6 things you should NOT do when a customer complains

roach letterIn my last article I recounted the story of Mike (you can read the entire story here). Assuming you are the general manager of the store in which Mike’s story unfolded, we need to discuss what you would and should do.

But first, let’s look at what you should NOT do.

  1. You should NOT attribute Mike’s complaint to the odd and unusual circumstance. It is all too easy to simply disregard his complaint as being the result of something out of the ordinary. If it hasn’t happened before it will almost certainly happen again. Instead, take Mike seriously and respond accordingly.
  2. You should NOT blame the complainer. We’ve been in business long enough to know that not every complaint is valid and not every customer can be satisfied. But reality begins with the perceptions of others hot you. In fact, the most ineffective leaders always demonstrate a debilitating flaw, the belief that everything would be just fine if they saw things as they see them. It simply is imperative that effective leaders never blame the complainer for his or her perceptions because it is those perceptions that have defined and framed the conversation.
  3. You should NOT ignore it. Every person involved – the sales staff in the department Mike visited, the assistant manager he spoke with, and you, all need to know a complaint has been registered and that you do not indent to simply ignore it. Something happened somewhere and it needs to be fixed. It will not get better by itself.
  4. You should NOT follow up with a roach letter. For those outside the US, a “roach letter” might seem a puzzling term, but it stems from a complaint letter that an airline passenger sent to the headquarters of the airline following a flight he made on one of their planes. It seems that a passenger awakened from a nap to find a cockroach crawling down his cheek. Incensed, the passenger wrote a letter of complaint and received a prompt response. Unfortunately, inside the envelope the passenger found a note from someone in the airline’s customer service department that read, “Send this jerk the roach letter.” Roach letters fix nothing, reveal a terrible attitude, and will always ring insincere.
  5. You should not assume your employees will respond badly. Most sales people really do not like to miss out on sales and the incidence with Mike might have been a simple oversight or the result of being too task-oriented rather than people-(customer) oriented. One manager in a big box store ordered one of her top salesmen to stop processing contracts and start putting away stock. This is not unusual when there are lots of things to do but it is a pathetic waste of talent and expertise to divert the completion of sales (profit) toward housekeeping (overhead). Use your talent where they produce the most profit. Indeed, experience shows us that sales people resent being taken away from duties on the floor like meeting customers, selling products, closing on sales to do mundane tasks. If you workplace is structured by paying commissions it gets more imperative to allow the power of incentive to work. Let your sales people sell.

In the next post, we’ll discuss what you should do.

The most important lesson in leadership from the Undercover Boss

undercover bossAs skeptical as I am of the reality of so-called Reality Shows, there is one that I find a little more interesting than others. It’s Undercover Boss. You may have seen it, too. It’s the one where the CEO of a largish business goes undercover to work inside his or her business. They get out of the office, away from the sanctified and sterilized environs of headquarters, and learn what it’s like to do the work that makes the company great. They also learn what their employees are thinking.

Warren Bennis, former head of Avis the car rental agency, did that very thing long before Undercover Boss ever lit up a TV screen. He tells what a revelation it was to actually stand behind a counter and handle the customers.

Such experiences may not be possible for many of us. But there is a critical principle that is at the foundation of the “learn what it is like in the trenches” experience:

You’ve got to start where people are rather than where you want them to be…or where you think they might be.

Presumptions and preconceptions are as deadly and unreasonable as prejudices.

One episode of UB told the story of the CEO of Oriental Trading Company. I knew he was in for surprises when he made sarcastic remarks about the car he had to rent in order to look like “one of the people.” It was a new SUV which he apparently found to be beneath him in his exalted state. It was the type of car most of his employees probably could not afford to drive yet he considered himself as making a big sacrifice to get in it. And in the pre-undercover interview he boasted of the annual company picnic as being a stellar example of the company’s care and concern for its employees. Stand by…this point is important.

So, he dons his disguise and goes to work. What he hears is a revelation and a shock. The first employee he works with reveals a cynicism and anger that challenges the incognito CEO. That employee even scoffs at the company picnic. He explains that the workers are barely getting by on the wages they earn so they struggle to make it. The company has laid off many employees because of the economy so those that remain are fearful of their future. And, the employee unloads on the new guy, CEO in disguise, hears what little regard the regular folks have for the company’s “generosity” and that most regard the picnic as no big deal.

