the last time that each KPI was evaluated and the questions “Why” and “What” were asked to justify that specific item on a list of measurable actions in a KPI process review?  If the answer is “I don’t know” or longer than 18-months, there is a significant problem with the KPI’s reporting obsolete data and doing more harm than good.  As a consultant in a call center, I walked item-by-item through the KPI matrix my first day on the job and successfully concluded a project shortly thereafter by simply moving the KPI matrix back into providing actionable and non-obsolete data.  If each piece of data cannot be explained and justified by the newest member on the floor receiving scores on performance, the KPI matrix is obsolete, confusing, and ineffective in driving actions that actually benefit the employee and those the employee contacts.  Ask the managers to define what the KPI’s are, what is being measured, and detail specific actions an employee should be coached in to improve a specific indicator.  If the answers are not clear and easy to understand, the KPI is ineffective and doing more harm than good.

Juran’s rule that the KPI is expected to form a pathway to progression as a business process remains powerful.  When problems arise in KPI data and employee adherence, the problem is 90% of the time not the employee, but the KPI in question.  Is Juran’s rule being applied consistently, effectively, and powerfully to drive understanding and communication in the organization or is the answer to “blame the employee?”  Dandira (2009) remains powerfully applied here: ineffective KPI’s can be, and many times are, a dynamic source of organizational cancer because of employee confusion about what to do to improve, resulting in employee morale problems.

Moving forward, the way remains clear:

  1. Never allow a business process or procedure to be older than 12-months without a full and comprehensive review justifying that process and every step in that process.

I was called in to discuss a customer influencing process.  The process had more than 30 steps involved and 12 separate employees to accomplish the task.  The process could not be described in 30 minutes, and customers were upset from experiencing this process, adding to the already upset nature of the involved customers and the frustration in the front-line employees assisting them.  Technology improved this process by a third, but the company could not determine how to improve the process.  I asked why on each step and employee involved.  Four hours of discussion resulted in cutting 8 of the involved employees from the process.  Asking “what” resulted in further steps cut in the process.  At the conclusion of the contract, the complicated process was described in a single elevator ride, which simplified the results for the customer and set the business on the road to continuous improvement of business processes.  Pick a process, look at the age, and ask in an elevator ride for the process to be described.  Keep riding the elevator until the entire process from beginning to end is detailed.  How many elevator trips were needed?  Never create a process or a measurement that cannot be explained in a single elevator ride.

  1. Who is catching the blame on recorded calls: technology, the customer, or the customer service rep? The problem is not with any of these parties, and properly naming the problem remains the first step in solving the problem.

For example, on a contract for a manufacturing company, a problem existed that could not be explained causing issues in quality control and proper billing to customers.  The problem observed was not the problem; the process and actionable data capture were the problems.  Until the company could properly identify and act on the real problem, they continued to blame the employee and burned through several highly talented employees in the process.  The action taken began with identification of the real problem and the underlying processes.  Then, we began working out the actual solution.  The first and second actions projected and beta-tested were abject failures.  Once the full measure of the problem was identified in a series of continuous events, the third proposed solution worked, not great, but worked.  The fourth and fifth solutions worked better.  Finally the sixth review fixed the problem.  Identify the problem, and then make the resolution an intuitive process of learning and developing.  Failure is okay provided the current failure is moving the problem forward towards solutions and new thinking.

  1. Who is the customer? Are we wasting time on separating internal and external customers when that time would be better spent treating them both equally?  Rarely should the internal customer be treated better than an external customer, but many times resources are limited and external customers must come first.  Do internal customers know why this decision is being made and when the experience is projected to end?

During a merger, I was contracted as a W-2 employee on start of contract.  At the conclusion of the merger, employees were told external customer resources were being moved back to support internal customers, and benefits and resources would flow back to the employees.  Upon the successful completion of the merger, this policy was not honored, and the mass of employees leaving the company was monumental, as employees felt betrayed.  Knowing the “why” and the “what” behind organizational decisions by all customers is important.  If this company had been more forthcoming about the “why” and the “what,” the loss of so many employees would not have been so great.  More to the point, the loss of employees created post-merger problems resulting in “right-sizing efforts,” “down-sizing,” and finally “post-merger consolidation of facilities,” all of which are euphemisms hiding the real problem, failure to treat all customers with respect and valuing the customers.

  1. The “Why” and the “What.” While the “Why” is critical, both remain powerful, and communicating these simply, effectively, and persuasively remains the role of leadership.  Ask yourself, can employees define “what” we do?  Can employees define “why” we do the things we do?  Do employees know “why” we compete in our marketplace the way we do?  What are the answers and why are the answers coming in with the trends?  Can you answer this, and what is the action to move forward?

