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Excel by Focusing on the Fundamentals?

It occurs to me that we, human beings, are curious creatures.

We pride ourselves in our rationality and yet are permeated through and through with ideology and superstition. We are convinced of our individuality whilst at the same time being terrified of sticking our heads above the crowd.  We are capable of amazing feats yet find it hard to resist taking the short-cut.

Allow me to share the following story with you:

Nasrudin sometimes took people for trips on his boat. One day a professor hired him to ferry him across the wide river.

During the journey the professor, wanting to impress Nasrudin, talked on-about many topics: politics, the great books of literature… When Nasrudin didn’t respond the professor asked him if had anything to say.

“I didn’t go to school and I can’t read,” said Nasrudin.

“In that case, half your life has been wasted!” replied the professor condescendingly.

Nasrudin said nothing.

Soon a storm blew up and Nasrudin boat start filling up with water. Nasrudin leaned towards the professor who was looking rather pale.

“Can you swim?”

“No. I never learned to swim. It didn’t seem that important,” said the professor.

“In that case, schoolmaster, ALL of your life is lost, for we are sinking.”

It occurs to me that in the world of business we are so bewitched by ideologies (which are invisible to us), fanciful stories and the latest silver bullets. Being so bewitched we neglect the fundamentals.

What are the fundamentals of your business?  It occurs to me that this is a good question to grapple with as an organisation. And to come to an agreement.  Yes, it sounds simple and you would be surprised how rare it is to come across a management team that has grappled with this question and come to an shared agreement. It is even rarer to find a shared agreement that stands up to deep questioning.

When it comes to the fundamentals as viewed from the eyes of the customer, I tend to find myself in agreement with Patrick Barwise and Sean Meehan in their book Simply Better:

Customers don’t want bells and whistles and don’t care about trivial differences between brands. What they really want are quality products, reliable services, and fair value for money. Yet most companies consistently fail to meet these basic needs.

It occurs to me that Amazon does so well because the folks at Amazon are relentless on the fundamentals of internet retailing: site design, site performance, customer reviews, ease of buying, on-time delivery, quality products, valuable services (ebooks), ease of returns, value for money …

Finally, it occurs to me that the real value of Customer Experience lies in encouraging your organisation to get present to and pay attention to the fundamentals of your organisation as they show up for your customers.

Leadership and CX: Is the human spirit the difference that truly makes the difference?

“I’m thinking, as a 6-year-old, 7-year-old, what are their thoughts?” she said. “So I said to them, ‘I need you to know that I love you all very much and that it is going to be okay.’ Because I thought it was the last thing they were ever going to hear.” Caitlin Roig, a 29-year-old teacher, Sandy Hook Elementary School

As I write this I have tears on my cheeks – of sorrow and of gratitude.  I am reminded that I am father to three children. I am reminded the awesome contribution many teachers made to my life.  I can remember the care that  was bestowed upon me during those early years when care/love is particularly important.  And I know that I am in a position to write this only because my fellow human beings saved my life twice.  The first time was when I was 7 years old and went into a coma as a result of an automobile accident.  The second time was when an unusually kind, alert and ‘can do’ doctor told me to get into his BMW and raced me to the emergency room at the local hospital where the right people were ready to sedate me and operate on me.  I owe my life – as it is and as it is not – in large measure to my fellow human beings.

What has this to do with leadership, organisational effectiveness, and customer experience?  A good question and let me address it.  I have done process design and business re-engineering.  I have done cost-cutting and organisational re-structuring.  I have done the metrics side of things.  I have done technology selection and implementation. I have done recruitment, induction, job design…  I have done and still do strategy.  None of these show up either on their own or in combination as the true source of organisational success.

My stance on leadership, organisational effectiveness, employee engagement and service was shaped in my days in corporate recovery.  The days when I would turn up unannounced (either individually or part of a team) and be responsible for running a business that had gone into receivership or administration (for those of you in the USA think Chapter 11).  The challenge was to call forth the best of the people in the organisation whose future looked bleak.  And that happened in every one of the organisations.  There was something that showed up brightly which I have found to be missing in ‘normal’ organisations.  And which does not reside in strategy, in technology, in metrics, in processes, in people/culture.  What is this difference?