Mr. CEO has been taken to school.

The leader’s Immaculate Perception and why it exists only in the mind.

There is a difference between what you think you know and what you really know. All of us are guilty of letting assumptions take the position of reality.

But too often they aren’t.

Like the hapless CEO mentioned above, he assumed everyone would be thrilled and appreciative of his company’s program of showing appreciation. They weren’t. He should have known that.

He was, like so many leaders, prone to immaculate perception. He believed that if he had an idea, an opinion, or a perspective on someone or something it had to be divine because he thought of it. Doubtless this is fed and kept alive by sycophants and kowtowing associates. For too many leaders this is a fatal flaw. We must gather people around us who will tell us the truth.

Reading reports may provide information, but it is primarily information of the mind. Even walk-throughs can be deceiving if they are preplanned. Giving word that the big boss is coming puts everyone on edge, prompts everyone to shape up and put on a happy face. Even asking people to tell you the truth may not work. The dynamics of the workplace and of employer-employee relationships influences what is said and how it is said. Candor is a plus but social conventions often torpedo it. To get at the real facts means we need to be able to hear what is said, interpret the actions of others, and remember that things look very different from below.

In my next post I’ll discuss the specific reasons why we need to find out what the people we work with are thinking and what they believe.

Excuses won’t help you, reasons will.

“Ninety-nine percent of the failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses.” George Washington Carver

Excuses won’t help you, reasons will. Why? Those who hired you and look to you don’t care how rough the water is, they expect you to bring the boat in.

Yes, you.

Leadership is a problem solving proposition which requires a fairly comprehensive set of skills. Effective leaders need insight, understanding, courage, honesty, and more to be able to negotiate the rough waters of business and organizational leadership.

When things are going well, anyone can “lead.”


No leading happens, no leadership is exercised unless and until there are challenges to face, problems to solve, decisions to make, and consequences to endure. Something has to be at stake. Risk has to be faced. Leadership does not and cannot occur absent either risk. To lead means to take someone else from one place to another, negotiating the challenges along the way.

That is why effective and superlative leaders are three dimensional. They contain depth of character, deep reserves of knowledge, and verified evidence of courage under fire, as it were. These days we tend to be impressed by two-dimensional leaders, those whose skills of oratory and charisma cause them to standout.

But it is depth of character that causes a leader to stand up. He or she rises to a challenge and tackles it. If they don’t…or can’t…then frankly they are not leading.

One key indicator is the response of the person in charge. If they make excuses –“it was the previous leader’s fault”, “no one will cooperate with me”, “the dog ate my briefing on the subject”, or anything even remotely resembling answers like those, they are not leading.

  1. Leaders accept responsibility; they do not excuse themselves from it by blame-shifting.
  2. Making excuses is one thing, explaining reasons is another.
  3. Blame-shifting and excuse-making do more than just sound weak, they signal weakness in the one trying to shift blame and make excuses. Nobody, and I mean nobody, likes a whiner.
  4. Those we lead do not care how rough the water is, they expect us to bring the boat to its destination.

Effective leaders know there will be challenges. They know they will have to build alliances, win over opponents, and overcome obstacles. They may explain what we’re up against and even help us understand how we got there, but they offer courage and inspire confidence by their ability to get us moving ahead. Explaining reasons helps others know that you understand just what is going on. Making excuses assures others you don’t.

It was Benjamin Franklin who said “He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else.”

Don’t engage in blame-shifting or excuse-making…ever.



What you see is what you get – measuring your response to others

What good is it?

Often the mantra of the obsessively practical or the hopelessly cynical, a “what good is it?” response typically indicates disgust, disappointment, or disdain, maybe all three. Obsessively practical leaders seem to become well, obsessed, with efficiency. Every act, every task, every intention, indeed every suggestion is qualified by its practical contribution to the efficient function of the organization.

