Empowerment: asking and facing the deeper questions

It occurs to me that empowerment matters. It matters enough for me to think about this deeply and search out those who have thought about this deeply.  If it matters deeply enough to you then continue reading. If it does not really matter to you then I advise you to go and do something that you care deeply about.  With that said, lets start.

What difference does empowerment make?

It really matters if the people in your organisation show up empowered. Empowered to do great work, to create products which show up as ‘magic’, to touch customers in a way that leaves those customers feeling welcomed-understood-validated-helped, to generate an end to end customer experience that simplifies-enriches the lives of your customers.

It really matters, if you, show up as empowered and create a context that allows the people in your business to show up empowered. And allows your customers to show up and experience themselves as empowered.  And creates a space for your suppliers to show up empowered – empowered to share their knowledge and expertise in contributing to the performance of your organisation.

It really matters, if as customers, we show up empowered. Empowered to do business with organisations that stand for purposes-values-behaviours that speak to us. And not do business with organisations that do not stand for and embody that which matters to us. Empowered to get together and apply pressure on regulators and those in government to put in place legislation that protects our interests as customers and to enforce the existing legislation.  We are also empowered to do nothing.  That is our choice; choice is that which comes with empowerment.

In short, empowerment or the lack of it matters.  It occurs to me that empowerment is rather like sunshine in the western world (in the depths of winter) or rain in a region of cursed with drought.  Empowerment creates possibilities which simply are not open-present without the existence-presence of empowerment.

Perhaps because I am so vividly present to the significance and possibility that inheres in empowerment, I chose to put my children in Montessori School.  It occurs to me that it is also the reason that so much of what is written on empowerment (employees, customers) strikes me as shallow and leaves me feeling disappointed-cheated.

Why all the bleating about the lack of empowerment? 

There are two particular aspects of the empowerment conversation that I particularly wish to highlight.  First, there is the assumption that empowerment is a thing to be gifted from the Tops to the Middles and Bottoms.  And from the Middles to the Bottoms. And from the company to customers. Second, is the assumption that empowerment is a blessing and people are yearning to be empowered.

It occurs to me that by virtue of being human you and I are always empowered. You and I are empowered because you and I are free – free to choose. It occurs to me that Sartre spelled this out rather pithily:

Man is condemned to be free: condemned, because he did not create himself, yet nonetheless free, because once cast into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”

What shows up for me as being a more interested enquiry is this one, given that you and I are empowered why is it that you and I evade this empowerment?  Why all the bleating about empowerment – more precisely the lack of empowerment?  What is it that we are evading through this bleating on the lack of empowerment? Why this supplication at the feet of ‘leaders’?  And why is it that so few ‘leaders’ actually show us as being empowered to chart their own course, and thus lead?

Werner Erhard’s profound insight on empowerment

I share with you the profound insight and wisdom of Werner Erhard. And I encourage you (and I) to listen, really listen to his speaking:

If you are empowered, you suddenly have a lot of work to do because you have the power to do it.

If you are unempowered, you are less dominated by the opportunities in front of you. In other words, you have an excuse to not do the work. You have a way out. You have the security of being able to do what you have always done and get away.

If you are empowered, suddenly you must step out, innovate and create.

The cost, however, of being unempowered is people’s self-expression. They always have the feeling that they have something in them that they never really gave, never really expressed.

By simply revealing the payoffs and costs of being unempowered, people have a choice. They can begin to see that it is possible to make the choice to be empowered rather than to function without awareness.

Empowerment requires a breakthrough and in part that breakthrough is a kind of shift from looking for a leader to a sense of personal responsibility.

The problems we now have in communities and societies are going to be resolved only when we are brought together by a common sense that each of us is visionary. Each of us must come to the realization that we can function and live at the level of vision rather than following some great leader’s vision.

Instead of looking for a great leader, we are in an era where each of us needs to find the great leader in ourselves.”

— Werner Erhard

So what does it take for empowerment to show up?

