A Preface for Talking Story:
Right upfront, this post is a bit longer than most (my rants turned into stories usually turn out that way.) However I think this is important, and I hope you will take the time to read this, and choose it as one of those posts you copy and share with your staff in your next huddle: This concerns them too. Get their help.
Today’s post presents a problem, and my follow-up post Thursday will present what I feel to be a big part of the solution we can collaborate on.
We interrupt our normal programming of Tuesdays’ leadership topics to talk about Ho‘okipa: Aloha inspired customer service. But then again, everything is about leadership —or the tragic absence of it.
I need your help
I recently set a goal to write about exceptional customer service in our Hawai‘i nei, for we are the land of Aloha, right? I love spreading the good word about how our values play out every day the way they do. So I went in search of a new story I could share with you and also build a presentation around (my Ho‘okipa class schedule resumes in September), one which would inspire and motivate us anew as we Ho‘ohana together.
Unfortunately I failed. In fact, I ended up with a rant I had to sleep on and tone down. I hate when my writing slips into any negativity at all, however I also seek to write about what’s current and about the way things are; I have learned that it’s best to tell the truth, even when it is less than pleasant. So I need your help in creating a new truth I can write about.
Here’s the story the way it played out.
It’s not because of the recession
Last week was one of assorted errand-running for me; it happened to be one of those times I could batch the things I had to get done into workdays which were scheduled close to home. So I lined up those appointments which fall into the category I’ve come to call, “the business of life” —servicing my car, going to the dentist, picking up a printer I’d taken in to repair; those sorts of things. I was sure I would have lots of opportunities to work on my Ho‘okipa writing goal.
The businesses I happened to visit would all qualify as those who are more recession-proof than most; competitive pricing and discretionary patronage isn’t really part of the picture. Consider the dentist: Skipping your semi-annual appointment with the hygienist can really come back to haunt you. When you (the customer) seek out these basic-need, business of life companies, you just need them, period, and you’re counting on them performing well for you. Chances are you’ll need them again one day in the future, and so you have this vested interest in them; you truly are pulling for them, wanting them to succeed and do well, remaining in business for the long haul. You know they support you, and you are willing to support them.
Customers want to feel smart
A good part of this wanting them to do well, is that you ARE going to pay for their products and services because you do need them; due to different variables, you feel that your choices are limited. So you want to pat yourself on the back for being an intelligent, rational and choosy consumer, making a smart choice even if reality bites and you don’t really have that much of a choice at all.
Sometimes you’ll feel this way on O‘ahu, but when you live on a neighbor island “slim-pickings” can be quite the understatement, and you learn to live with scarcity and the so-called “price of paradise” at the extreme ends of the scale. When I took my run yesterday morning they were changing the price at my neighborhood gas station to $3.27 for regular unleaded ”“ and the cars were patiently lined up, waiting their turn to obligingly swipe in their plastic charge cards for a full tank.
Sadly, the businesses I visited over the last week were a bitter disappointment. They made me feel like a dummy customer and a victim of their complacency ”“ pure yuck.
I didn’t have much choice with certain things ”“ for instance, where I live, my spare tire had to make a 45-mile drive for me to get a new one from the only place which had it in stock (which doesn’t necessarily mean the new tire would match my other ones; it doesn’t). I waited over an hour past the time they committed to having it done, two hours altogether for a 15-minute tire change, and then just as I gratefully approached my ‘finished’ car to leave, I noticed that the tire pressure was so off balance the car looked visibly crooked.
The mechanic didn’t disagree when I pointed it out to him and asked him to recalibrate the tire pressure for all four tires; he did so. However I felt so deflated and disappointed; how dare they make me feel like a fool for choosing them? How dare they make me feel grateful to finally leave them and their stifling hot waiting room, where no one bothered to let me know the job would take longer? How could I be so foolishly accepting of a new tire which cost me $131.73 (yep, one tire) and so much aggravation, a price tag I paid without a second thought or complaint? How dare they make me now feel that it wasn’t a good choice to have been there at all, and I was the one who was wrong, dumb enough not to chance driving another twenty miles on my spare tire to give my business to someone else?
Is there a pulse here?