But more prevalent are the hopelessly cynical. I worked for one such leader, the founder and director of a moderately-sized leadership training organization working mostly in Asia. He expected to be disappointed and usually found something to meet his expectations. Over time, only those with a fetish for being belittled and berated stayed in the company. There was always something somewhere done by someone that failed to come up to standard.

I worked with the company for nearly two years and I can attest that the real failure rate was no higher than just about anywhere else and a good deal better than many companies of that size. It was his attitude that made the difference.

Now, make no mistake, I am no raging and rabid fan of the positive thinking crowd. It seems to lead to a delusional approach to life and its challenges.

But I am a fan, proponent, and practitioner of the power of a positive attitude. The late Michael Vance, creative thinking consultant to Walt Disney and a good many others, often observed that positive thinking tends to avoid or mislabel problems to the point of failing to deal intelligently and creatively with them. He also observed that with a positive attitude problems are identified, intelligently and honestly appraised, then and only then can creative responses be implemented.

So, the “what good is it?” response can have a more fruitful use. How do I know?

  1. Because, with few exceptions, subordinates and associates want to please. Mister Cynic referred to above does not believe that. He believed that everyone was out to disabuse him of his generosity, neglect their responsibilities, and screw up regularly and that they did so with no remorse. He is categorically incorrect. His experience has not been my experience. People make mistakes. We live in an imperfect world and 100% efficiency is a myth. But nearly everyone wants to do well and meet the expectations of their job. We are hard-wired to do so. What good is it? All effort should be acknowledged for what it is – a good attempt to do the job. If and when it falls short, accept the reality and respond accordingly. That’s what superlative leaders do. They do not cynically respond with disdain in their voice, “What good is it?”
  2. In all labor there is benefit. We do not learn by learning only, we learn by doing. Trying, falling short, learning why, trying again are all part of the development process. We cannot order a fully functional subordinate or associate from Amazon. It will not arrive on the floor ready for work. Development is what you do because you are a leader. No prudent leader would ever trample on the good deeds and well-intentions of others deliberately. Developing capable people and successful companies is always a collaborative effort.
  3. In every effort, even the ones that are not quite up to par, there is good in them. They yield something beneficial. A teachable moment or a deeper understanding are not without value. Ask Thomas Edison about failed attempts at developing the electric light.

What good is it? Well, it turns out there is a lot. The weekend begins tonight. Most of you have two days off. It just might be a good time to take another look at how you respond to the efforts of others. There’s a tragic lesson in the life work of Mister Cynic mentioned above. He spent his entire career disappointed, always feeling like he had been cheated out of more success by the failures of others. He spent his days, indeed his life, wandering around the workplace looking for people doing something wrong, finding whatever he could that would validate his cynicism and negativity.

You know what? He found plenty of it. But he ended his career bitter, angry, cynical, and disappointed that he had been robbed.  He really did look back on his life and ask “What good is it?” distressed that it was not better.

Yet other leaders in exactly the same situation had an entirely different experience. Did they find disappointment? Yep. Did they find error and failure? Certainly! But they found good in it. Lots and lots of good in it.

It’s right there in front of you too.

If you’ve got a few minutes, take a look at the video below. It’s a compilation of clips from Michael Vance.

The Might as Wells – Letting one thing lead to too many others.

Gustave-Moreau Sirens songI call it sequences, that annoying way of letting a simple task become far more complex. Even Murphy and his sagacious laws (If anything can go wrong it will, et al) has wryly observed that “You can’t do something until you do something else first.”

Sometimes, it is unavoidable…and true. You really can’t do some things until you do something else first and you might not have seen that other thing you need to do until you start doing the other thing.  (How’s that for a twisted sentence?) But sometimes we do it to ourselves.

I usually post a new article on The Practical Leader twice a week but haven’t for about ten days because I took time off to make some needed repairs on our house. With my wife out of town visiting family, it was a good time to tear things up.

Happily and prudently I had a detailed plan of what I needed to get done and made projections about how much time it would take and what materials I would need. But once I got into the project I discovered many opportunities to make the project larger and consequently more complex. I say “happily” because whenever we embark on a plan the “might as wells” pop up. As long as we’re doing this, we might as well do that.

