How to not make a fool of yourself and your company

It was a Friday afternoon. Sandra returned from a short lunch break to a note on her desk saying “meet me in my office.” It was signed by her boss. Sandra began to panic. She had started here two weeks ago, and thought she was doing okay, but this note had her scared. When she went into her boss’s office he was angry. “Why aren’t your sales figures higher? You’ve only made two up-sells this week. You’ve been here for two weeks and you’re trailing all of the other new hires brought in at the same time. I’ve gone through this with you already– you are here to sell more of our services to the people who you talk with on the phone.”

Sandra was shaking, but felt compelled to ask “I thought I was here for customer service. Am I not here to help out the customers who call in, and do what they ask? I do make the offers, but those who have called me have only needed help with small actions and don’t want to buy insurance or a new line of credit.”

“I don’t care what they want. Make them want it. If you can’t figure out how, you can find another job. Do you understand?”

I wish this conversation was imaginary. But, the news this week has revealed that this type of conversation has been happening at certain banking institutions in Canada. One headline quoted a manager who had said “Sell to them or you will lose your job.”

What has happened to create a situation where a call center employee felt pressured by her boss into putting a senior citizen into a dishonest debt?  The problem is how managers are trying to translate their success into action for their employees. But what is interesting is that senior leadership of the banks weren’t aware of this, and have made statements suggesting that customer trust is a critical value for the organizations. So, how does this type of disconnect between values and actions happen?

I’m certain that the call center managers are being measured on the sales conversion rates for each call. It’s a nice metric to show how hours of work are being translated into dollars. This measurement isn’t the problem, necessarily. The problem is when people are being forced to make a sales pitch to someone who doesn’t actually want or need the product. Essentially, the value of “customer trust” isn’t being passed down, but the value of “profit” is.

So, how do you as a manager live in the contradictory space, where customer trust is critical, and sales performance also is critical?

Do you know what you need to do to be successful?

As a manager, often times your performance will be rated on factors that you don’t directly control. As an engineering manager, I was rated based on the speed at which projects or tasks were resolved. But, as the manager, I wasn’t the one doing the task–so how can I control the rate of execution? Managers often pass down their requirements to their team, and this is an important part of management. As a manager, you are responsible to translate corporate vision into action. You create action not through your own hands (or brain), but through enabling your employees to take action. You do this by setting up goals, and defining ways to measure success for each member of your team.

Do your employees know what they need to do to be successful?

Looking at the stories in the news about banks’ sales practices, the call center employees were encouraged to focus on making new or bigger sales to people who called in.  That is how employees were told to measure success. Even those who felt this was dishonest, were being forced to take on this measure of success. Notice though, that “trust” was never a metric for the calls. So, one corporate value was directly observed (profit), and another value was being ignored (trust).

This isn’t the employee’s fault. This is a management fault. Management, somewhere down the chain from senior leadership, had lost sight of the companies critical values. And, second of all, managers who themselves should have known better, chose not to speak up and risk challenging their own leaders in service of customers.

How to define real success metrics for your team, and yourself.

As a manager, one of your responsibilities is to set a micro-vision for your team that aligns with the greater corporation. Setting vision always begins with values: why does the company exist? Then, after you understand the reason for the whole corporation, then why does your division exist? And, why does your team exist? These “why” questions ensure that you can be really clear on how each team contributes to the greater purpose of the division which contributes to the greater purpose of the whole company.

If you don’t currently know “why” to any of these factors, this is a great exercise to go through to stretch your own leadership abilities. Taking the time to clearly understand and be able to articulate these things in one or two sentences will serve you later on in your career as you start leading larger and larger teams. It will also help you be more persuasive when proposing new projects and ideas–because you can then link them to the greater corporate purpose.

Once you know the “why” questions, the second stage is to understand the “corporate brand”. Your corporate brand exists to differentiate your products and services from a competitor. All large companies have them, but these things are often posted on walls and ignored. The reason your brand is important is that it will help you understand the values and vision of your company. As a manager, you need to understand why every project you undertake serves the greater corporation and fits the brand.

These “soft metrics” often feel inconsequential, but look at companies like Southwest Airlines or IDEO. Both of these companies are strategically positioned in markets that have a lot of competition, but both continue to execute on existing projects and grow. And, beyond that, their customers develop an intense trust, increasing the probability of future return sales. Even Apple and Dell are great examples of companies that make an effort to ensure all products align with the greater corporate vision. That strategic positioning is created by strong alignment of corporate vision and values with the specific tasks and responsibilities for each division of their company. This structure isn’t created by accident, but through the intentional effort from every leader within the company, whether they have the title or not.

Finally, the third leg in determining success, is in understanding the needs of your customers. As a manager, you need to understand what success looks like for your customers. You may have external or internal customers, but no matter the work you do, you have to deliver it to someone, and that someone needs that work product to achieve a goal that they have. It’s that goal that you need to understand. Because, if you don’t understand that goal, you will simply become hooked on the work you do and when it is no longer of value, you will be blindsided. Where as, if you understand what jobs your customers are responsible for, you will see how your work contributes and be more likely to find new ways to increase the value you create for them–increasing your sales in an authentic way. Your company exists to create value for your customers, and if you can find new and innovative ways to make their lives better, your customers will happily pay more for those products and services.

Here is where the banks got it all wrong–their employees were only focused on one metric: sales. The managers of these call centers need to expand their definitions of success from “dollars in”, to “how are we finding new and better ways to serve our customers?” Then, the call center jobs can change from trying to simply make a sale, to having a script where they take the time to understand their customers needs, desires and opportunities. Then, when they understand those factors, its a lot easier to show how your products and services are worth the money of your customers. Taking the time to do this will increased sales, and increase trust at the same time.

Looking at an Engineering example: imagine that you are managing a project to design a new embedded computing system for a vehicle. The traditional management method is to define the scope, clarify the requirements, and then hand this over to your team as they work. Then, as a manger, you are responsible for the balancing of cost/quality/schedule while your team does the work to design the project. And, we are all aware of the adage “you can have two, but not all three.”

Where this can fail, is that managers make a lot of assumptions as to why the project matters, and why the company wants to undertake this task. And, usually the assumption is that “someone’s offering to pay us money, so of course we’re going to do it.” And, once you are undertaking a project like this, you will manage like a child who’s given a test where every error brings down their test score. Every mistake will impact cost/schedule, and every effort to improve quality will also impact cost/schedule. You will manage based on fear, wishing and hoping that the end product will be shipped on time, and make enough money to justify you and your team to continue into the future.

Instead, start with an understanding why your company exists, why your division exists with in that greater narrative, and then, why your team exists within the division. Then, understand what are your corporate values, and what is the greater company vision. Next, you need to understand what success looks like for your customers. Finally, you can then understand how you and your team can uniquely positions to create a design that fulfill all of these factors. Because only then, can you understand why cost, quality and schedule matter, and how to define these elements in a way that will create value for your customer, your company and your team.

Then, to help your team, you have to be able to translate all of this into actions that they own, and can act on. But, until you understand the greater framework that you exist within, you don’t know if actions are going to be creating long-term value for your company, or whether they are going to create greater harm in the future.  I’ve participated in multi-million dollar projects that were doomed to failure because they didn’t create value for the customer, or they didn’t create value for the company. Management much higher than I was never stopped to ask these greater questions, which lead to loss of revenue, and loss of jobs. Managers at any level have the opportunity to dig into these greater questions, and only when every level of management cares enough to ask and understand their answers, will companies save themselves the embarrassment of employees undertaking actions that massively impact the long-term viability of their company.




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