‘Leaning Out’ Processes? Or Creating Service Excellence?

This weekend I took my husband for a medical procedure. The procedure was conducted at the outpatient facility of a large, regional medical group that my husband’s doctor belongs to. And yes, as you can imagine (and as I’m often asked), as coauthor of The Toyota Way to Service Excellence, I do pay careful attention to service experiences of all sorts. Not having had to visit this kind of outpatient facility very often, I was particularly interested in what my husband, and I, as customers, would experience.

Here’s how it went:

  •  As soon as we entered the building, a narrow hallway led us directly to the reception area. My husband was checked-in immediately and given a clipboard with a short form to fill out.
  • A friendly admin then asked my name and my relationship to my husband, which she wrote on the top of my his admission paperwork.
  • Next, I was handed a pager (just like one you get when waiting for a restaurant table or take-out food) and told: “Keep this with you. When the procedure is done, it will buzz. Come right back here and we’ll let you know which recovery room to go to.”
  • My husband and I found seats in the waiting room, and moments later a prep nurse came over, collected both my husband and his paperwork and whisked him back for the procedure.
  • I nervously settled in to wait for my pager to buzz so I’d know when to head back to the recovery room.

The whole check-in couldn’t have taken more than 7 or 8 minutes. Quick. Efficient.

Although I don’t know for sure, I could imagine that the regional medical group used some kind of lean six sigma strategy to make the intake process more efficient by removing waste. After all, no one likes to wait, and with the large volume of patients coming through (the waiting room was jam-packed), finding ways to gain efficiency for the staff by using things like pagers could be quite helpful. Patients moved quickly through the check in process and ’things’ really seemed to flow.  On the surface, everything appeared to be great. But was it really?

I don’t think so. And the reason is that although the process may have been efficient, the whole experience made me feel like my husband and I were ‘things’. Especially when the pager went off (buzzed loud enough to make me and all the others waiting around me jump). As I leaped up to find out how to get the pager to stop buzzing, and, more importantly, where to go to be with my husband in recovery, (no one had updated me on his progress during the procedure), I thought to myself, “This is really terrible. Maybe the pagers are an easy and efficient way for the staff to let people know their loved ones are ‘ready’, but I’m not picking up a sandwich — a thing — my husband is a person, and I am too.”

Contrast this with an experience I had a couple of years ago with a different medical group.

  • Similar type of facility and intake process. No waiting time to be checked in.
  • My husband and I were then taken by a nurse to a prep room. My husband was able to stay with me while the nurse did my prep and while the doctor explained what would happen from start to end of our time at the facility.
  • Once I was wheeled into the operating room, the same nurse took my husband to a group waiting area. She then updated him regularly on my progress and when the procedure was over she brought him back to the recovery room so he would be there as soon as I was wheeled in.

At no time during the experience, which, even though pretty routine, was still quite stressful, did I — or my husband — have to be alone. We both heard all of the same instructions and were able to ask questions the other didn’t think of. The process itself was very efficient, but that wasn’t the most important part of the experience; more importantly, the personalized care made both my husband and I feel not like ‘things’, but valued and cared for as human beings. And isn’t that what a service experience — especially one in healthcare — should make us feel like?

As Jeff Liker, my coauthor, and I explain in The Toyota Way to Service Excellence, service excellence is not about simply ‘leaning out’ processes to remove waste, improve internal efficiency and drive short-term financial results. Service excellence starts with a deep understanding of what each of your specific customers want, need and value as a human being (see Principle 2 of The Toyota Way to Service Excellence. 17 Principles). Once you know that, you can continuously strive towards creating those peak service experiences that connect with each of your customers to improve their lives.

I often hear lean practitioners say, “Focus on the value stream first. Start by improving the value stream.” The problem with that is it is very easy to become focused only on driving internal efficiency. Service, by definition, involves focusing not on ourselves, but on others — our customers — first. I say, “Focus on the customer. Start by really understanding what you can do to improve things for your customer.” Once you understand what each of your customers — the people your business serves — need, you can then find unique ways to improve the way value flows to them to create the peak service experiences each of them wants.

That’s good for your customers and good for your business.

Your customers have many different choices of where to purchase their services and products. Unless you can provide the experiences that they truly want and value — that will improve their lives as human beings — you are in danger of losing them to competitors who figure out how to do just that. Years ago, I actually had the same doctor my husband did. As an independent practice, the experience was personal and human. Once they joined the regional medical group, however, I began to feel that I was just a ‘thing’. So I ‘shopped around’ until I found a practice that had the human, personal, caring experience that I wanted. Then I switched.

Service excellence isn’t about ‘leaning out’ processes. It’s about people. And about finding the specific ways for your service providers to deliver your services efficiently and effectively and connect with your customers in ways that makes them feel like valued human beings in each and every interaction.

This week’s challenge. Take a look at your company’s service processes. Are they simply ‘lean’ or are they delivering service excellence? Your customers really care. And you should too.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts and experiences on this topic.

Karyn Ross


Does your company have a ‘lean’ program that’s focused only on driving internal efficiency and not on service excellence? Or, have a question about how your company can get started on service excellence? Contact me at karyn@karynrossconsulting.com. I’d love to help.


Creativity Takes…Time and Practice!

In my role as a service excellence consultant, as competition for customers gets tougher, I’m hearing a lot more talk about innovation and creativity than I used to. As I work to help people rediscover and use their creativity and Toyota Way principles, practices and tools to turn those ideas into peak service experiences, I’ve come across quite a number of what I call ‘misconceptions’ about creativity and the creative process.

One of the biggest misconceptions is the idea that creativity is something that ‘just is’ or that it’s something that ‘happens’ in one fell swoop, like a bolt of lightning coming down from the sky: that ‘innovation’ means a new idea that simply magically appears out-of-the-blue and all-of-a-sudden – and definitely only to other people – not to us!

