Choosing Perspectives: The Client? Or the Employee?

egg-100808_640Preface:

Only after I wrote this Blog entry, did I realize that it may seem like a departure from some of my previous themes, which have generally centered around education and training. Thing is, that managers are often involved on the front lines of training and development. It may be frequently overlooked, that a manager, in many circumstances, provides all the knowledge, training, preparation, and skills that are necessary for their employees to succeed at their daily tasks. This is especially true in smaller firms, where there is no specific HR department, corporate university, or training and development team. No less important (or legitimate) than a professional, full-time educator, the manager in a teaching role must indeed borrow from the same toolbox in order to become an effective, engaging, and memorable trainer, while still maintaining the management tasks assigned by the company. I hope that in the next little while, I’ll be able to provide insight into training and development as it relates to on-the-job management, providing some of my perspectives that come from the academic side of the fence. Teaching and learning are universal concepts, and their efficacy cannot stop, simply because one’s role may happen to be defined in terms of “management” rather than “education.”

A Common Dilemma:

Managers often face a difficult role. On one hand, they must deal with the employees, who play a critical role in the successful operation of the business, and without whom there would be no business. On the other, are the company’s clients or customers, again — without whom the company would cease to exist. Reconciling conflicts between these two equally critical stakeholders is often what defines corporate culture, communication style, and how the company gets perceived both internally and externally. By adopting a stance that is clearly unbalanced to favor either entity, it’s only a matter of time before both sides spot the bias, and react accordingly.

Narrowing this down a little, let’s use a small retail business as an example. Customers enter the shop, choose the items they wish to buy, bring them to the cash register, pay the clerk at the cash register, and leave. Under most circumstances, 90 percent of the time, the system runs smoothly and everyone is happy. Now, let’s say that the regular clerk quits, and the shop is forced to hire a replacement. The new clerk is very green, never having operated a cash register before, and in spite of having received the appropriate training (that would be standard for this, particular retail business), the clerk’s first day of work is a complete disaster. Complaints for customers start rolling in, that they received incorrect change, and were made to wait for a long time. One customer, who happens to come in on a very frequent basis and spends a lot of money at the shop, happens to get particularly hostile after having a negative experience with the new clerk, asks to speak with the manager, and then proceeds to let her have it, both gun barrels smoking.

The customer demands that the store dismiss the employee, because he was made to wait 10 minutes longer than normal, which led to him missing a critical meeting, costing his company thousands of dollars. He insists, that unless the manager guarantees the new clerk gets fired, he will take his business elsewhere, and never shop there again. The manager, trying to be the good mediator, tries to explain to the angry customer that it was only the clerk’s first day on the job, and asks for a little patience and understanding. While this specific example is fairly straightforward and overt, it gets played out in a thousand, similar ways, across thousands of businesses around the world.

The manager is in a difficult situation. She has fiduciary duty to the company, which is to say that she must protect the company’s interests (meaning profitability), to the best of her abilities. If she sides with the customer, satisfying his anger and vengefulness, she makes it clear that she is unwilling to stick up for the staff — that the employees are not valuable, and easily replaceable commodities, to be moved about like chess pieces on a board. Employees pick up on this very quickly, and it won’t be long before any relationship the manager thought she had with the staff will be irreparably broken, or at the very least, severely compromised. She will not be trusted, and it won’t be long before other problems (like absenteeism) begin to arise as well. Yet, if she sticks up for the employee, she sends a message to the client that their patronage is not sufficiently appreciated, and the old adage of, “the customer is always right” is being violated, to the detriment of the company’s bottom line, which is earning a profit.

From the manager’s perspective, this is a no-win situation, and one that very often results in the little guy getting the short end of the stick. Too many times, the manager would simply side with the customer, out of fear that they will truly make good on their threat to take their business to a competitor, and cost the company a lot of money, thus breaking the unwritten fiduciary obligation the manager has to protect profitability for her company.

Recently, I have also encountered such a situation in my professional life, where the actions of an employee were brought to the company’s attention, and taking action was required. Under normal circumstances, it was explained to me, that a customer does not know (or particularly) care, whether he is being serviced by a veteran employee, or a brand new staff. They have the expectation of receiving the same level of quality service, whether it’s someone’s first day on the job, or their twenty-fifth year. While this may sound unfeeling and a little callous, it is essentially true, and I fundamentally agree with that concept. Placing myself in a customer’s shoes — I know I get a little annoyed when I’m standing in line at the grocery, and there’s a senior clerk standing behind a brand new guy, showing him how to operate the till, and it’s taking a lot longer than I wish it would. If the stakes were higher, I would absolutely insist on receiving the same, high level of service, no matter what, and if I didn’t get that, there would be consequences. I do not dispute the importance of quality control in a corporate situation, where the customer should not be made to suffer because of the ineptitude of someone under my charge.