It occurs to me that it takes the following for empowerment to show up in our way of being-in-the-world:

a) Getting that we are always-already empowered as spelled out by Sartre and so vividly illustrated by Viktor Frankl in his recounting of his concentration camp experiences (Man in Search of Meaning);

b) Caring deeply enough about our being-in-the-world to see-invent possibilities. Possibilities for putting our own ‘dent in the universe’.

c) Courage to put ourselves at risk and act – to live from and into the possibilities that speak to us, to give up comfort and embrace work, to let go of our existing identity and invent-create-embrace the identity that is needed to fulfil on the possibility that we have invented.

What do you say?

Customer Service, Customer Experience, Customer-Centricity: Just Fluff?

Is Customer Experience just fluff?

Is all this talk of customer service, customer-centricity and customer experience merely fluff? That is the question that someone put to me recently. Allow me to answer that question from a practical perspective – lived experience at the coal face.

Imagine you are in this situation

Imagine that you review your Top 10 accounts and find that one of these accounts has been one of your longest  customers. And this customer makes up a significant portion of your revenues and profits.  You are grateful for the contribution that this customer makes to your business. And you have a problem to deal with and a decision to make.

Looking into this customer it occurs to you that if you can persuade this customer to move from their existing solution to one of your latest solutions you can cut the customer’s monthly bill by half.  The cost of doing this is obvious: substantial loss in revenue and profitability. The benefit?  There is no obvious benefit.  So the question is what to do? Should you leave the situation as it is and hope for the best? Or do you choose to contact the customer and spell out how the customer can save money?

Being unsure about what to do you consult with your customer strategy consultant. Together you look more deeply at the situation and you come up with following:

1. The customer got a significant saving when the customer switched to your business many years ago. Since then the market has changed mainly through new technology that has made available lower cost solutions.

2. The customer has not complained nor asked you to come in and give advice on how to save costs or help decide which solution best meets the customer’s needs.

3. The customer is ‘out of contract’ and has been for sometime now. You are not sure that the customer even knows that this is the case.

4. Another supplier could approach this customer and offer to cut the customer’s costs by half. If that were to happen then you might lose this customer. Or you might have to re-bid for the business to keep it.

5. Right now your business needs as much revenue and profit as it can produce. And talking to this customer and offering a solution that cuts billings by 50% does not show up as smart.  You are not sure the Finance Director will support such a move.

What choice would you make?

Given this information, what is the smart thing to do? What is the right thing to do? What would you do if you were the CEO of this business?

Are you tempted to continue just as you are?  Are you tempted to let things be? Are you tempted to take the least risky route?  Are you tempted to do that which shows up as being the least hassle, and the most comfortable course of action?

Would you say to yourself something like “Now is not a good time to make revenue and profit sacrifices. Besides the customer is responsible for looking after his own interest and finding the best solution for his needs. In any case the customer has not made any complaints or asked for any price reductions which means that the customer is happy. It’s best to leave things as they are. I am sure that we can match the offer any other supplier makes. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.”?

Context-structure drives behaviour: why there is plenty of talk and little real action

Now you know how it is that there is so much talk about customer-centricity, customer relationships, customer experience, customer service, and customer obsession and so little real-effective action. Now you know what Robert Fritz is pointing at when he says “Structure drives behaviour”. Put differently, we are always embedded in a specific context-situation and this context-situation has powerful impact on the choices we make. To go against the prevailing context-situation requires profound courage especially when you have taken over and are running a sound established business. You do not want to be the one that fails and is ridiculed, the one that loses his reputation, his status.

Please note that rather than blame people – Tops, Middles, Bottoms – it is more ‘profitable’ to look at the context-situation that is shaping the behaviour of Tops, Middles, and Bottoms. And it is true that Tops have more leverage over influencing-shaping changes, even transforming, the context-situation and thus enabling breakthroughs in performance.

The critical importance of courage: daring to be different, to take the road less travelled

Some do put courage into the game of business and life. They are the ones, if successful, build great companies. Look behind the scenes of customer experience exemplars (John Lewis, USAA, Amazon, Zappos, Apple, Zane’s Cycles) and you will find one or more people that went against the taken for granted rules of the game.

What does it take to generate/deliver great service?