As I read about what occurred at Sandy Hook and in particular the courage, the heroism, the sacrifice made by the principal and the teachers I am face to face with that which I noticed in my corporate recovery days: the power of the human spirit to transcend the most difficult of circumstances.

I am clear that the difference that makes the difference is the human spirit.  When the ultimate crazy request was made – to risk their lives to save the lives of their ‘customers’, the young children in their care – the teachers (and the janitor) at Sandy Hook did not fail their customers!  What was it that enabled the staff to rise up and meet that challenge?  Was it strategy? Was it policy? Was it process?  Was it KPIs? Was it money/rewards/promotion? Was it technology? No, it was the human spirit coming to life in those teachers when it was summoned.

And that is the central issue for me.  Our organisations – private and public – do not make space, do not call forth the best of us: our human spirit.  On the contrary, our organisations, indeed our society, does the reverse it shuts out and/or suppresses the human spirit.  We do this by our obsession with the the technology of strategy, of process, of metrics and measurement, of people practices, and of IT.

How to end this post?  It occurs to me that I am a stand for the human spirit in business, in organisations, in life itself.  And that pretty much is the underlying thread in what I write here on The Customer Blog (and on my second blog Possibility, Transformation & Leadership).  And how I aspire to show up in the world.

No, I wish to end this post with a dedication to the principal of Sandy Hook – Dawn Hochsprung – who showed what real leadership is.  And to Victoria Soto who gave her life to save the children in her care. And the humanity of Caitlin Roig who thinking that the end was about to come told the children that she loved them all very much.  Why?  She wanted them, her ‘customers’, to experience love, being loved.

I cannot resist this, the urge is too strong.  To all those who talk social and confuse it with social media and the self oriented marketing, selling, chit-chat and vanity that takes place there,  I say that the true meaning of social is the social that showed up through the actions of the principal and teachers at Sandy Hook.  I say true social is the social as expressed by Caitlin Roig: “‘I need you to know that I love you all very much and that it is going to be okay.’ Because I thought it was the last thing they were ever going to hear.”

I am proud to be member of the human race.  And I say I will continue to be a stand for the magnificence of the human spirit in all walks of life. I have a question for you: what would show up if you treated your customers with the kind of care/love that the Sandy Hook teachers did for the ‘customers’ in their care?

What does it take to generate ‘employee engagement’? (Part V – the ‘dark side’ of the being of human beings)

We are only falsehood, duplicity, contradiction; we both conceal and disguise ourselves from ourselves.”  Pascal

Truly it is an evil to be full of faults; but it is still greater evil to be full of them and be unwilling to recognise them, since that is to add the further fault of voluntary illusions”  Pascal

I have a confession to make.  So far (part Ipart IIpart IIIpart IV) I have deliberately given you a one sided – positive – picture of the being of human beings and thus your employees.  If you have read Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novels (especially The Brothers Karamazov) you will get the true richness of the being of human beings.  And that includes the dark side – a side that the enlightenment and the humanistic philosophers and psychologists do not address adequately if at all.   In this post I want to address this darker side of being human in our age, in our organisations.

Why is it so hard to call forth ‘employee engagement’?

To create a contexts which calls forth ‘employee engagement’ is one of the hardest feats in traditional organisations.  Why?  There are two key reasons.

First, people – leaders, managers, employees – who have worked for more than a couple of years in command & control organisation have accepted and habituated in a particular mode of being and behaviour.  And it is difficult for them to change.  Why?  Because, contrary to accepted wisdom, human beings don’t have behaviours; behaviours have them!  When I write this I am thinking of both categories of people in organisations:  the managers and those who are managed and have come to expect to be managed – one category cannot exist without the other as they co-create one another.