In my experience, that’s not how it works. Creativity, the basis of innovation, is a natural part of our humanity; we all have the propensity – whether we acknowledge it or not – to be creative: to synthesize experiences and ideas together to combine what we know into something that is ‘new’.

Misconception #1: Creativity happens suddenly out of nowhere!

If you think carefully about it, many of the products and services that seem suddenly to have ‘appeared out of nowhere’ actually just combined a number of tried and true ideas in a different way:

  • Your smartphone is really just a handheld computer + a wireless phone. Over time and countless iterations synthesizing already known ideas, people simply figured out how to make a computer small enough to be held in the palm of a person’s hand and combine it with wireless phone technology!
  • Uber. Although ride-sharing might seem like a new business model, it’s actually been around since the mid 1910’swhen jitneys drove people in unlicensed cabs for low fares. The folks at Uber simply figured out how to synthesize app technology and an already tried business model to connect riders and drivers in a way that works for both.

As my mother (and maybe yours) often said, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” If you look carefully at many other innovations, you’ll be able to unravel the synthesis of those ideas over time as well. Small, iterative changes and ideas that built on each other allowed people to do things in what only appear to be radical new ways. Creativity, then, is something that ‘happens’ over time.

Misconception #2: Creativity can’t be learned

Another common ‘misconception’ about creativity is that you either ‘have it’ or you ‘don’t’: you’re a ‘creative type’ or ‘you’re not’. Once you realize that creativity involves synthesizing past experiences and ideas over time, then it’s easy to dispel this common myth too.

We’re all creative. If we want to be more creative, it doesn’t take sudden inspiration or a bolt of lightning, what it takes is practice. Regular, deliberate practice. Just like learning and improving any other skill. If you want to improve your golf game, you head out to the driving range and practice. You might even engage a golf pro to help direct you, give you feedback and make sure that you’re practicing correctly.

Like anything else we want to get better at, we need to Include regular time for deliberately ‘practicing creativity’:

  • Set aside a specific time each day to spend thinking about how to solve a problem that seems impossible to you right now. Think about situations you’ve been in previously that were similar and what you could apply from those situations that could solve this problem.
  • Then think about situations you were in that seem totally dissimilar. What could you apply from those experiences to this one? How could the learning from that situation help you here?
  • Draw or write your ideas down (yes! Stick figures and poor spelling are totally fine!) and share them with a friend or colleague. Add in their thoughts and ideas too!

Then put your ideas into practice and try them out. I bet you’ll be pretty surprised at how creative you really are.

Creativity – and innovation – isn’t something mystical or magical. It’s practical. It’s the way we use our past experience and learning to solve problems and reach our goals on an ongoing basis. And the more time we spend practicing being creative, the more we will find that we are creative more often.

As people living in an ever more complicated world and as companies working to find ways to create the products and services that will satisfy and delight our customers, we’re all going to need to rely more and more on our creativity. Are you spending the time you need to deliberately practice your creativity each day?


The Toyota Way to…Peace!

Today is International Peace Day.

Although many people may not think about it this way, I believe that Toyota Way (lean) is actually a form of alternative dispute resolution, bringing people together to work in peaceful and harmonious ways. Here’s an example of what I mean:

A number of years ago, I was working with a financial services organization that was having a serious customer satisfaction problem. In order to accurately create the service their customers needed in a timely manner, two parts of the organization needed to work closely together. Problem was, they didn’t work together well at all. Each part of the organization blamed the other for their customers’ dissatisfaction and the people doing the work often spent more time arguing with each other and pointing fingers than they did solving customer problems. By the time I started working with them, both the organization’s leaders and the people doing the work seemed to have forgotten that the original problem was customer dissatisfaction. All they could think about was how miserable it was dealing with their colleagues in the other part of the organization. And, most importantly, what they didn’t see was that problems in creating the valuable work for their customers were actually causing people’s relationships to be disrupted – not the other way around.

Does this story sound familiar? I’m sure it does for many of you. Or maybe you work in an organization that has constant turnover. Or one in which people have a palpable dread on Sunday night, or after vacation, of returning to work.

In many organizations, these types of problems are considered ‘people’ problems. However, if you look more closely, in my experience, departments that are unable to get along and colleagues pitted against each other, are often really ‘symptoms’ of ways of working and underlying work processes that aren’t functioning properly.

Think about it. When you’ve been in work situations where the way work is being done is efficient and effective and work is flowing along optimally without hiccups, how have you felt? How have you felt about your colleagues? Probably pretty good. Everybody is able to do what they have to do when they have to do it. Your customers are probably pretty happy too and there are far fewer complaints to deal with. All in all, a peaceful, virtuous circle.

For me, that’s where Toyota Way (lean) comes in. With its focus on long-term systems thinking, purpose and deeply understanding (and serving) customers, the Toyota Way creates the conditions in which people are able to work together harmoniously. A few examples:

·     Finding ways to build in quality and not pass defects to our colleagues in the next part of the process means fewer opportunities to be frustrated with each other

·     Focusing on deeply understanding and delivering what each customer wants means that instead of spending time arguing amongst ourselves, we work collaboratively to solve our customers’ problems

·     Coaching people to develop them to be critical thinkers and creative problem solvers gives them the ability to think through complicated, difficult situations and make careful, considered decisions incorporating diverse perspectives. Not only at work, but at home as well.

As adults, most of us probably spend more time at work than we do anywhere else. When we spend hours working in environments that are fearful, contentious, and stressful, the rest of our lives and how we deal with others at home and in our wider community is bound to be negatively affected – like the age-old comic of the boss who yells at an employee, and then the employee goes home and yells at his spouse, who yells at their child, who yells at the dog. Imagine how wonderful it would be if instead, we worked in environments that promoted compassion, caring, cooperation and collaboration – peace. We’d certainly be more likely to come home, hug our spouses and kids and work collectively for positive change in our communities.