It is Christmas time and I want to give you, my fellow human beings and the readers of The Customer Blog, a gift.  What kind of gift?  The kind of gift, which if embraced, will give you access to great relationships – with your family, with your friends, within your community, at work, with your customers…

The gift of ‘service’: is this the greatest gift that you can give?

It is Christmas time and what I notice is that it is a time of concern – a concern with gift-giving.  And this year as I think about gift giving I am immediately taken to Sandy Hook Elementary School.  I am confronted with this question: what is the greatest gift one human being can give to another?  It occurs to me it is ‘service’.  What?   When I speak ‘service’ I am pointing at the kind of service being pointed at in the following quote:

“My notion about service is that service is actually that kind of relationship in which you have a commitment to the person. What I mean, in fact, is that for me what service is about is being committed to the other being. To who the other person is.

To the degree that you are, in fact, committed to the other person, you are only as valuable as you can deal with the other person’s stuff, their evidence, their manifestation, and that’s what’s service is about. Service is about knowing who the other person is and being able to tolerate giving space to their garbage. What most people do is is to give space to people’s quality and deal with their garbage. Actually, you should do it the other way around. Deal with who they are and give space to their garbage.

Keep interacting with them as if they were God. And every time you get garbage from them, give space to garbage and go back and interact with them as if they were God.”  Werner Erhard

Which business brands provide this kind of service?

In the business world there is one brand in particular that gets the kind of service that Werner Erhard is pointing at and illuminating.  Can you guess who it is?  It’s Zappos.  Which is why I am not at all surprised to read that Zappos Set An Insane Record For The Longest Customer Service Phone Call Ever.  How long did this phone call take?  9 hours and 37 minutes!  Here is what, in particular, caught my attention:

On July 16th I received a call from Lisa about 2 hrs. into my shift. We talked for 9 hours, 37 min. I took one bathroom break about two hours in. Kara Levy [another team member] took care of me by bringing me food and drinks. We talked about life, movies and favorite foods.”   Shaea Labus, the Zappos Customer  Loyalty Team member:

“Sometimes people just need to call and talk,” she [Shaea] said. “We don’t judge, we just want to help.”

What does it take to generate/deliver great service and make a difference?

The question that calls to me and asks for an answer is this one: what does it take to generate/deliver great service – the kind Werner is pointing at and which is being delivered by Zappos?  What is your answer?  Is it technology – the latest state of the art CRM/customer service system?  Is it CX blueprint that sets out the ‘process/script’ that the Customer Loyalty Team Members have to follow?  Is it the KPIs that Zappos’s management team have set?  Is it perhaps the people – the special people that Zappos employs?  Is it the pay/rewards that Zappos gives to its employees?

Let’s listen to a master of the human condition, one who strips away our rationalizations. What does this master have to say on the matter of service, of making a difference?

“All it takes to make a difference is the courage to stop proving I was right in being unable to make a difference… to stop assigning cause for my inability to the circumstances outside of myself …… and to see that the fear of being a failure is a lot less important than the unique opportunity I have to make a difference.” Werner Erhard

Summing up

Zappos generates/delivers great service because the Tops (starting with Tony Hsieh) are committed to delivering great service.  Great service is not something that they do.  No, great service is who they are in the world.  Did you get that?  The folks at Zappos ARE great service; their being – how they show up for themselves, each other, customers, the world at large – is great service!  Put differently, for the Zappos folks great service is not a question of doing it is a question of existence.  And, yes, existence does require a viable ‘business model’.  That is something that the folks at Zappos figured out after they formulated their commitment to being the brand  that is synonymous with great service.  And they kept tinkering and tweaking to get the business model right.

What does it take for you and me to make a difference in our showing up in the world – to our family, our friends, our community, our fellow employees, our customers?  A reconceptualization of ‘service’ along the lines set out by Werner Erhard AND the courage to stop proving that you/I are unable to make a difference. Put more simply and bluntly: you and I need to stop playing small!  Look around you and you will find that many businesses generate poor/indifferent service because the people in them – starting with the Tops – play small.

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?