Thinking about someone else is service-Ron Kaufman on service and value

The aspiration and quest for higher service is an “always on” agenda for any service-oriented business. In this age of seamless connectivity and information availability, products and services are easy to replicate and pace of improvements are rapid. Several small and monumental service innovations continue to redefine industry standards and the turf continues to get tougher by the day. The rules of exceptional service, however, remain unchanged. The renowned management speaker and author of the globally acclaimed book, ‘Uplifting Service,’ Ron Kaufman defines service as “taking action to create value for someone else.” Kaufman, who was speaking at the annual SHRM conference in Gurgaon describes service in six levels that range from undesirable to incredible. According to Kaufman, the six levels of service are― criminal, basic, expected, desired, surprising, and unbelievable.

Data can help, but only if you want it to

Advancements in technology and analytics enable several in-depth insights into what constitutes “delight factors” for a customer. Simple CRM systems can become useful tools for frontline staff to delight customers. Many times, the challenge is not about the cost and effectiveness of building the right platform, but more a question of the organisational leadership’s intent. A great service experience is a marriage between exceptional service design coupled with the intent to delight.

When an individual decides to delight a customer, s/he may be able to do it despite all odds. But that’s not sustainable. What organisations really need is to create a service process to create customer delight, even if there are multiple stakeholders and teams involved.’ Data and analytics can be used effectively as means to create customer delight. Data can track buying histories, spending patterns, and product preferences to pre-empt and fix points of failure in a service delivery process. On top of that, pre-empting customer expectations and proactive resolution of process-level issues may contribute to higher-order customer experiences, such as surprise and delight.

An example of exceptional service delivery can be typified with the following example. A customer calls his neighbourhood pizza delivery outlet to order pizza. When a customer calls for a pizza delivery and the customer representative on the other side proactively asks questions like “if the customer wants to order the same pizza as last week’s” and “if s/he would like to pay seamlessly through the same credit card used the last time” it delights the customer. How does the customer representative know all this? There was someone at the back-end of the chain who thought it would be cool to integrate the phone caller IDs with the CRM systems. Data can help in many ways, but only if you want it to. Its not magic!

The four categories of value

The intent to delight is dependent to a great extent to what Kaufman describes as the four categories of value― primary product, delivery system, service mind-set, and ongoing relationships. Each one is interdependent and they collectively comprise the four essentials of customer delight.

Talking on the topic of service and value is not easy anymore; almost everything about service is already said and heard. Hearing Ron Kaufman talk about service is a delight though! He keeps the audience engaged, he modulates his voice, mimics imaginary Germans and Scandinavians, and does not tire his audience; even though his speech may be long. He is not a selfish orator! Perhaps that’s the biggest testimony of his orientation towards service.

Stop abusing the word ‘Impact’ in performance discussions

Photo courtesy: Christian Faith

Photo courtesy: Christian Faith

How often have we heard a manager say, “You do good work, but I din’t see you bring impact?” A lot of performance management conversations ride on the back of ‘impact.’ While the smart (read crafty) employee uses it to steer the conversation for her/his benefit, it is the ultimate weapon that a manager uses to justify a promotion, increment, or an average rank to the guy s/he doesn’t like. Most of the ‘average blokes’ find it hard to defeat the impact argument during the performance review conversation. Most come out of the room grumbling without knowing why, while a few others even come out convinced though defeated. We grumble, we burn our blood, and we have endless conversations about why we deserved more but couldn’t get our fair share. We even grumble that the ‘smart-ass’ manipulator in the team, who has the IQ of a pocket calculator, has inched his way ahead by justifying his ‘impact.’

So what should the average bloke keep in mind the next time s/he hears about impact?

1. Too many impacts may bring the structure down. Physics has the answer to why any structure should not suffer too many impacts, big or small. Period. Running a business is not always about impact.

2. Nothing in this world is really an invention, but merely an improvement on somebody else’s work. The next time, when the pocket-calculator colleague boasts about her/his ‘life-altering idea’ it should not be too hard to prove that idea was merely borrowed.