It might be correct. Perhaps we might as well do something else along the way. Unexpected issues can arise that should be dealt with. But some should not. It takes real detachment to become a disengaged and unemotional observer to make the decisions.

  1. Make clear plans and have a focused vision of what you intend to accomplish, in what period of time. The power to focus is the power to excel and complete. Letting a job get out of hand is a sure recipe for disaster.
  2. Just because you can does not mean that you should. “Might as well” is NOT a good enough reason to add a job to the plan. Make sure added tasks are fully justified before taking them on.
  3. Even when you should doesn’t mean you should right now. Efficiency is always a good idea but effectiveness is more important. Stay focused on the objective.

Leaders have to remember that the temptations to veer off course, even if it can be rationalized and legitimized, are like the Siren’s song, luring those on a mission off course and into ruin.

The Most Powerful Question a Leader Can Ask…and it’s only one word

question markBusinesses and organizations tend to generate lots of paper and digital directives. Over time (usually a very short amount of time) they put in place standards, processes, systems, methods, and forms…lots and lots of forms to be filled out and handed to someone at some time who does something with them (although most of us are not sure what).

We develop habits and routine which do indeed have their place. But organizations are not like machines in that they should run perpetually without being questioned.

And that question is “why?”

Why do we do this the way we do it?

Why is this directive in place?

Why do we need this number?

Why is this requirement on this checklist?

The driver’s license bureau in the US Virgin Islands (where I lived just before moving to my present location) required citizens to bring two passport photos with their application for a driver’s license long after it had installed digital cameras and printers. Even though the printed passport photos were no longer necessary, clerks were required to collect them and staple them to a paper application. When asked why, they simply replied that it was on the list.

Organizations tend to maintain systems and processes, manifest attitudes and promote products long after they have lost their appeal or their effectiveness. It seems that why is asked too seldom. Without wanting to sound negative, religious organizations are really guilty of this.

You as leader need to be asking why all the time…and you need to be relentless in discovering an answer then ruthless in evaluating the answer.

“Just because” or “Because we’ve always done it that way” are not acceptable.

But there’s a flip side. When someone who works with you asks you why, you have to be able to answer it as well. And “Because I said so” is really not the first answer that should come out of your mouth. (There are times when that might indeed be the right answer but those times are very rare.)

So, why ask why?

  1. Because it challenges motives. It delves into reasons why something is done or required.
  2. It provokes examination of suggestions, policies, procedures, methods, and intentions. Therefore it promotes BOTH efficiency and effectiveness.
  3. It prods us to look backwards into the origin of things but challenges us to push ahead. We cannot and we must not validate our positions or our authority by measuring our faithfulness to systems, forms, methodologies, processes, or procedures that we may have inherited. There might have been a good reason why back then, but is it a good reason why for tomorrow?

Why is the recommended first response to every action, every requirement, every regulation, and every expectation you as a leader are considering. It should be one of the most often used words in a leader’s vocabulary. Why? Because it forces us to trim down, to focus, to zero in on the most important, to validate every action, and free us and our associates from everything but the most critically important things to do.

It is too easy to slip into the comfort of following habits so that we do things right. Asking why makes sure we are doing the right things.

Why leadership training programs fall short

file0001625497945The American Society for Training and Development reports that U.S. businesses spend a whopping $170 billion on leadership training programs.  They largely fail or at the very least fall way short of the expectations set for them.


Because you do not train leaders; you develop them. Training does have its place. We can train workers to build things or connect widgets to whatzits. We can inform, the one thing formal education does reasonably well.

But leadership development is more than an informative process. Much more! It is a transformative process.

Back in the days before digital photography, the process of creating an image was far more hands-on. Someone had to compose a photograph and shoot the image with a camera which allowed light to affect film which had been coated to react to it. Then, the film had to be taken into a darkroom and “developed.” There chemicals were applied to the film which revealed the image on the film and produced a negative. The negative was exposed to light which affected paper which was then immersed in a chemical bath which caused the image to appear. The picture was then “developed”.