If we want a more peaceful world, one of the best places to start to make a change is in our work environments. Finding ways to work, like the Toyota Way, that focus on holistically improving the entire system, brings people together to promote service to others to fulfill a deeper purpose.

Every single one of us is responsible for finding peaceful ways to coexist in our world. As you go about your work today, ask yourself, what is my organization doing to create a peaceful work environment and a peaceful world? What can I do to help?

Peaceful wishes for the whole world today.

Create Practically!

Recently, I attended a great conference about continuous improvement and innovation. It was a wonderful opportunity to meet and connect with people who are as interested in finding new ways to satisfy customers as I am. As I expected, there was a lot of discussion about ways to help organizations become more innovative.

But, there was also something that I hadn’t expected from a group gathered together to focus on innovation. And that was the attitudes and assumptions about creativity I experienced. Over and over, to my surprise, I heard comments such as:

“I’m the analytical type. I’m just not creative.”

“Creativity isn’t for us. We leave that to the ‘creative types’…you know the ones in the art department.”

“Creativity is a nice idea, but it doesn’t get anything done, and we’re all about results here.”

Thinking about it, I realized I was surprised because as I see it:

  • Innovation means making or doing things in new and/or different ways, which, in itself, implies creativity: having the ideas needed to bring new products or services into existence.
  • We are all creative beings. Creativity is what being human is all about; we’re both wired to put the knowledge gained from our experiences together in new and unique ways and we are driven to do so. Just think about all the things that seemed ‘impossible’ to even imagine, ten years ago, five years ago, or even yesterday, that are now just simply part of our everyday regular routine.
  • There’s no divide between creativity and practicality. Creativity – generating new ideas from the synthesis of past knowledge and experience – is simply the first step in turning vision into reality. Without an idea, a vision to begin to work from, there’s nothing to turn into reality.

As I thought more about my experience I realized that if we, as individuals and organizations, don’t see ourselves as creative, and, as well, view creativity as impractical, we miss huge opportunities: opportunities to create the peak service experiences and innovative products that will change our customers’ lives AND opportunities to engage each of our team members as the fully creative beings that they are.

So what can we do to change our ideas and assumptions about creativity? How can we help our people generate creative, new ideas to better meet the needs of each of our customers AND put those ideas into practice to deliver the results our business needs?

  • Listen carefully for what I call “I can’t” thinking, both in yourself and your team. Statements like “we can’t do that” or “that’s impossible” are good indications that an underlying attitude of “I’m not creative” exists. When you encounter “I can’t” thinking, stop, write down every possible obstacle, and then consciously work to generate as many ideas as possible to remove those obstacles. Spending time generating those ideas will give everyone practice being creative! And the more we practice, the more confidence we’ll gain that no matter who we are, what department we work in or what job we have, we’re all creative.
  • Once you and your team have generated an idea, immediately make a plan to test it in reality – as quickly as possible. If you have an idea this morning, find a way to test it in the afternoon! (Yes, you can…remember, no “I can’t” thinking.) See what happens: did what you think was going to happen occur? Or did something else happen? Once you try your idea and find out what happened you’ve taken the first step to turning an idea into reality – what I call “practical creativity™”. If the idea worked, great! If not, no problem, on to the next! The quicker you can “try your ideas in reality” the quicker you’ll see results for your customers and company.

The world is changing rapidly. For us, our customers and our companies. To flourish, thrive and fulfill our purpose, as people and organizations, increasingly we’re all going to need to be innovative. Luckily, for us, whether or not we realize it, as humans we are all creative beings. Pablo Picasso said, “Everything you can imagine is real.” I believe that is true. Once you do too, just imagine what you and your team will be able to create!

Are You Certain? Or Creative?

Recently, I’ve been thinking about how much I actually don’t know, even when I am absolutely certain that I do! For example, the other day I’d planned to meet a friend for lunch at a local coffee shop. I arrived at 1 pm, the appointed time, but my friend wasn’t there. After waiting a few minutes I started wondering if she’d forgotten. She has a very busy schedule and it’s happened once or twice before. Twenty grumpy minutes later, as I’d convinced myself that she had forgotten (yet again), she texted me that she’d had a flat tire and was waiting for roadside assistance. Boy was I wrong! But I had been so certain that I knew why she was late.

Think about a time something like that happened to you. You probably went through a pretty similar thought process: you were certain that you knew what was happening based on past experience…which you then found out was wrong! We experience this all the time – in our personal lives and our work lives: under the guise of being certain we make all kinds of assumptions based on the conclusions our brain leaps to from our prior experiences.

Why do we do this?

Because our brain is wired for certainty. Certainty makes our brain feel good! And when our brain feels good so do we! And the better our brain feels, the more likely we are to want to continue to be certain! Since our brain loves certainty so much, it’s important to work hard to consciously realize that we are often making assumptions under the guise of certainty.

Here’s why.

Being certain prevents us from asking the questions of our customers – and ourselves – that will allow us to deliver the specific value that each of them wants and needs. Making assumptions disrupts our ability to think and act creatively because we believe we know – based on our past experiences – what our customers want now and how we can – or can’t – deliver that. But there are many possibilities. And discovering and trying out those possibilities is what creativity is all about. With the speed that customer’s needs change, now more than ever, our organizations need creativity to find new and better ways to satisfy each of them so that we thrive for the long-term and fulfill our business’ unique purpose in the world.