The headmistress of the local Montessori children never takes on teachers that have gone through the traditional system and taught in traditional schools. Why?  Because she has found from experience that it is too hard to arrive at a place where these teachers embody the Montessori philosophy in their way of being in the classroom and the world.  After teachers have been teaching for some time in the traditional system it is practically impossible to get them to leave behind their way of being and making the shift to the Montessori way of being.  In a lots of ways these long timers experience the same kind of experience and success rates of feral children.

The second reason that it is so hard to get ‘employee engagement’ to show up is to do with the ‘dark side’ of being human that is always present and which we, with our obsession with the rational image of man, fail to acknowledge, accept and work with.  Let’s take a look at this ‘dark side’  – the shadow that is always with each of us.

The dark side: is this what really drives how human beings show up in the workplace, in the world? 

Peel back the onion to examine human behaviour and you might just find that the ‘machinery of being human’ seems to work to the following ‘four prime directives’ when it comes to dwelling with fellow human beings:

  1. Look good, avoid looking bad;
  2. Be right, avoid being wrong;
  3. Strive for control and dominate, avoid losing control and being dominated;
  4. Justify self, invalidate others.

It is worth pointing out that these four prime directives work at the level of the individual and the level of the tribe.   It is also worth pointing out that the root driver of these prime directives is most likely to be fear.  Fear of being excluded/ostracised like the lepers were.  Fear of being ridiculed.  Fear of being victimized/oppressed…..

How the drive for ‘employee engagement’ tends to play out

If these ‘four prime directives’ are not acknowledged and dealt with then the drive for ‘employee engagement’ tends to be a wasted effort at best and most often just a sham.  Why?  Because just about everyone in the organisation is first and foremost protecting himself.  That means those in manager roles don’t really let go of control – if they do then things might not work out and this will reflect badly on the manager and put his reputation/future at stake.  On the other hand those in the role of taking orders (including managers – junior managers take order from middle managers…) do not rise up and take responsibility for the fear of being setup to fail, being ridiculed…..  Now this dynamic does not just work at the individual level it also applies at the team level: marketing, sales, customer service, logistics…..  And it applies at the business unit level.  If you want a detailed understanding of the mechanics of this mutually reinforcing behaviour works then I recommend reading Power Up by Bradford & Cohen or The Responsibility Virus by Roger Martin.

In the next post I will share with you an effective process for generating employee engagement that has been used successfully by the corporate arm of Landmark Education.  It has a lot to do with ‘truth telling’ in the context of ‘creating a future that works for all parties at the table, none excluded’.

And finally

It is worth remembering that customers are human beings.  And as such they are also subject to these ‘four prime directives’.  Once you get this, really get it, then you have an access to all the stuff that you are doing as a corporation that is driving your customers nuts.  And how/why they are responding as they are responding.

The Strategy Book: strategy is about shaping the future and other useful tips

Do you have any interest in strategy, strategic thinking, strategy making? Have you wondered what strategy is, what it involves, how to go about it? Do you consider yourself a rational/analytical person? If you have answered yes then you might just want to consider reading The Strategy Book by Max McKeown. In this post I want simply to share some of what I found interesting/useful.

What is strategy about and why is it so important?

“Strategy is about shaping the future…… Your strategy will craft a response to external waves, needs of customers and the actions of competitors.”

That pretty much says it all. The future is not simply a continuation of the past. We, collectively, co-create the future and that means that the future is open to being shaped. Most important those that shape the future are the ones that are most likely to prosper from how the future turns out. Furthermore, the essence of the world is flow/change – that is to say that the world is dynamic and as such the external environment, customers and competitors will present your organisation with opportunities and threats.

If you are not open to detecting and responding to these then you are likely to find yourself in the same space as RIM or Nokia. And RIM and Nokia are the living embodiments of what happens when you focus solely on operational excellence – doing the existing things better/faster/smarter. No execution is not enough for a business to flourish: execution is necessary yet not sufficient, strategy is required.

