Sunday, June 9, 2013

Success: A Simple Message But Difficult Application

I had an experience in customer service excellence that can be transferred to not only leadership and organisational behaviour but probably to just about all walks of life.

My son recently took me to a local café on the south end of the Gold Coast. There are lots of cafes in this area trying to make a living from a dense population of locals and tourists. Given that it is hard to make a mess of poached eggs and bacon, and coffee, competitive advantage has to be more than the food that is dished up, presuming they have the basic competency. My offspring told me that the café we were entering was extremely popular. In fact, he said that it was frequently very busy, difficult to get a seat sometimes, while three others in the immediate vicinity would be empty. And such was the case today.

Sitting out of the chilly winter breeze sipping my decaf it was easy to see why it was a popular place for coffee, cheesecake and croissants. As an owner run establishment the customer service was first rate. We were greeted like long lost friends, there was chat about this and that (my son is a regular), and we had: eye contact; smiles; real listening; positive verbal and non-verbal communication; and a sense of being important. And it wasn’t just us, but every person that came in. Nothing was too much trouble, from the cranky child, the elderly citizen who needed assistance to get in with their walking frame, to the dropped and very broken plate.

Now this is a simple message and I would have thought that most coffee shop owners and retailers in general would get. But, as we all know, this is not the case and bad service is de rigueur all over the world. I think I get the reason why. It is hard work and it is difficult to find and train staff who are capable of doing this. Much easier to just be the way you are at the time, not bother to make and effort and otherwise sink or swim. Those poached eggs had better be just better than the ones you can find next door.

This experience can be extrapolated to leadership and, in fact, to success in most forms of life. Our ability to influence others is dependent on the relationship we build. And a strong relationship depends on excellent interpersonal skills. I won’t go into these because I am sure you know what they are. Some people are naturally good at developing relationships and some were not born with this gene or the personality characteristics that make it easy. But the skills can be learned and applied with a bit of effort, which in fact may be the problem-that it needs effort.

As a psychologist I have been able to teach people with Asperger’s Syndrome and other autistic problems to communicate more effectively despite their affliction that makes any empathic relating extremely tricky. But they can learn to fake it and it works. Sometimes I have had to fake it when I have been feeling low or my head has been full of problems. And, as the mindfulness people will tell you, the more you make the effort, despite yourself, the more you start to feel better and you start to lift.
Relationship building and maintaining is critical to leadership success, and to success in life in general. I feel that too many people take it for granted, cannot maintain the effort, or just can’t be bothered. It shows in their employee engagement scores, in productivity and in the quality of the product, whatever it is.

I have an exercise that I sometimes ask workshop participants to do that I guarantee will have a positive effect on their lives. I ask them to go home and hug their partner, non-sexually, and focus only on the person, nothing else and just hug. Turn your phone off first! Sit and have a nice coffee or glass of wine with your partner and just listen rather than wait to speak for an hour every day. Relax and take time out with them. We often take the other for granted and forget the basics in life-the things that matter, which are our relationships. Trust me, everything else is rather meaningless in the end.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you hug your staff or colleagues, or sit and have wine together gazing into the limpid pools of their eyes. But the analogy is clear I think. If you want success then it takes time and effort to relate to others. Simple but not so easy.