Let’s see how this works. Think about a time in your organization that your team was trying to solve a customer service problem: let’s say late deliveries. Maybe the conversation went something like this:
Manager: We’ve had three customer complaints about late deliveries this week. Seems unusual. Anyone have any idea what’s going on?
First CSR: Yeah, we’ve had lots of customers call us late this week because they’re all on summer vacation.
Second CSR: Agreed. And when they call late, there’s no easy way for us to change the default delivery time in the online system. It’s just the way it works. Nothing to be done about it.
Third CSR: And everyone knows that delivery always slows down in the summer. Drivers are on vacation too!

Sound familiar? That’s what I thought.

In my work as a service excellence consultant and lean coach, I hear conversations like this all the time. Based on people’s past experience, they are absolutely certain they know what’s going on – and that there’s nothing that can be done. But is that really so? Or is our brain just leaping to conclusions and making assumptions?

Making assumptions, I’d say. Here’s how you can tell:
1. If your organization is like many others I’ve worked with, this conversation is taking place in a conference room, not on the service floor where the problem is occurring. And if we aren’t where the problem is happening how can we be certain of what’s really going on? Did every customer with a late delivery actually call late? How can we be sure that the delivery service is short-handed? Did we ask them? And how do we know that it’s impossible to have software changed? Have we asked IT about every possibility?
2. No – or very few – questions are asked during the discussion. Everyone simply states their opinion – or perception – based on their experiences. When I hear that, I’m pretty sure we’re dealing with assumptions because not asking questions is one of the tricks our brain uses to allow us to maintain the certainty that makes us, and our brain, happy!

Unfortunately, every time we believe we are certain and ignore the fact that we’re probably making assumptions, we lose the opportunity ask the questions that will allow us to understand what each of our customers really wants and needs, how the work we do really gets done and even how the computer systems with which we interact really work. And in not asking those questions we lose the opportunity to find new and creative ways to satisfy those customers and do our work.

So how can we get better at recognizing that we’re making probably making assumptions even when we’re certain?
1. Pay attention to what you are thinking and saying. Start to notice that the thoughts you have – no matter how certain you are about them – are probably assumptions.
2. Question everything. As soon as you think something – anything – ask yourself why you think that? How do you really know it?
3. Write down open-ended questions that you could ask yourself and others:? How do you know that’s so? How can we find that out?
4. Go and see with your own eyes what’s going on where the work is being done and the problems are occurring for your customers. When you’re there you can ask questions to understand and dispel your own – and others’ – assumptions.

At first, it may feel strange to question yourself and others. Remember, our brain wants to be certain and feel good. After a while, though, you’ll find that questioning to dispel assumptions becomes a habit. And that not being certain has its own special kind of joy: the joy of an ever-deeper understanding of our complicated and complex ever-changing world, the joy of more deeply connecting with customers and the people you work together with, and the joy of creativity – of finding new and better ways of delivering service based on what each customer really wants now – not on assumptions or past experiences.

So next time you’re really certain about something, I challenge you to override your brain’s desire to feel good and, instead, ask yourself the necessary questions to find out if what you’re really doing is making an assumption.

My customers need me to be more creative so I’m working on this every day. Your customers need you to be more creative so I hope you will too.

Do You Have the Creativity Habit?

I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity lately, and about why so many of the people that I meet and work with tell me that they aren’t very ‘creative’: that they seem to have trouble coming up with new ideas to solve problems either in their personal lives or at work.

Take, for example, a discussion I had a couple of weeks ago with Joe, a friend of mine who’s just started his first small business, a personal transportation company somewhere between a tradition taxi dispatch service and Uber. “Some things aren’t working quite the way we expected they would,” he said worriedly. The drivers that we thought would jump at the chance to work with us aren’t as interested as we thought they’d be.” When I asked why that might be, Joe paused and then answered, “The biggest problem is that right now they’re being paid same or next day for their rides. That’s what taxi drivers are used to. But the system we’ve set up has them getting payments once a week.” “If that’s the problem,” I asked, “Then why not just pay them next day in the way that they’re used to? I’m sure if you really thought about it, you could find a creative way to make it work!” Joe looked at me like I was crazy and started reeling off a long list of what I like to call ‘I cant’s’…. All the reasons why doing something that hasn’t been done before ‘can’t’ be done.

Maybe you’ve had a similar experience personally or in the organization you work in. I see it happen all the time:
1. A customer calls with an unusual request and instead of coming up with a creative solution that solves their problem, your service rep gives them a long explanation about why they ‘can’t’ help: we don’t offer that service on this platform…our computer systems aren’t set up to do that…it’s not within my authority…to name just a few…
2. One of your supervisors asks a team member to complete a task they are unfamiliar with and instead of figuring out how they might accomplish it, the team member reels off all the reasons they ‘can’t’: not trained…don’t have the right software…don’t have time in my schedule…
3. You want to take up a new hobby – let’s say golf – but the list of excuses you give yourself about why you ‘can’t’ prevents you from even getting started: no time…don’t have the right equipment…too expensive..too far away…and instead of figuring out how to overcome these potential barriers, you simply give up the idea altogether…

Now, you might be thinking to yourself, what does ‘I can’t’ have to do with creativity? Creativity is a sudden inspiration that come out of nowhere! Its an instant flash of insight in which the solution to a problem ‘magically appears’ that other people have in the shower or wake up with in the middle with, isn’t it? It’s about big, new shiny things no one’s ever heard of before, right?

I don’t think so. In my opinion creativity is about figuring out how to solve those nagging, regular, run of the mill problems we run into every day. The ones that we so often tell ourselves – consciously or unconsciously – that we ‘can’t’ do anything about.