3. Respect every individual’s uniqueness. There is no point for a manager to expect someone to share the same beliefs as himself. Employees who prove that they are perfectly in alignment with their manager’s beliefs have sold their souls and are now mere puppets. They seem to act and talk straight out of a script. The only fair thing to do is to make sure that every employee is respected and celebrated for her/his uniqueness.

4. I have the right to know where I really lag. Instead of hiding behind the shield of ‘impact’, it is alright to be forthcoming and make someone aware of her/his true weakness. A manager has a moral responsibility toward her/his team members, though it might even mean losing the employee in the near future. That’s what makes us different from army ants.

There may be others to this list, but these are my top ones.

Five self-discipline principles of meeting management

Convenor and participants of a meeting should exercise five self-disciple rules to ensure that the investment of time bears desired outcomes

Modern day complexities of conducting business have increased the reliance on active collaboration between executives and teams.  The need for active collaboration has consequently increased the reliance on meetings. Any professional’s typical working day is characterised by a mix of individual desk activities and collaborative mind-sharing through meetings.

While meetings have become a part and parcel of our professional lives, there is also no denying the fact that they’re not a favourite among most professionals. Besides considering meetings as one of the biggest impediments to employee productivity, many workforce surveys conducted by firms such as Hewitt, Mercer and the Corporate Leadership council across the years reveal that employees across the globe feel that meetings are a waste of time. Robert Half, a recruitment consulting firm, conducted a global survey in 2009 on the workforce’s perceptions about meetings. The results reveal that the key reason why employees feel that meetings are a waste of time is because participants lose focus and discuss anything they want, rather than the issue the meeting was called for.

Research indicates that in order to make meetings count, there are five self-discipline principles that the convenor and participants of a meeting should abide by, to ensure that meetings are productive and the investment of time bears desired results.

Script a well-defined agenda

Most participants in workforce surveys, who have complained about meetings being ineffective, note that the most common cause of meetings falling off track is the lack of a defined meeting agenda. The convenor holds accountability for clearly defining the agenda of a meeting, drilled down to the discussion points. Career consultant and prolific blogger Penelope Trunk, writer in her article that, “calling a meeting without a defined agenda is as good as not having one.”

Have realistic output expectations

Many convenors and participants enter a meeting room expecting a monumental shift in the business and operating environment.  Experts recommend that along with a clear definition of agenda, it is also necessary that the convenor and participants have a very clear understanding of what outputs are expected from the meeting. Having output expectations that are too aspirational may lead to unnecessary delays and stress. How often do we see people streaming out of meetings red-faced and flustered because the end-time stretched by hours? Craig Jarrow, author and business consultant, writes in his article, “meetings cost money and it is important to have clear output expectations before blocking a dozen of your senior managers in a room for 2 hours.”

Clearly communicate a start-time and end-time and stick to it

A meeting involves multiple participants who have different responsibilities, and widely-varied personal and professional preferences. It is unfair to expect that all meeting participants will be comfortable sparing the extra hour without upsetting his/her personal and professional obligations. It is the convenor’s responsibility to communicate a start and end-time to a meeting and assign a timekeeper.  An article published by the Human Resources magazine highlights the importance of communicating the start and end times so that the group is better prepared with their arguments and discussion points. Communicating the start and end times give participants a good sense of the time they invest in discussing every individual point of the agenda.

Ensure minimal distractions

A typical modern-day meeting is characterised by several participants taking phone calls and writing and responding to e-mails on their laptops. These distract other participants and many lose focus. Jarrow mentions that as a rule, many organisations have started convening “topless meetings” where laptops are banned and a phone-bowl is placed at the meeting room door for participants to drop their phones while entering the meeting.

Document clearly

It is important to assign one designated participant to take meeting notes and circulate it among all the participants after the meeting concludes. The convenor should share the original plan and meeting agenda with the note-taker, and read and verify the minutes-of-the meeting before they’re sent out.