At the risk of oversimplifying the process, let me draw some parallels between that and the subject of this column today.

Training programs essentially assume that with exposure to the right information, anyone can be trained to lead. This is simply and practically untrue. Many notable business people advocate that leaders are made, not born. I disagree and disagree vigorously.

The exposure to chemicals and light reveal an image that is already there. They cannot create something that does not exist. Leadership development applies light (information and truth to use that word in a philosophical and academic sense) and the right outside forces to reveal what is already there. Leaders are born…then developed over time and experience.

Training focuses on the things being taught but development focuses on the person being developed. While training superimposes a curriculum on a time schedule through which a person must endure, development provides the right sort of components, including but not limited to information, within which a person may grow and mature in their experience.

Finally, training may be efficient and is constructed to be efficient, but development is far more effective. The secret is, of course, the image, as it were, unrevealed but already resident within. No training program can ever hope to impart the nuanced and profound understanding that development does. It takes time and exposure to do that.

Corporations, associations, the seminar industry, and the educational establishment try but fail. Indeed, I propose that these institutions actually work against the effective development of leaders…but not deliberately. And I am not implying anything duplicitous in either their methodology or their curriculum. I think they mean well but continue to churn out graduates who are not equipped to lead. At its worst it impresses a person that s/he is ready to lead when they are not. As evidence I point to a close friend who told me that he was the best husband he had ever met and he made that statement without a hint of sarcasm. He actually did believe he was. When I asked him how he knew that, he pointed to the fact that he had attended and graduated from a marriage training course which, by his assumption and implication, made him a stellar husband. He was legendary alright, but only in his own mind. The mere exposure to information had led him to believe in something that was untrue and to propose that he was something that he was not (I asked his wife).

Most people in the real world don’t believe training is adequate either, that’s why they seek candidates with experience. They know that information and personality must be tempered in the fires of life to sharpen and harden them into a useful instrument.

If your company or organization has training programs, I suggest you take another look at them. If they are intended to impart hard skills like attaching widgets to whazits, then fine. If they are intended to train leaders, well, maybe they deserve a more careful examination and challenge to their presumptions.

Stuck in 1st gear – is the impediment to progress you?

stuck in 1stIt happens easily enough and usually innocently enough. You start a business or organization then endure what is often a long and expensive learning curve. Along the way you learn…you learn a lot. You discover the competencies and incompetencies of those working with you. You learn how to manage cash flow challenges. You learn the ins and outs, the ups and downs of business in the real world.

In a few years the business or organization begins to prosper. By then your role should change from working in your business to having more time to work on your business.

But too often it doesn’t. The business (I use this term in a very broad sense. Even nonprofits are enterprises with a mission to accomplish and must function in just about every sense as a business. The only differences are that the excess revenues received are not distributable to anyone except in the form of salaries paid for work performed) begins to prosper and could expand to another level but something seems to be holding it back.

Could it be you?

How, you object? Because holding on to authority means letting go of responsibility. Notice I did not say shirking responsibility. I said letting go of responsibility. One of the hardest lessons I had to learn in my early developmental years in leadership is to discover what things, what jobs, what tasks, what responsibilities faced me that only I could do…and giving everything else away.


May I direct your eyes to the banner of this website for just a few seconds? You may have to scroll the page up, especially if you’re reading on a smartphone or tablet. What does it say just under “The Practical Leader?”

It says “Extend Your Reach – Multiply Your Effectiveness – Divide Your Work.”

But too many of us are stuck with limited reach, divided effectiveness and multiplied work…and we’ve done it to ourselves. Like a car stuck in first gear, your journey consumes way too much fuel, makes way too much noise, and takes way to long to get there.


Because one of the key responsibilities resting upon you is the need to empower and release others. To make more leaders. But you won’t be able to do that if you see them as inept and incapable or if you regard them as a threat.

Your role is not to monitor others but to mentor them. This assumes the following:

  1. That you are secure enough in your position as leader that you can share the work and the credit. Insecure leaders seem to be attention hogs.
  2. That you are attentive to who you hire. You have identified your limitations and hire others for their strength to compensate for your weakness.
  3. That you are willing to pass on what you’ve learned to others.
  4. That you will not allow paranoia to stifle the growth of your company or organization.