In my opinion and experience, all of us, as human beings, have to ability to be creative: that is to take knowledge and ideas that we have from previous experiences and synthesize them into ‘new’ ways of thinking about and doing things. We’re all innately creative. In order to tap into that creativity, though, we have to get rid of what I call the ‘I can’t habit’ – that voice in your head that generates the long list of reasons you ‘can’t’ find solutions to your problems or the problems your customers are having.

As we’ve all experienced, habits can be very hard to change. Especially those we’ve had for a long time. Oftentimes, we’ve had the ‘I can’t habit’ so long, we don’t even recognize we have it. It’s just become our default. So how can you work towards replacing an ‘I can’t ‘ habit with an ‘I can’ one?

Through deliberate practice.

Here’s my suggestion of how to start. As soon as you hear yourself – or one of your team members – start to list all the reasons something is not possible, STOP, and immediately:
1. Take a piece of paper and divide it in half (no piece of paper? How about the Notes function on your iPhone!)
2. Across the top of the paper, write down what you or your customer wants to happen: for example: add timekeeping to my account…have Z-folds for their tri-fold brochure…run a marathon…
3. On the left side of the paper, make a list of all the reasons your brain is telling you ‘I can’t’ – get them all out! Challenge yourself to write down as many as you can!
4. On the right side, write down at least two things you could do about each ‘I can’t’: to do that, think back to previous experiences that were similar that got solved – what did you do and how could that be applied to this situation? If you are stuck, ask a friend or family member for suggestions! It’s not cheating, it’s collaborating! Write down all ideas, no matter how crazy they might seem!!
5. Pick one thing from the right hand side ideas to start doing immediately! Once you’ve gotten rid of the associated ‘I can’t’, start working on another item.
6. Give yourself a reward for each ‘I can’t’ that you turn into an ‘I can’! You deserve it and the reward helps to reinforce the new habit!

Keep ‘practicing’ this way and soon you’ll find that you’ve replaced your ‘I can’t’ habit with a ‘let’s figure out how to do this’ habit – and that’s what creativity is all about!

Now I bet you’re wondering, what about Joe? Was he able to solve the problem his company was having? Well, the next week he gave me a call and told me how after some work, he had come up with a couple of different ways to pay drivers next day. None of them complicated or difficult – and all of them relying on experience and knowledge he had previously. “You know”, he said, “this will be a great differentiator for us. And all I had to do was really put my mind to figuring out ‘how’. It’s made me realize there’s always a way.”

So, next time you hear yourself, a team member or anyone else say, ‘that’s not possible…we can’t….” simply get out a piece of paper and help them learn to figure out how. Keep practicing and soon you’ll have the ‘creativity habit’ and so will they!

What’s In It For Me?

Hand cupped to ear to hear better against a gradated green background.

In my role teaching organizations how to deliver service excellence, I’m often asked a version of the following question: “As a service rep, (or manager, or continuous improvement coach, etc.) how do I know what my value is?”

I’m always somewhat surprised by that question because whether the organization I’m working with makes products or services, they’re all really in the same business: satisfying the customers who choose to do business with them. In my opinion, the question really isn’t “How do I know and show my value?” It’s “How do I best help others receive the value that they want and need?” In other words, instead of asking “What’s in it for me?”, the question we really need to ask is “What’s in it for others – for the people I serve?”

As organizations, focusing on others, our customers, is the way to fulfill our purpose. And If you’re a customer service organization (and in this day and age, all organizations need to be!) it’s not altruistic to think this way, it’s simply good business: without customers, we don’t have a business. Today’s customers have an infinite amount of choices of where to get their products and services: online, or in person, and there are endless, easy ways to find similar product and service offerings at competitive quality and cost.

So why would a customer in today’s market remain loyal to one company? What’s the differentiator? Service. That means we need to have a very deep understanding of what our customers really want – not what we think they want or what we want them to want – or we won’t be able to serve THEM and deliver the value that THEY want, when THEY want it, exactly as THEY want it.

Instead of focusing on figuring out what our value is, what we need to do is spend our time and energy focusing on understanding what is valuable to each of our customers. How do we get that deep understanding? It’s actually very simple. All we need to do is ASK!

And when I say ‘ask’, I mean ‘ask’ with open ears, open eyes an open mind and an open heart.

What do I mean by that?

With open eyes and ears means paying attention and being present in the moment so that we can really see and hear what our customers are telling us about our products and services. From their point of view and their experience with them, not as we assume they are experiencing them from our own, internal perspective. Pay close attention to your customer’s body language and tone of voice when they are telling you about their experience. Are they smiling or frowning? Are they smiling with their mouth but not with their eyes? How about the tone of their voice? Especially important for service interactions that take place over the phone. Can you hear stress and strain in your customer’s voice even though they are saying everything is fine? If something seems incongruent, like the customer who says everything is great, but isn’t smiling and has their arms folded across their chest, further questions to understand their experience are definitely in order!

With an open mind means listening objectively. Because serving customers involves people interacting with other people, it’s easy for us to take a customer’s experience personally. Especially if the customer is telling us something that didn’t quite go the way they wanted it to. As people, when things ‘go right’ we’re proud and want to take credit for the outcome. When things don’t go so well, it’s human nature to want to find a reason it’s not related to us! That makes it easy to have ‘selective hearing’ so that we hear only what we want to hear. However, if we don’t listen objectively, taking our own egos and feelings out of the picture, we won’t have the opportunity to understand what’s happened from our customer’s point of view.

And finally, with an open heart means listening with compassion and empathy. Our customers are human beings. People just like we are. With their own struggles and imperfections. When they are telling us what is valuable to them and what didn’t go as they expected, if we listen and respond with compassion and empathy we’re really serving their basic human needs as well as the needs our products and services provide! And isn’t that what every customer really wants? To be treated with dignity and respect as a human being?