While there is no debating the importance of meetings in a modern-day business environment, they can quickly lose their value when the convenor and participants lose focus. While there are several factors that contribute to meeting discipline, it is important that both the convenor and participants have a clear idea of the agenda and prepare themselves in advance so that meetings do not spill over time, lose focus, or end up with outputs that are not aligned with the expectations of the group.

Workplace gifting: Offering colleagues the option of choice

Gifting options that allow the receiver to exercise the option of choice reduce the risk of upsetting a colleague or an employee with the wrong gift

Many companies consider gifting an essential part of the organisation’s cultural fabric. New-employee forms in several organisations include details about the employee’s date of birth, anniversaries, and other personal information that have no direct relevance to the role, job profile, or employment offer. Beside record-keeping purposes, organisations typically use this information to broadcast and recognise small and large personal landmarks of employees through gifting initiatives.

Workplace gifting has become an integral part of engagement strategies in many organisations. While varied in nature and form, behavioural studies reveal that workplace gifts lead to sudden positive spikes in an employee’s engagement and motivation levels for a limited period of time.  While a numerical correlation between the nature of a gift and the consequent positive spurt in engagement is yet to be established, gifting between organisations and employees and between colleagues continues to be an integral part of organisational culture in most companies.

What constitutes the right gift?                  

While gifts at the workplace can drive positive motivation, empirical evidence also suggests that wrong gifts can result in adverse effects. Gifts can go terribly wrong! What works as a good gift for one individual can have the exact reverse effect on another. When Pratiksha Mishra, a customer-care executive in a global financial firm, received a musk perfume on her birthday from a male colleague, she was visibly upset. She interpreted the gesture as a crude remark on her personal hygiene. And all her colleague was doing was replicating the success of a gifting experience with another male colleague a few months ago.

Mr. Joshi, who is the General Manager at an international manufacturing firm, had to trash the “Diwali Gift” that his organisation sent him—a box of sweet biscuits. He is a diabetic and his wife would be terribly upset if she suspects that Mr. Joshi helps himself to sugar-based snacks during work.

The headache of collaboration

Added to that, it is often noticed that community gifting at the workplace becomes a Herculean task of management and collaboration. Soliciting individual contributions within a specified timeline and collaboration involved in arriving upon a mutually agreeable gift idea actually becomes a logistical nightmare for the individual who is tasked with it. The task gains an added layer of complexity when there is a cross-geography team involved.

Offer choice, do not impose

Behavioural scientists comment that the spectrum of “safe gifts” that can be based purely on gender, demographics, or age is rather small. While most rely on the above approximations, it is very hard to predict how person attributes value against a particular gift that s/he receives.

There has been an increasing trend of providing gift cards as a safe alternative for employee gifting. Gift cards offer an employee the choice to utilize the value according to his/her own discretion. Organisations and employees have many gifting options to choose from in this space. Some of the most popular ones are mentioned below.

Visa incentive card: This is a co-branded Visa card that a company loads with money and uses as part of the total rewards or employee incentive strategy.

Banking gift cards: This is a gift card that banks offer for enterprise employees and preloaded with a specific amount of money. An organisation typically uses these cards as a gift during festivals and special occasions. These cards usually carry the option for the user to load more money for later use.

Bitgifting: This is a virtual card offered by the incentive service company, Bitgifting. This is a virtual platform where colleagues and the employer can create gifting events for an individual where people can seamlessly contribute online. This eliminates the need for collaboration and scheduling and the contributions can be directly claimed in equivalent money terms by the receiver. The platform also allows contributors to leave a message to the recipient, thereby making the gifting experience long-lasting.

Yiftee: Although only available in the US at this point, this is a mobile application that allows users to send credits to a colleague that s/he can claim from the nearest Yiftee supported merchant. This application is supported with GPS and hence, geography-agnostic.

The process of gifting a colleague is always a tricky affair, as it entails a great amount of personal, demographic, and psychological estimations.  It appears that an individual or an organisation can greatly reduce the risks associated with workplace gifting by offering the receiver the option of choice.