This is just one example of what I think of as the biggest sin committed in business today: complete mediocrity. By the time the week was over I’d collected a few more unfortunate stories which gave me a very severe case of Ho‘okipa withdrawal. I was craving some exceptional service somewhere, or even uneventful service, but from lively and engaged people! My expectations were getting so low, that surely the warmth of Aloha alone would trump product and service quality, wouldn’t it?
I am sure that no one working at the businesses I visited wanted to do a bad job, or deliberately set out to get me (believe me, I know that being a nice customer works much better than being a complaining one).
No one intentionally lied to me, and no one was rude to me. They did something worse: Either they ignored me or took me for granted.
No one abused me or flagrantly ripped me off (I don’t think” please let my ignorance be bliss, and don’t tell me what you paid for the tire you last bought for what is one of the most common cars found on our roads today).
It seemed that no one had enough energy to intentionally be awful; they just kinda slumped their way into a downslide, and then they stayed there.
No one seemed to have a pulse. Everyone was just so blah and uninspired. So going through the motions unremarkable. In fact, they weren’t even passably good. They skipped steps and didn’t even notice that they did.
The biggest sin in business is mediocrity
Customers today expect more, even if you are the only game in town. If anything, we the customers who feel forced to patronize you for basic needs feel that you’ve been assured of our continuing business, and thus are able to do better ”“ you’re the one with a palpable revenue stream right now! We can clearly see your veins; an example is the monthly bill we get for your ‘utility,’ but your pulse with not taking us for granted is getting alarmingly weak and hard to find.
I didn’t wait two hours for that new tire because they had too little business, but because they had too much business and couldn’t keep up. And it wasn’t an unexpected jump in business ”“ they’re always like that. The only customers who actually wait in their establishment are those like me who live the coastline drive away. When they got behind, they didn’t seem to care; when a customer sitting in your waiting room for hours doesn’t make you or your staff uncomfortable, something is very, very wrong.
I don’t blame any of this on the recession.
I blame it on a lack of energy, the absence of imagination, and the death of creativity and vitality that results from poor leadership and poor management.
Your employees and partners blame it on you too, even if they are the ones doing a rotten job or uninspired and mediocre work. You’re not around or engaged enough as their leader, managing and leading enough to improve things. You are settling for less than is possible, no matter how horrible the economy might get ”“ attentive energy isn’t totally dependent on your bank account. There is always something to be improved and reinvigorated; there is always someone to be coached into achieving their full potential.
Your customers blame it on you too. As is the local way, they will generally be very forgiving of your employees ”“ I was, and I’m a coach who has a very hard time keeping her mouth shut when I’ve got a living laboratory right before my eyes! Customers will blame anything hinting of monopoly behavior, an arrogant resting on laurels, or a recession cop-out attitude on you the owner, you the boss, you the manager. They will blame it on your poor leadership and management, and in my opinion, they’re right, for you’re better than that.
If you are committing the sin of mediocrity, allowing energy to drain out of your company, your business will die. Your customers may not have a choice now, but the day they do, it will be all over for you.
If you have customers right now, dazzle them
Please: Be Alaka‘i great. [From the archives: Can you define your Leadership Greatness?] Help your employees and every one of your business partners be great every single day, and with every single customer. Banish mediocrity by proactively choosing to lead and manage exceptionally well.
It is not that difficult knowing how to begin: Look at your business the way a customer does. Start where you can visibly see you need an infusion of fresh energy. We will talk more about this in my next posting on Thursday.
Turn your customers into raving fans who feel smugly smart for choosing you and giving you their money. When you do that, this negative, “oh woe is me” recessionary thinking will end for all of us. The raving fans you want talking about you (and writing about you) are those customers who feel savvy and in-the-know brilliant that they chose you: When someone recommends you to their family and their friends, the quality of their opinion is on the line, and they know it.
I am not giving up on my goal.
No way. If anything, I am more determined than ever to talk about Aloha-inspired Ho‘okipa customer service.
Has mediocrity been banished from your business? If you think your workplace has service levels which will dazzle me, please write and let me know about you.
And don’t waste your time telling me about your product features: Even a great product never reaches true excellence without a human service component attached to it.
On the other hand, if you are Aloha and Ho‘okipa exceptional, our Say “Alaka‘i” readers deserve to know about you, and I want to help them choose you and give you the patronage which will help you thrive.
Let’s talk story.
Any thoughts to share?