The other night I had dinner at a popular restaurant. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a great experience. Anything that could have gone wrong, did. Some of our appetizers were forgotten, my friend was given the wrong main course, and everyone’s fries were cold. We had to flag down a server and then wait for new ones to be cooked. As you can imagine we weren’t very happy.

Eventually, our server came over to check on us, asking, “Everything going great? Just like you expected?” Of course, it wasn’t, but no further follow up questions were asked in response to our perfunctory nods and unenthusiastic ‘yeah, I guess so…”. And later on, when I talked with the manager she said, “I’m sorry I didn’t know about the problems. You should have asked for me earlier.” In my opinion, that’s backwards thinking in customer service. If she had proactively come around to customer tables to ASK how things were going – and listened with open ears, an open mind and open heart –  to what customers had to say about their experience (her job as a customer service manager), she would have ‘seen’ what was really happening from her customers point of view. And at that point it certainly may have been possible to do the things that would have made our experience much better.

ASKING customers about what they want, need and value becomes much easier once we stop thinking about ourselves and our value, and instead concentrate on others and their needs. It’s not easy to do. But it’s worth it. So the next time someone in your organization asks “How do I know what my value is”, I challenge you to turn the question around and help them figure out “What do your customers really value and what can you do to help them receive that value?”

As I always say, “Ask not what your customer can do for you and your business, but what you can do for your customer as the real, live human being that they are.” That’s what service excellence really means.

Resistant to Change or Resistant to Learning?

Do you enjoy learning new things?

Lately I’ve been surprised by the number of people who don’t seem to. And how do I know that? By the reaction that they have when they are in situations in which they need to – or are asked to – change.

For example, take the manager that I had a conversation with the other day. “Our customers don’t seem to be sending in as much new business as we expected. Strange thing is, we haven’t had any complaints. And nothing seems to have changed on our end, so we’re having trouble figuring it out. Can you help us come up with some ideas we could try?” As we discussed the problem further, I offered a number of possible suggestions, each of which was met with the same response: “No, I don’t think that would work for us. Nope, not that either.” I even suggested some books and articles that might be helpful. “Not much on reading. No time. Not really useful.” I’d like to say that by the end of the conversation, I’d succeeded in convincing the manager to give anything new a try, but I have to admit I didn’t.

As I reflected on the conversation – and the others like it that I’ve had recently – I started to think about why people find it hard to change even when there is a very obvious problem; and solutions that have worked in past don’t seem to be working anymore. One of the conclusions that I came to is that in order to do things differently – change, in other words – one has to learn something new. If we don’t learn something new, then we will simply keep doing the same old things over and over again – whether they work or not. And we all know Einstein’s famous quote about that: “What’s the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result!”

So, if we want different results: more new business coming in or increases in client satisfaction and retention, then we’re going to have to change what we are doing. And the only way to do that is to learn. Learn how to think about – and do things – in new and different ways. Ways we didn’t know before. So in my opinion, if we don’t like or want to learn, change is going to be very difficult, in fact, pretty much downright impossible.

As I thought more about this, I started to wonder why many adults don’t enjoy learning. Children don’t seem to have that problem. They love to learn. Think about how proud and excited they are when they’ve mastered a new skill: walking, throwing a ball, tying their shoes, for example. Learning new things, changing and growing, brings them great joy.

So why doesn’t that seem to be the same for adults?

In my experience, in many organizations, there is a great emphasis on ‘knowing’. People, (especially managers) feel that they are valued – and are valuable – as employees, because of what they ‘know’. ‘Knowing’ what to do in tricky situations, ‘knowing’ how to use complicated computer systems, and ‘knowing’ the answers to customers’ problems, for example. People are compensated, rewarded and promoted for ‘knowing’. ‘Knowing’ feels safe and comfortable and good.

To many people, I believe, having to learn something means that they don’t know. After all, if they knew how to do something, like use that new computer workload management system, or get customers to send in more new business, then they wouldn’t have to learn how to do it would they? For many people, ‘not knowing’ is a very uncomfortable feeling. Uncomfortable and scary. After all, if our organizations pay us and promote us for ‘knowing’, what is going to happen when someone sees that we don’t? If we are valued and valuable because of what we ‘know’, what happens to our value if we ‘don’t know’.

Not sure if this is what is happening in your organization? Try asking these questions?

  • What value does our company put on ‘knowing’? Are people primarily praised, rewarded and promoted for ‘knowing’ answers and ‘knowing’ how to do things? If so, then they might be very unwilling to ‘show’ that they don’t know – and that will prevent them from learning.
  • Does our company encourage people to ask questions? What happens if someone says they don’t know? How comfortable are people asking questions or asking for help when they are unsure of how to do something? If people aren’t able to ‘show’ that they don’t know by asking questions or asking for help, then they won’t even get the opportunity to learn at all!
  • How do people react to the words ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’? What happens if you ask people to read an article or book? Do they complain or roll their eyes? Or grumble under their breath? Happens more frequently than you might think. But unless we have new ideas coming in from somewhere – then we aren’t going to learn and we’re going to keep doing the same things over and over again.

No one can know everything. The world we live in is constantly changing, and changing quickly. Customer needs are constantly changing too. What was once ‘a nice to have’ is now an absolute requirement: electrical outlets at every seat on the airplane. In order to solve problems for our customers and for our business, we’re going to need to change the way we do things. Times change, customers change, and we need to change as well. And, as I said before, the only way to do that is to learn, no matter how uncomfortable or scary it seems.

So, next time you have a conversation with one of your employees like I had with the manager mentioned earlier, or if your organization seems ‘resistant to change’ take a look at people’s underlying feelings towards learning. You may not have a ‘change-management’ issue, you may really have a ‘learning’ issue.

Do You Know What Really Engages Employees?

Does your company use some kind of survey to measure employee engagement?