That said, HOW a company chooses to address those instances where an employee makes a mistake that costs the company, is paramount. Many companies choose to penalize or punish employees who break the rules (either through dismissals, pay deductions, suspensions, or other similar sanctions), citing the aforementioned customer-comes-first policy. This, however, is a logical non-sequitur. There is nothing in an agreement between the customer and the company that says, that if an employee makes an error, that the company must react by deducting the amount of the error from the employee’s wages. That is a choice that the company made, independently of ANY customer, as a means to discipline its employees. It has nothing to do with the company-customer relationship. But by failing to draw that distinction, many higher-level managers of the company start to believe, erroneously, that somehow it is their duty to protect their clients by implementing specific punishments on employees. This is where the situation can begin to get toxic. By failing to see that the company always has a choice in how to deal with internal staffing and quality control issues, irrespective of clients’ expectations, they only succeed in alienating the employees, and forcing the managers to mete out penalties in the name of, and on behalf of the clients — penalties that the client probably doesn’t even know exist, and maybe not even agree with.

Rewinding back to the previous example, let’s change the situation and outcome a little bit. Let’s say that the high-stakes customer did NOT demand retribution for the newbie-clerk’s mistake, but simply wished to bring it to the manager’s attention (perhaps with the intention of it being a training opportunity for the new staff). The manager misunderstands the client’s intentions, and after he leaves the shop, proceeds to immediately fire the new clerk. The next week, when the high-stakes client returns for their next order, he spots the manager, and asks how it went with the new clerk. With a broad smile, the manager apologizes profusely for last week’s performance, and assures the client that the employee has been properly punished, and that it will never happen again.

“What do you mean when you say punished?” the customer asks the manager.

“We’ve taken the appropriate measures to ensure that your experience at our shop will always be top-notch.”

“Oh? So, I take it that you’ve trained him a little more?”

“Umm… Well, no. Not exactly… We’ve gone ahead and dismissed the clerk who gave you trouble. It was clear that he wasn’t cut out for the job.”

“You fired him? Why?”

“Because we value you as a customer… So much so, that we cannot allow a sub-par performance to jeopardize our business, and keeping you, our client, satisfied.”

“But I didn’t want the clerk fired. That’s not what satisfies me. What satisfies me is good service.”

“Right. And by cutting away the non-performers, we can ensure that we always offer the best possible customer service experience.”

It’s easy to imagine how the rest of this conversation might go, and several possible outcomes. From my vantage point, (if I were the customer), I would feel horrible that my comments were the direct, immediate cause of their getting fired from their job. In fact, that action more than anything, would absolutely ensure that I would indeed take my business to a competitor, henceforth. A good manager should realize that dismissing staff doesn’t necessarily best serve the company’s interests. And for that matter, neither do punishments like wage reductions and financial sanctions. It’s a lazy solution. While it may see some measurable level of success, far greater, much more difficult-to-detect amount of damage may be caused underneath the surface, only to bite the company back, later on. Such harsh, punitive measures may have a place, but should only be used as a last resort, when all other efforts to train, explain, remediate, repair, and motivate have repeatedly failed. Even then, such decisions should never be made lightly or flippantly. But most importantly, to undertake such measures because “our clients demand it,” is simply incorrect, and does nothing but cause situations where a manger is forced to choose sides.

Whenever a choice has to be made between taking a client’s perspective, and an employee’s perspective, as managers, it’s important to realize the situation we are being put in. If we don’t like the answer to the question of choosing one of two, equally unsavory answers, perhaps we should be asking a different question. Could the issue be resolved in a different manner? The answer might not be in trying to choose between siding with the client or the employee, but rather, reframing the problem in a way that will not alienate either side. Bringing this back from the tangent then, such issues need to be addressed as training and development issues, rather than punitive ones that will result in employee disengagement or client dissatisfaction.

The manger-trainer, in responding to questions regarding employee efficacy, performance, and service level, needs to look at the situation no differently than a coach or trainer who is preparing someone for a competition. That is to say, with a firm conviction that they will succeed, cheer them on, giving them tasks to strengthen their skills, and not settling for less than 100% effort. Whether it’s teaching new skills to a staff member, or training an athlete for the next sports meet, the coach’s expectations must be high enough to be challenging, realistic enough to be attainable, but above all, well communicated as to what the expectations are. If there are setbacks, address the core issues causing them, and implement an improvement plan.

In dealing with the customers or clients, the first step must be to address any performance concerns as being legitimate, and establishing what the expectations were, and where the company fell short. Having done so, a manager should then take ownership of the problem. Nothing drives a customer away faster than a manger who blames everything and everyone, and passes the buck onto the next level or department. The proverbial buck must stop with the manager, and it’s up to them to establish a relationship of trust with the client, that they can be made to feel at ease that the manager can and will resolve the issue in the future. The manager can then try to reassure the customer that a training and development program, or a concrete improvement process has been set in motion to address the shortcoming. Finally, the customer should be invited to be a part of this improvement process, by having a chance to observe and experience a higher level of service and satisfaction, after the changes have been made.

Of course, this is all theoretical, and speaking on a macro level. I’ve written this Blog post as a way to verbalize a process that has recently arisen in my own, specific and professional experience. Being able to have full confidence in my skills as both an educator and manager has made all the difference, and has given me further confidence in my convictions that in many ways, training/education and management are really just opposite sides of the same coin.

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