I had the pleasure of working as a W-2 employee for a company that did this right.  On the first day of training, the employee learned the “Why” and the “What.”  Then, everyday the employee learned how each process, procedure, and daily task fed into the “What” and the “Why.”  This promoted the employee to understanding and becoming an agent for action in the business.  This pattern is replicable, but employees must know the “why” and the “what” and business leaders must know the “Why” and the “What” and disclose this information to the full organization?

  1. Stop only “serving” the customer. “Serving” the customer is useless, wasteful, and ruins the power of customer interactions reducing these opportunities to filling needs, not building relationships.  If your customer-facing employees are only providing “service,” the business has settled for failure and has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This is not a subject of semantics, word plasticity, and mind games.  This is a fundamental mindset of the power possessed by loyal customers acting as marketing tools to drive profitability.  If the customer only receives “service,” the customer is not satisfied, the customer-facing employee is not satisfied, and precious resources are wasted on fruitless gimmicks and useless action.  Worse, the ROI is zero at best, but usually negative.  If internal and external customers are simply treated as customers, how can a business leader expect to build customer and employee loyalty or experience bottom-line growth?  Make time to build customer-reaffirming experiences and the bottom-line will grow.  Stop serving the customers, stop blaming the employees, stop looking for solutions in technology without knowing the business and identifying the problems.  If not, Dandira’s (2012) counsel will be the reward, organizational cancer, and organizational death.

References

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

Gitomer, J. (1998). Customer satisfaction is worthless – Customer loyalty is priceless. Atlanta, GA: Bard Press.

Sinek, S. (2009). Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. New York, NY: Penguin Group.

 © 2016 M. Dave Salisbury
All Rights Reserved

The 3-E’s of the Employee/Employer Relationship: Is your Organization Practicing all Three?

The 3-E’s, early, eminently, and equality, thus forming the fundamental principles of the employee/employer relationship.  Too many times only early is practiced, and the problems emanating result in reduced employee morale, purposeful negative actions, and disruption of the business by both customers and employees acting in a resentful manner.  In order to fully understand the power of combining the 3-E’s, we must first detail, define, and describe.

Early is often considered as akin to new, fresh, and initial; yet, the better application for this topic is in timeliness, punctuality, and promptness.  For example, when a problem occurs, the earlier it is addressed the faster and less damaging the problem becomes to the business as a whole.  Not taking precipitous action leaves the problem festering and infecting eventually leading to organizational cancer (Dandira, 2012), low employee morale, and managerial inertia slowing business processes and increasing the damage.  Hence, prompt, punctual, and timely action to address a situation early enough to affect positively the outcome remains the order of the day and the strongest power business leaders can take with the 3-E’s, but early action is not enough.

Eminent is often considered as akin to celebrity, paramount, and superior; yet a more preferred definition for this topic is often conspicuous and influential.  When an eminent action is taken, the action tends to supersede current policies, procedures, and overlaps or drowns normal work.  Overlaps and superseding are dangerous actions leading to increased costs, lost work, customer complaints, and a general lack of trust in business leadership to properly prior plan and produce positive performances from the business structure.  These thoughts are fed with celebrity-like marketing on new policies, business leaders, and changes, which are not fully understood and appreciated by the employees most affected.  Hence, the need to be frequently engaged, seen being influential in the lives of employees, and known as a person who cares remains the key leadership quality developed by eminent action; yet eminent actions, even if conducted early, are insufficient to properly influence and meet the demands of business.

Equality is often considered as sameness, fairness, and uniformity; yet, all of these definitions fail to capture what equality truly is and the power of equality.  For this topic, consider the following:  equipoise, parity, and concurrence.  Employees are individuals. They might have similar job titles and responsibilities, but the individual approach to the position provides power and separates the individuals and does not collect, compress, and concentrate into carbon copies.  Hence, the same approach of uniform application is not meeting the needs of the employees nor is it meeting the definition of fair.  Thus, the employee needs equality that treats them as individuals concurring in practice, but are individual in approach, and brings parity into treatment as an expression of equipoise.  While early is good and early mixed with eminence is better, but without early, eminent, and equal combined into an action, the employee and the employer suffer in an environment of disaster fed by chaos, corruption, and cancer as detailed by Dandira (2012).

Consistency remains key to employee/manager relationships.  While the principles of 3-E’s are important, all the work of the 3-E’s can be wasted if consistency is not honored and observed by the employees.  Consistency requires flexibility, firmness, and fungibility to meet the demands of creating success in using the 3-E’s appropriately.  The main factor in employee/employer relationships continues to be the individual nature of each employee, not the requirement to make all employees the same carbon copy of another employee or an “ideal” of the desired employee.