If you do, I’m wondering if you’ve noticed what many of the companies that I work with have been experiencing. No matter how much time and effort you put into trying to find creative new ways to recognize employees so that they’ll be more engaged, nothing ever really seems to work:

  • “It doesn’t feel like my manager understands or recognizes the work I do.”
  • “The same people are always recognized and rewarded. It’s just not fair.”
  • “Our rewards and recognition system isn’t meaningful to me.”

These are just a few of the comments I’ve heard from those surveys lately. Frustrated managers sigh and shake their heads: “It seems that no matter how many pizza parties, jeans days, peer recognition boards or reward rand incentive programs we come up with, the same comments keep coming back, year-after-year. There must be something that we can do so that our employees feel more engaged,” managers say. “But we just don’t know what it is. Do you have any suggestions?”

“I have some ideas,” I always answer, “But they might not be what you are expecting.”

That’s because, in my experience, it’s not pizza parties, jeans days or any kind of public or private recognition that actually engages employees. Those things might be fun, and they might make some employees happy in the short-term; however, what I believe really engages people is the opportunity, on a day-to-day basis, to do meaningful work to satisfy their customers and contribute to your businesses’ ability to meet its goals, reach its potential and fulfill its purpose.

What do I mean by meaningful work? I mean work that allows their customers to receive the exact service they want, exactly when they want it, right the first time. After all, no matter what type of service organization you are in, isn’t that what all customers want? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines service in a number of ways including:

  • the occupation or function of serving
  • the work performed by one who serves
  • contribution to the welfare of others
  • a helpful act

Might seem pretty basic, however, most of the people that I know who work in customer service really understand that the service part – the simple, everyday acts of caring for their customers’ wants and needs and contributing to their welfare, whether by answering their questions, providing them with a meal, or a product that they need – is what is most important and meaningful in the work they do on a daily basis. When their customers are happy because they’ve had a great service experience, they are happy. Having happy customers is the first part of having engaged employees – because what is meaningful to those in service to others is knowing that they are actively contributing to the happiness and well-being of those they serve!

The second thing that really engages people is being able to see HOW their service to customers contributes to the company’s ability to meet its goals. And not only its financial goals, but its greater goals – its deeper purpose – for existing in the world. Purpose is about something greater than ourselves. In my experience, most people care very deeply about being a part of something that allows them to contribute to the world in a greater way than they could on their own. Working with others in an organization is a great way to do that. And working to serve others is an even greater way. Serving others allows people to work towards fulfilling the organization’s purpose – and their own personal purpose – at the same time.

So, if your organization is truly concerned about employee engagement, before you set off on the next round of brainstorming sessions for new and exciting ways to engage people, here are some suggestions to help you focus on the the two things that really engage service providers:

  1. Find ways for your service providers to spend the majority of their time serving their customers and making them happy!
    • Get out of your cubicle and go and see what your service reps are spending their time on. Are they actively engaged in serving your customers for the majority of their time at work or are they spending most of their time on internally focused responsibilities such as running reports, admin or other non-customer facing tasks? If they are, find other ways to get those tasks done and let your service reps do what is most engaging for them – serving your customers!
    • Are problems in your underlying service processes preventing your reps from delivering exactly what customers want, when they want it, right the first time? If they are and your service reps are spending a good part of their days fixing problems that your service processes created, or telling customers what they can’t do for them, they aren’t going to be engaged because their customers aren’t going to be happy. If your service processes can’t support your service reps in creating meaningful service interactions with your customers, fix them!
  2. Make your service providers’ contributions to your business’ performance and ability to fulfill its purpose accessible and visible. Everyone wants to see how their work contributes the organization’s success!
    • Involve your employees in solving strategic business problems. They talk with your customers every single day and they know best exactly what your customers want and what will make them happy.
    • Involve your employees in solving problems in service processes. They use those service processes day in and day out to make meaning with your customers. They know what frustrates customers and they’ve probably got great ideas of how to fix the problems. And when the problems are fixed, customers will be happier and so will your reps!
    • Create visual systems so that your employees are easily able to ‘see’ how the work that they are doing on a minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-by-day basis contributes to your company’s success; both its financial success and wider purpose. If you don’t have a dashboard that shows every employee’s contribution to the company, create one!

In my opinion, it’s easy to see why rewards and recognition programs such as jeans days, pizza parties and recognition raffles don’t really work to engage people: they’re totally focused on the employee! And for those who work in customer service, what’s really and truly engaging is the connection and contribution that they make to others – your customers! If you want engaged employees, then every single employee in your company should be able to make their customers happy each and every day, and every single one of them should be able to explain exactly how their work contributes to your organization’s financial success and ability to fulfill its purpose. Once every employee can do that, you won’t have to worry about comments on employee engagement surveys anymore because service to others and being part of something that is bigger than we are is what people really want and need to be totally engaged.

Where There’s a ‘Will’, There’s a Way…

Recently, I attended a meeting that started with a great motivational quote:

“Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.” “Or, since the quote is from Michael Jordan,” chimed in a participant, “Just jump over it”!

Looking around, I could see people nodding their heads enthusiastically in agreement. And since the meeting was about finding ways to improve customer service, the quote seemed a particularly fitting way to start. After all, as anyone who has worked in any kind of service industry knows, there are countless obstacles to satisfying customers that occur on a daily basis: from ever-changing industry regulations, to ever-more-particular customers, the list can seem endless. Finding ways to overcome obstacles is just part of the everyday process of delivering great customer service, right?