What does strategy require/involve?

“Strategy is about outthinking your competition. Its about vision first and planing second. That’s why it is so important that you think before you plan. And that the thinking part of what you do is given priority….Thinking like a strategist is demanding intellectual work…”

I qualified as a chartered accountant many years ago and was heavily involved in business planning and analysis. Which is another way of saying that I have hands on experience in strategic planning. What did I experience? Lots of planning and a dearth of the kind of thinking that can be called strategic. It occurs to me that most of the organisations that I have worked in/consulted for do not create a clearing for strategic thinking to show up / take place.

Yet, I am not in complete agreement with Max. Kenichi Ohmae, a strategist, pointed out a long time ago that too many companies focus too much on their competitors and not enough on customers – in particular creating superior value for customers and potential customers. Interestingly, Max is aware of this because he mentions it later in the book.

Central to strategy is thinking like a strategist: what does this involve?

“Becoming a strategic thinker is about opening your mind to possibilities. It’s about seeing the bigger picture. It’s about understanding the various parts of your business, taking them apart, and then putting them back together again in a more powerful way. It’s about insight, invention, emotion and imagination focused on reshaping some part of the world.”

Now you know why great strategy is rare. Great strategy requires strategists with a sound understanding of the business along with a combination of competencies that are rare in one individual: imagination and creative thinking; systems (holistic) thinking; and critical/analytical thinking. Which kind of suggests to me that perhaps it is better to ‘play the strategy game’ as a team, preferably the entire organisation, rather than leave it to one or two individuals.

Thinking like a strategist: 4 tips

In part two (thinking like a strategist) of The Strategy Book, Max gives four tips.

Reacting is as important as planning

“Unplanned opportunities may be your best chance of creating a great strategy, so you need to be constantly looking for them…… the greatest opportunities come from unplanned events.”

Ingvar Kamprad, IKEA founder, lived near furniture makers so he started selling furniture. He reacted to a boycott from local rivals by making his own furniture. He reacted to excessive customer demand by coming up with self-service. Then there is the ‘Honda Effect’ – Honda made a successful entry into the US market despite the original strategy being a failure. This approach to strategy is in line with Mintzberg’s view on how strategy comes about in the real world.

Taking risks

“All decisions are about the future. Since the future is uncertain, all of your decisions will have an uncertain outcome. But because you’re trying to shape the future you still have to make decisions…..”

The point is that risk is inherent in strategy making and the course of action (strategy) that is chosen to be implemented. One source of risk is that we have finite minds seeking to grasp/comprehend an infinite world. Another source of risk is simply the ‘butterfly effect’ a tiny change, changes everything and renders our strategy ineffective. Then there is the risk of choosing a strategy that the organisation is simply not fit to implement….. Then there is the risk of doing nothing.

Risk cannot be avoided the challenge for the strategist is to know what risks are involved and have a correct grasp of these risks: how likely is it that the risk will turn into actuality and what is the most likely impact. With this understanding sensible choices can be made.

Looking over your shoulder

“Strategies compete with strategies…….. You need to be aware of the competition is doing. You need to know what customers are doing. Paranoid adaptation is part of the strategy game. Look up, down, back and ahead.”

I believe that Andy Grove said it best with his book Only The Paranoid Survive. Or as I told one of my clients, the bomb is ticking the only question is when it will explode and your business will be blown out of the water.

Knowing where grass (really) is greener

“It’s a fair bet that at some point what made your company money in the past will stop making money. New products replace old products, Entirely new services replace old services. The best places to sell your products will change. And customers who mattered so much will stop (or start) buying. You need to know when (and how) to switch focus.”

The key point is that one has to be constantly open to and looking for new markets. Are there customers who are not buying your products yet would love to buy your products? What can you do about that? Are there segments of the market that are growing faster than others? Are there new entrants to the market? Clayton Christensen says be wary of the new entrants that you are most likely to ignore – those that make inferior versions of your products and who sell them cheaper to a segment you are happy to walk away from. Remember Toyota and the crappy cars it made/sold and eventually it went on to compete with Mercedes in the luxury market!