Putting these principles into practice requires asking questions, such as “Are employee communications being expressed early, eminently, and equally?”  “Are actions taken by business leaders being perceived as meeting the 3-E’s?”  “Do the trend lines in application indicate consistency or inconsistency?”  While employee perceptions can and often remain hidden, except through properly capturing actionable data in key performance indicators, the answers to these questions and more are evident.  Look at the employees, who show up to work excited, enthused, and enthralled.  Ask them why they possess these qualities.  Then, ask those employees not possessing them and hone in on the differences.  Will employees change from day-to-day; probably, but the answers continue to be important indicators as to whether communication in the organization is occurring.

Sinek (2009) offers that asking why and truly listening to the answers being returned remains the most effective question and action series employers can take from day-to-day as the pulse of the organization.  Gitomer (1998) adds that leaders after asking “why” should ask “what” to empower change and drive motivation.  Consider for a moment, an employee is asked “why” they feel the way they feel, then “what” would that employee like to see changed to aid in feeling differently, and project the employee’s reaction to having been heard.  Project that employee’s reaction if they see the changes they offered implemented into business practice.

Are all employee suggestions implemented; no, this is not feasible and the employees know this when making suggestions.  Yet, when employee suggestions are implemented, this changes the employee dynamic for all employees.  Ask yourself, when was the last time an employee suggestion was implemented and marketed to the other employees?  If the time is longer than 6-months, the program is not consistently being implemented and there is a problem with using the 3-E’s.

Steenhuysen (2009) reported on research discussing the power of praise.  Where praise is offered genuinely, praise has the power to change, and the research supports that the power of genuine praise operates on the same reward sections of the brain as cash. Anecdotal evidence shows many employees appreciate genuine praise, sometimes more than cash.  As a business leader or employer, ask yourself, “When was the last time I caught someone doing good and offered praise?”  If the answer was not yesterday, there is a problem with the 3-E’s, and consistency will be needed to rectify this problem.  Are you setting the goal to not leave the office without offering genuine praise?  Remember, Steenhuysen (2009) is reporting that praise is its own reward.  The research and anecdotal evidence present praise as being as good as cash to the brain.  Hence, praise is its own reward; can objects be added to potentially increase the reward, yes.  But start with praise, honestly provided and employing the 3-E’s.

Case in point, I have worked with a VP of Customer Service Operations who carries with them yellow and purple post-it notes.  The purple are for catching people in the act of good.  From simple actions to amazing calls, they all get recognition on purple post-it notes as a very noticeable action the business leader can take to catch and praise the good.  The yellow post-it notes go to the team leader when training is needed.  Consistent action over the years has developed a spirit of competition to earn and be caught doing an act of good.  The yellow notes are not remembered at bonus time; more serious infractions have a set process to follow, and the less serious yellow post-it notes are simply a means of providing timely feedback employing the spirit of the 3-E’s.  Upon starting this program, almost a full year passed before the employees caught on and the word of this action spread.  Let consistent action be seen, not marketed, and let the word spread by enthused employees.

The best part of the program from an employee perspective is the highest earners of purple post-it notes eventually began earning additional non-cash rewards also presented in a quiet manner.  The rewards ranged from leaving an hour early with pay, longer lunches or breaks with pay, to movie tickets and dinner cards.  These extra steps were implemented when trends reflected some employees were taking extra efforts to be caught thus necessitating a need for other levels of reward to keep the interest of the employees in acting and performing to a higher level.  Never are these employees recognized openly, e.g., at a company meeting, marketed to other employees, e.g., in a company newsletter, and receiving the purple notes is not a competition.

These purple post-it notes are an expression of gratitude from a person in leadership to an employee working hard.  Quiet, consistent, application of the 3-E’s provided a failing business unit new life in employee interactions with each other and the external customers.  The actions taken here should not be rare or the exception in employee/employer relationships, but the standard and personalized to each business and business leader.  What can we learn here to apply to all business units and organizations?