Problem was, as the meeting proceeded, I could see – and hear – that although people agreed with that idea in theory – it didn’t seem to be quite the same in practice:

  • “Everyone was in mandatory training last week, so it’s not surprising we didn’t hit our on-time delivery targets…”
  • “We’re down two team-members. Once we hire new people, I’m sure we’ll start meeting our service level agreements again, no problem…”
  • “We have two new team members. They’re not up to speed and fully trained yet. After they are, they’ll be able to work more quickly and I’m sure we’ll start meeting our service level agreements again, no problem…”

After the meeting, I talked with the leader. “Great choice of quote to start with,” I said. “Michael Jordan’s right. Whether it’s basketball or customer service, how we deal with obstacles makes a huge difference to whether we satisfy our customers and hit our business goals or not. Not sure that the people in the meeting understood that though.” Then I went over the list of ‘obstacles’ and the list of ‘reasons’ given as to why they couldn’t be overcome. “I understand that people are busy, and that it’s not necessarily easy to figure out what to do, however, your customers don’t need excuses, they need you to find ways to overcome obstacles so that they can get the service that they want. That’s why they hired you.”

In my opinion, the first step to learning to overcome obstacles is simply changing your service reps’ attitudes about what is and what isn’t possible. Or, as I like to say:

“Where there’s a ‘will’, there’s a way. Where there’s a ‘won’t’, there’s no way.”

What I mean by that is that is if your service reps have a ‘can do’ attitude and believe that overcoming obstacles is possible, they’ll have the ‘will’, and be more likely to look for ways to overcome them. If they don’t, they simply ‘won’t’.

And having a ‘can-do’ attitude is extremely important. Customers want what they want, when they want it, exactly as they want it right the first time. Every time. And what your customers really don’t want is to hear: “Impossible. Our systems just can’t do that”, or “‘I’m very sorry, but that’s not what my department does,” or “I know that’s what your sales rep promised, but we don’t actually do that”.

So how can you help your services reps develop a ‘can-do’, attitude so that figuring out how to overcome obstacles simply becomes part of their regular customer service process?

In my experience, the best way is by focusing on the ‘how’.

Often-times in service organizations, the focus is on the outcome, or result: meeting the target for a variety of end-of-pipe metrics such as response time, or customer satisfaction. Metrics that are simply ‘lagging indicators’ of whether your customer and business needs were met or not. However, in my experience, the ability to meet those targets actually occurs in the process of ‘how’ your customers are satisfied: how the work is done for them every single day, including how obstacles that prevent them from getting what they want, when they want it, are overcome. Unfortunately, though, it’s easy to become so focused on the ‘ends’ that you forget that the ‘means’, or how the work is done, are how the results, are created.

If you aren’t sure whether your organization is more focused on the ‘means’ or the ‘ends’, here are some ways to find out:

  1. Take a look at what metrics your organization is using to measure success. Are they metrics that measure the ‘end result’ of a process only (lagging indicators): number of new clients, retention, customer satisfaction, etc.? Or are there also measures of how those end results were achieved (leading indicators)?
  2. Take a look at what metrics your service reps are being measured on in their performance reviews. Again, are they metrics that only measure the end results? Or are their measures that address the ‘how’?
  3. Take a walk and see what supervisors and managers are doing. Are they holed up in their offices looking at reports of what’s already happened? Or are they out helping your service reps figure out how to solve problems and remove obstacles for customers?
  4. Listen to how your service reps interact with your customers. Do you hear a lot of “No. Sorry. Can’t do that…” Or do you hear, “Let’s see if I can find a way to get that done for you. I’m sure I will be able to…”

If you determine that your organization is focused mostly on the ‘ends’ and not on the ‘means’, before anything else can change, you’re going to have to change some attitudes.

And in my experience, what’s the best way to change attitudes? By changing what you, and what the service reps who work for your your organization, are doing. Sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s really not. Think about a time someone tried to convince you to do something that you didn’t think was possible. Were they able to talk you into it? Or did you have to try it, and see that it was possible, on your own. Chances are, if you’re like most people, you’re not going to be convinced until you do something differently and see that it has a positive result.

If you find that your organization is more focused on the ‘ends’ than the ‘means’, here are some suggestions of things to do differently:

  • If you are a manager, make sure you are concentrating on how your reps are working to satisfy your customers and not just on the end results. Practice spending at least half of your day on the floor, where your service reps are, listening to their conversations with your customers. Watch how your reps are doing the work that creates the results. And when you hear your reps say, “I can’t…”, step in and help them figure out ‘how’ to overcome the obstacle the customer is having.
  • Make sure that ‘explanations’ aren’t really ‘excuses’: There’s always going to be people out sick, new people being on-boarded, and training that needs to be done. Busier times of the month and year are usually known in most businesses. Spend time working with your team to plan ahead for these common scenarios.
  • Create an ‘obstacle parking lot’ on your team. You don’t need to do anything fancy. A simple flip-chart in the team will do. When a service rep identifies an obstacle, have them write it on the flip-chart. The team can then brainstorm solutions to try to overcome it!
  • Instead of measuring only the ‘results’ or lagging indicators, figure out what the important leading indicators are and measure them as well. Each organization will be different depending on its customers and services. As an example, for customer satisfaction in a call center, figure out what the most important components of customer satisfaction are for your specific customers, perhaps number of rings before the phone is answered, ability of the rep to answer the question on the first call, and friendliness, and find a way to measure and track those on an ongoing basis. That way you’ll have a way to see ‘how’ the process is going before you get to the results.

Although it might feel strange at first, focusing on the ‘how’ will soon become second nature. And when it does, finding ways to overcome obstacles in the process of how the results for your customers and your company are created will become much easier.

If you have customers, there are always going to be obstacles. And like Michael Jordan so correctly pointed out, obstacles don’t have to stop you, or your service organization. You and your service reps simply have to decide that you can – and will – figure out how to overcome those obstacles. Because where there’s a ‘will’, there’s always going to be a way…

Karyn Ross Consulting

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