Argo suit yourself: Why delegation is better than ‘command and control’

While running short-term risks of failed delivery and embarrassing delays, loosening the grip on operational controls yields bigger chances of project success

On February 24th the whole world will be tuning on their television sets to witness the unravelling of the biggest movie extravaganza known to man, The Oscars. The academy-nominated movie Argo has been a central topic of discussion and speculation among many in the movie circles this year. In the movie, a CIA operative facilitates the rescue of 6 US diplomats from Iran by posing as a movie producer from Canada. At a critical juncture, it looked like the plan was about to fail when one of the six stepped ahead and “improvised the plan” that ultimately turned things around and made the operation successful.

The improvisation sequence presents some essential learning tips for a project manager.

Help your team know what their role means for the greater goal

What Tony Mendez, the CIA agent who was leading the operation, did right was to instil the sense of empowerment among the participants involved. The industry expert and column writer, Tim Barry, reasons in his article, “Top 10 qualities of a project manager,” that the top quality of a project manager is to inspire in his team a ‘sense of shared vision’. Barry quotes from a concept from the renowned leadership thinker Bennis, “shared vision helps participants gain a view of what a task means for their jobs and for their lives.”

Instil belief

Unconvincing as it was, and packed with immense risks, Mendez’ plan was to bluff their way through the rebels who had taken over the airport. At various points of the movie, Mendez was noticed telling the six that if they wanted to avoid their nails being pulled out of their fingers they needed to start “believing” in the characters they were assigned.  C. Trent Rosecrans, a sports columnist wrote an article, outlining his research on what makes a good baseball manager. Beyond field formations, the right player allocations, and timing, Rosecrans argues that most of the sporting fraternity is unanimous on the view that a good manager’s role is to facilitate ‘belief’ among his players.

As it turns out, it was this belief in the plot that helped the actors in Argo stay true to their role in the operation. One of the six, who was assigned the role of illustrator stepped ahead and gave a 5 minute narration on the movie through the illustrations as if they were his creations. The act demonstrated a kind of honest passion that only someone with ‘belief’ could have pulled off.

So what are the benefits of empowerment for a manager apart from having successful projects?

1. Lesser headaches— Empowered team members will not feel cowed by the need to ask for “sign-offs” for every small and big decision in the project. Not all decisions will be right, but anyone doing something wrong has a greater possibility of owning the process of getting it right.

2. More time for the important stuff— A manager can dedicate more time to “ideate” and identify improvement opportunities rather than spend all his time in the “regular operational stuff”.

3. Greater chances of success— Research indicates that managers who empower have more engaged teams and have a higher probability of professional success compared to their “command-and-control” counterparts.

Many may ask, “How do I, as a manager, make sure that someone feels responsible and empowered when s/he comes to me asking what’s to be done?”   As it appears, it’s perhaps not such a bad idea to just say, “Suit yourself.”

Listen boss- You’re fired!

So the organization has lost talent over the last 2 years. Some of the loss was expendable. And like any other resource investment, some of the attrition was ‘regrettable.’ Talent loss, like any other capital investment, is part of the cost. True?

Maybe not! It’s not about the cost of replacement being 2.5-3.0 times the cost of the employee. The organization can afford it. The job market has shrunk, which means more skilled people are fighting for fewer jobs. Great, the organization will replace the loss with equally good (maybe better) talent! It’s also not about lost productivity or time to train a fresh hire. The organization has sufficient resources for contingencies. If all of that is true, does the organization really need to worry about some lost (and perhaps, easily replaceable) talent? The answer is an emphatic―yes, in a big way.

Let’s find out why. In times when talent scarcity has become a real problem, organizations have started realizing that when people leave, they take with them not just their aptitude but also a great deal of organizational knowledge. Tacit knowledge retention is never an easy task. And on top of that organizational knowledge means not just knowledge about systems and processes, but also about what’s not going right with the organization. An organization lets go an employee, not worrying about what word s/he will carry to the talent market outside, oftentimes ignoring the fact that every present and future employee is a brand ambassador. In the era of Glassdoor and professional social networks, such an attitude can potentially have a devastating impact on the organization’s employer brand. The potential long-term implication of a bad employer brand extends far beyond short-term attraction and retention. A bad employer finds itself difficult to gain access to key talent in critical markets thereby hampering the overall growth strategy and revenue.