  1. Whatever is done consistent action remains critical.
  2. Simple, quiet, and direct remain key to affecting positive results on a personal level. Be brave!  Be honest!  Be courageous!  Be seen acting as you would see all employees act.  These will provide an impetus for others to emulate actions taken and good will develop.
  3. Know the 3-E’s, whether you are currently an employee or a business leader of hundreds or thousands. The 3-E’s are a two-directional action possessing power for positive results.  Use this power to drive a solution that can be consistently applied.
  4. If what is being tried is not working, do not act abruptly. Quietly adjust until positive actions can be seen and verified through trend lines.  What is being done currently might simply need more time or more quiet publicity to be discussed by the employees.  Make small adjustments and act for the interest of individuals; the whole population will catch on.
  5. A word of caution. Never use this program for self-aggrandizement; this will kill the program faster than a bullet to the 10-ring.  Do not enter into this program and offer non-genuine praise or false and ambiguous words and canned phrases.  Be specific and capture the incidents exactly, ask questions if needed, but be genuine and specific.

 

References

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

Gitomer, J. (1998). Customer satisfaction is worthless – Customer loyalty is priceless. Atlanta, GA: Bard Press.

Sinek, S. (2009). Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. New York, NY: Penguin Group.

Steenhuysen, J.  Praise as good as cash to brain: study. (2009, February 26). Reuters. Science. Accessed from: http://www.reuters.com/article/scienceNews/idUSN2343219520080424?feedType=RSS&feedName=scienceNews

© 2016 M. Dave Salisbury

All Rights Reserved

 

 

 

Customer Call Center Leader – Part 6: The Role of Technology in Creating a Culture of Adaptability

The role of technology is to act the neutral part in the human work relationship. Technology is a tool, like a hammer, designed for a specific role embodying potential for good or ill, delivering a specific role, and serving a specific function. Technology is not positive or negative and possesses no value matrix beyond addressing the concern, “does technology fill the role it was designed for or not” (Budworth and Cox, 2005; Ertmer, 1999; and Ropohl, 1999). Technological philosophy, detailed by Ropohl (1999), provides greater details into the underlying core issues leaders and organizations face daily when merging technology and people together. Yet, always in application do we find managers attempting to make technology more than what technology can ever be, the neutral variable in the human technology work relationship while thwarting culture and other organizational changes.

The automatic dishwasher is an example; if the dishes go in dirty and come out dirty, the blame is the technology instead of the human interaction in the technology work relationship. I was on a call to customer service recently and heard no less than five times in a 10-minute phone call, the “system is slow,” the “computer is not working right,” or some other similar excuse from the agent not being able to answer questions from the customer. How many times has human resources heard, “the car wouldn’t start,” “my GPS gave me wrong directions,” or my personal favorite, “the alarm clock failed.” The technology is not at fault as the neutral variable; human interaction with the technology is where the fault lies.

Application of technology to leadership and organizations may be summed by Wixom and Todd (2005) as they quote Fishbein and Ajzen (1975) for the specific principle espoused by Trist (1981) and applicable here, “For accurate prediction, beliefs and attitudes must be specified in a manner consistent in time, target, and context with behavior of interest” (Wixom and Todd, 2005, p. 89). Virtual and non-virtual teams are connected by the specific behaviors of those being led; the attitudes of the users predict beliefs and flow into production, especially into call centers and other front-line/customer-facing positions. Technology brings leadership into possibility, but the potential cannot be realized unless the leader knows how to harness negative beliefs, core out the actual problem, address user concerns, and then redirect the negative into either neutral or positive productivity.

The answer to leaders needing to harness user beliefs is found in proper communications aided by technology, as detailed by London and Beatty (1983). Empowering the users with 360-degree feedback, empowering the leader with another channel for 360-degree feedback, and operating a third channel for the organization in 360-degree feedback places the user in the driver seat to improve their technology beliefs and attitudes. Ropohl (1999) and Omar, Takim, and Nawawi (2012) combine to complete the puzzle in addressing how technology applies to leadership and virtual teams by underscoring the people element in the technological equation. Omar, et al. (2012) claim,

“…Technological capability refers to an organisation’s [sic] capacity to deploy, develop and utilise [sic] technological resources and integrate them with other complementary resources to supply the differentiated products and services. Technological capability is embodied not only in the employees’ knowledge and skills [combined with] the technical system, but also in the managerial system, values and norms” (Omar et al., 2012, p. 211).

360-Degree FeedbackAs the image reflects in the convergence of the three channels of 360-degree feedback, the power of communication is enhanced by the technology employed as a neutral variable in the human technology work relationship. If technology fails, the relationships in the channels remain and the relationships are not separated or closed. When discussing flexibility and adaptability in organizations, clearly understanding the roles of technology and communication empower the combined user, leader, and organization relationships.