And finally

If you would like a free copy of The Strategy Book then drop me an email. The first person to email me will receive the book.

Why culture is the Achilles Heel of your customer experience efforts (Part I)

The future of most customer efforts has already been written: take a look at your culture

I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game – it is the game.”  Lou Gerstner

Many large companies are playing the Customer game and most of them will fail.  They may succeed in improving marketing campaign ROI and reducing churn through customer analytics.  They may succeed in reducing customer service costs by implementing making it harder for customer to contact the call centres and by replacing people with self-service systems.  Yes, they may win a ‘battle’ here and their.  Nonetheless, at the strategic level (‘war’) they will fail: they will fail to build customer loyalty and reap the rewards of that loyalty.  Why?

Culture.  If you scratch the surface you find the culture within many large established companies is one of “do whatever it takes to make the numbers!”  Why is that?  Because the Tops are judged by only one thing: making the numbers.  In general, Tops do not care about people – not the flesh and blood ‘employees’, nor the flesh and blood suppliers/partner, nor the flesh and blood ‘customers’.  Nor do they care about or have an intimate understanding of operations.  How can they?

They are embedded in a structure (‘system’) which views customers as objects to be manipulated and wallets to be emptied; employees are simply resources which inconveniently come in a human form and are costly hence the focus on replacing them with technology; suppliers are also resources and the objective is to pay the lowest price; laws are simply inconvenient hurdles that one can find ways around; and the rightful role of the Tops is generalship (‘strategy’).  In the world of the Tops (business or politics) the only thing that matters is making the ‘numbers': the end justifies the means.

This grim picture is mostly hidden from view.  It is the elephant in the room that no-one wants to acknowledge as it is too threatening – it conflicts with our espoused words and values.  Yet, occasionally this elephant burst on to the world stage in a dramatic fashion:  in the USA there was Worldcom, Enron, Andersen and recently the financial crisis; and in the UK we had the MPs expenses scandal, the financial crisis and recently the News of the World phone hacking scandal.

When you exit the ‘matrix of customer babble’ you will tend to find that the real agenda and system structure can best be described as “extracting maximum value at the expense of the customer” – to borrow Fred Reicheld’s words.  Large companies and the people within them resort to any manner of tactics to pry open the customer’s wallet and get as much out of it as possible right now in this transaction, in this quarter, in this year – to make the numbers.   You can see it in the marketing dept where marketers are busy devising all kinds of ‘bait and switch’ tactics.  You can also see it in the love of ‘neuromarketing’ using insight into the human mind to manipulate customers to do what we want them to do.  You can see it in the relentless dumbing down and depersonalising of customer service…….

What is usually missing is any genuine interest in the flesh and blood customers (or employees, suppliers and partners).  And this is obvious to many of us customers and that is why we use TripAdvisor or Epinions or turn to our social networks to get at the ‘truth’ rather than the marketing claptrap.

What is often missing is any sense of fair play: honesty and integrity between words and actions.   Who is best placed to know the reality of organisational life?  The employees.  In one large publicly quoted company the Tops forced all the Middles and Bottoms to sign an ethics policy.  The following week I learned that these honorable Tops had devised a way to get around the law by using a Greek smuggler to do the dirty work and thus distance themselves from any risk.  Does that sound remarkably similar to the News of the World where policeman and private detectives were used to the dirty work.

Is my experience unique?  Not according to employee surveys, one survey that springs to mind highlighted the following:

  • 49% of employees (who responded to the survey) do not have “trust and confidence” in their company’s senior management;
  • Only 36% of employees believe that their leaders “act with honesty and integrity”;
  • 76% of employees stated that, during a recent one year period, they have personally illegal or unethical behaviours at their companies.

How can you build any kind of meaningful relationship with customers with a culture like that?  I will examine that question in part II of this post – coming soon.

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