You can stop right where you are. In fact if you do you are not alone. Thousands of businesses are stymied simply because their owners/leaders cannot or will not shift gears.

Now, by this point I usually get some pushback from leaders who complain that they have no one they can trust, that if they didn’t monitor everything that goes on the whole company would fall into chaos, that every person they’ve ever tried to employ has disappointed them.

They are, of course, quite incorrect. They are either control freaks or they are unable to grow. Will others fail? Yes, but then so do you. Will others disappoint? Yes, but then so will you. Perfection and 100% economy and efficiency is a myth. You don’t meet that standard and no one else will either. It is no reason and cannot be legitimized to excuse oneself from mentoring.

Never forget what your role really is. It is not to make sure everyone does things right. It is to make sure that you… and everyone else… stays focused on the vision and does the right things.

You there, yes you, the leader of your company or organization. Do only those things that only you can do. Mentor others so you can give everything else away.

Value equals worth minus cost

100 dollar billsWhat is the real value of those who work for your company? For that matter, what is your real value?

As employers and/or potential employers, it is our responsibility to evaluate those who work for us. And it is not by chance that the term “evaluate” is used here because evaluate means to “form an idea for the value of something or in this case, someone.”

What we are NOT talking about

We are not talking about the intrinsic worth every person has as an individual. The value of a human life is not and should not be measured by what they can do for us or the money they can make for us. People possess intrinsically far more worth than that even if some bosses do not regard them so.

So the value judgements we are making here are confined to the realm of the workplace and to the nature of our enterprise whether it be a profit or a nonprofit one.

Whenever I sit down to interview prospective employees I explain the difference between cost and worth. Cost is what the company or organization must pay or do to keep them on the team. There are tangible and intangible costs.

Tangible costs = wages or salary, benefits like vacation time, sick leave, health insurance and retirement plans, employer contribution to taxes, and any and all out-of-pocket expenditures of money that are attributable to the employee.

Intangible costs = training costs, oversight and management, putting out fires the employee may have started, interpersonal issues brought about by personality conflicts, and increased management or maintenance costs due to errors, omissions, or failures attributable to the employee.

Tangible worth = the productivity of the employee that can be counted in widgets produced, hours billed to clients, or increased revenues due to the work the employee performs, and problems solved by the employee.

Intangible worth = the relief given to those who lead or manage the employee because of the employees self-sufficiency and capacity to shoulder responsibility, the ideas that contribute to the employee that further the organization’s purposes, the ability to understand what needs to be done before someone asks. In short, the capacity to extend your reach, multiply your effectiveness and divide your work.

So, when you subtract costs from worth, you come up with the value of the employee. But because two of the factors are intangible, that is they cannot be readily tallied on a ledger sheet, it calls for evaluation on the part of those who lead.

Performance Appraisals

This is where my personal preferences begin to show. I am not a fan of annual or semi-annual performance appraisals IF that is the only performance appraisals you do or if that is the major performance appraisal you do.

Can you imagine what would happen if a mother only appraised the performance of her children every six months? The kids would burn down the house and half the neighborhood! It was Ken Blanchard’s and Samuel Johnson’s seminal work “The One Minute Manager” that first illuminated the importance of instantaneous performance appraisals.

Really effective leaders never wait until the six month performance appraisal to evaluate performance. Indeed, the six month or annual appraisal is better employed as a review of the ground gained, of defining and describing the true worth of the employee or associate.

While we’re on the subject, it’s a useful exercise to evaluate your own true value. Most people tend to undervalue themselves. (There are some who have an inflated opinion of themselves, but not many and they are easy to spot.) Humans tend to focus on failures over successes and studies have indicated that more intelligent people tend to overthink things thus they have a more challenging time getting over and getting past failures.

So let me end on a high note. The value you bring to your company and to society in general is more significant than you might know. The fact that you show up every day, perform your job well, fit in and work well with others, solve problems, and generate profits is not to be taken lightly.

Successful and effective leaders know that about the people they work with and they know that about themselves. Do you?