The leader and organization need to understand and develop these principles to harness the innovative power of the human element where technology interacts with the human work relationship. If technology, especially technological improvement, is not thought through, planned, discussed, and elevated, Dandira (2012) claims the result is ‘Organizational Cancer.’ The power of technology as a force multiplier to unleash the power of humans cannot be understated, but the flip side of the technological coin is that as a force multiplier, if technology is not handled correctly, the negative aspects are as large as the positive aspects. Toor and Ofori (2008) detail how leaders need to understand and embody the differences between managers and leaders to contribute fully to the technology implementation and daily use in production. If leaders cannot lead physical teams, they will never understand virtual teams where technology must be understood more completely, and managers need not ever apply as the mindset is not conducive to creating success in the human technology work relationship.

A recent technological change was heralded, marketed, bragged, and positioned to the stakeholders in a company as akin to being better than “sliced bread.” The new system was discussed for three years before images of the new system began to be floated. Everything was prepared to have the technology play a more flexible and vital role in the organization. The problem was managers and programmers implemented the technology instead of users and leaders. User interfaces were ungainly, illogical, and made no sense in the completion of user work processes. More specifically, the impact for every single process and procedure in the current technology was not considered and revamped during the rollout of the new system. The result was chaos among users, failure to deliver the promised products and services, and a customer service disaster. Early in the rollout of the technology, managers directing the rollout were alerted that processes and procedures needed to be revamped, and the user was being left behind in how the system was “supposed to work” resulting in compounded chaos, increasing customer dissatisfaction, and further diminishing the company reputation. The managerial response was to “sit and wait” for the programmers to finish building the system and changing the technology to “fit.” Where a leader was needed, a plethora of managers existed and they actively worked to make the problems worse for the end user, the customer, and the other managers.

Creating a culture follows a basic set of principles, namely, the example of the leaders, including their words and actions, followed by repetition, and the passage of time (Tribus, n.d.). Tribus (n.d.) specifically places the core of culture in the example of the leaders regardless of whether the organizational leader is a leader or a manager as evidenced by action and word. To create a culture specific to adaptability, several other key components are required, namely, written instructions, freedom, and two-directional communication in the hierarchy (Aboelmaged, 2012; Bethencourt, 2012; Deci and Ryan, 2000; and Kuczmarski, 1996 & 2003). Two-directional communication has been warped into 360-degree communication. Regardless of name, the input from the workers and the customer is more critical than the voices of managers to organizational excellence.

Alvesson and Willmott (2002) add another component to this discussion. As the organizational culture takes hold of an individual employee, the employee begins to embody the culture, for good or ill, in their daily interactions both personally and professionally. This hold becomes an identity adding another level of control from the organization over the employee binding them to the organization. The identity control becomes a two-edged sword because the employee will form loyal opposition that can be misinterpreted to be intransigence, and the loss of that employee causes other employees to question their identity and the organizational culture. More to the point, the changed employee becomes habitualized into the current culture and then hardens into intransigency when changes are needed to help the organization survive.

Creating a culture attuned to adapting, the organizational leader needs to communicate, be seen exemplifying the organizational culture, and building that culture one employee at a time; until the changed employees can then begin to sponsor other employees into the organization’s new culture. The organizational leader must set clear goals, define the vision, and obtain employee buy-in prior to enacting change, then exemplify that vision after the change (Deci and Ryan, 1980, 1985, & 2000) while remaining open to the possibility of a need to change direction if indicated. Key to this process is Tribus’ (n.d.) [p. 3-4] “Learning Society” vs. “Knowing Society.” The distinction is crucial. The organizational culture must be learned and the process for continually learning honed and promoted to protect the culture while adapting to variables both internal and external. Learning societies know change occurs because of new thinking and inputs and remains adaptable to that change as a positive force in improvement. Knowing societies remain afraid of changes due to the fear of losing perks, benefits, or personal power and actively thwart change at every turn, usually while preaching the need to change.

To be clear, technology is a neutral force and can neither be a positive or a negative in an organization. The need for leaders cannot be overstated as the driving force in organizational change, or simply day-to-day leadership. Leaders must be seen and heard living the organizational culture. If, and when, changes are required, leaders must listen to user, customers, and the managers, but the weight and value are not the same and should never tilt in favor of the managers. Finally, if the organization needs to adapt, the organization must provide employees in front-line/customer-facing positions with freedom to act and the technology to record the actions, which are supported by back-office processes and procedures that respond to the front-line, not the other way round.

With the “.dot com” bubble burst in 2000, the world of business changed dramatically. As more baby-boomers leave the workforce and are replaced with millennial workers, the business culture is going to change more. To adapt, the engaged and determined business leader needs to embody a spirit of freedom and adaptability into the business culture, into the processes and procedures that define “work,” and into the customer relationship (internally and externally) or the business will continue to fail, struggle, and breed chaos.

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