Much too often, exit interviews are merely seen as a formality by HR and the organizational leadership. The leadership is not serious about investigating the real reasons for employee departure. A few days back my colleague and good friend who is an HR industry observer wrote an article on why people leave jobs. It is common knowledge that people don’t leave organizations; they leave managers. The key question for the organization remains― is there a way to identify bad managers who contribute to loss of reputation of the employer brand?

Identifying a bad manager is not an easy task. For an organization’s HR, knowledge about an individual is oftentimes limited to the annual performance assessment report. Behavioral studies reveal that it is human tendency to avoid skewed feedback and a manager’s direct report will more often be inclined to balance bad feedback by outlining some good attributes. The performance assessment gets even more “normalized” when there are multiple direct reports providing feedback to one manager. The consolidated assessment report, therefore, is a normalized aggregated report that smoothens out any alarming spikes reflected in individual feedbacks.  To add to that, most often the manager’s boss is responsible for aggregating individual feedbacks with the final authority to regard/disregard any individual feedback. If the manager has a good rapport with the boss, there is a further chance of dilution in the performance management process. It’s not an uncommon occurrence to see a manager flourishing professionally under a patronizing boss who covers up red flags and highlights successes. Oftentimes, teams with higher attrition rates show instances of a patronizing manager-boss association.

It is human nature to have favorites and develop positive biases. Managers usually develop favorites based on previous experience where an individual demonstrated stellar performance. A bad manager, however, is one who fails to acknowledge that business challenges and situations change and therefore past successes cannot be accurate indicators of future effectiveness.  A manager, however may bias his decisions about individuals based on biases and gut feeling, rather that accurate mapping of individual skills and project requirements. Such decisions include selection of individuals for high-profile critical projects and nominations to the HIPO pool. Bad decisions can have adverse effects on team morale and engagement, where individuals feel cheated and powerless.

Some typical commonalities exist among bad managers. An organization can look for the following characteristics to identify signs of a bad manager.

Early career advancements under remote leadership― If an individual has served most of his/her early career under a remote manager, the weak exposure to everyday management might imbibe in an individual a strong sense of invincibility. Most employees remark that a bad manager is one who regards his/her decision as final and is averse to questioning.

Remarkable personality difference between professional and personal life― Many remark that it is common to notice a remarkable difference in personalities between a bad manager’s professional and personal lives. The otherwise stern and bullying manager at work transforms into a docile and amiable personality outside of work. The difference in personalities is often driven by a professional approach that heavily conflicts with the manager’s personal characteristics, such as insecurity, acquired perceptions of effectiveness, and prior exposure to management styles.

Less diverse experience in 2 or lesser organizations― A common attribute among bad managers is the lack of professional diversity. Owing the lack of experience and exposure to different management styles and organizational cultures, a bad manager has uni-dimensional and siloed views about performance and professional effectiveness.

Restrictive associations― A bad manager is usually inclined to restrict his/her associations to people at the same or at higher levels of the organizational hierarchy. S/he is not usually seen having lunch with his sub-ordinates, sharing a light moment with the team, or participating in non-work discussions with his/her direct reports.

Organizations fervently look into engagement surveys and other forms of corporate forensics to identify the bad apple that leads to disengagement and turnover, oftentimes overlooking the possibility that a manager, in fact, can be the bad apple. While there are numerous research studies indicating that managers are the single largest reason for people leaving an organization, there are very few that outline the organizational response of having a bad manager. Many believe that there really is one organizational response― fire the manager! And make a big deal out of it. Not just because it eliminates the bad apple, it sends out the right message to the organization― of empowerment, of equality, and of corporate integrity.