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.

Two little words that infallibly predict an employee’s departure

exit-left-123-hiI noticed the shift in vocabulary during a general meeting of department heads. The substitution of just two words signaled to me that a long-term employee was on her way out.  In less than 30 days she was gone.

There are often lots of signs that an employee or associate is leaving. Most people signal a break up before they actually close the door behind them. But some signs are far from certain indicators of an impending exit.

People change habits all the time. Circumstances outside of the job may force them to vary when they check in for the day and when they clock out. Just about everyone gripes from time to time. Short vacations and the occasional day off may mean they are job hunting or interviewing or it may not. Those things and more may hint at a change and they may not.

But the use of two little words signals a shift in attitude, loyalty, and ownership. Their use infallibly predicts a departure is imminent. I’ve seen it and heard it dozens of times in my own companies and those for whom I’ve consulted. It goes like this.

When someone is happy, when they feel like they fit in, when they have bought in to the company and its culture, they refer to it in conversations with customers, clients, and associates as “we.”  “Yes,” they respond to a customer’s inquiry, “we carry that product” or “we can do that for you.” Ownership and buy-in affects a person’s perspective, inserting them into the picture as an insider.

But when someone is considering leaving, their perspective changes. The soon-to-depart employee considers himself or herself to be out of the picture, no longer owning a piece of the company, its culture, or its objectives.

Then, that person who is heading for the door changes their vocabulary ever so slightly.

When the occasion arises that they would have said “we”, they say “they.” Like “they can get that for you” or “they carry the product.”

Then in conversations with other employees, they not only use the word “they” when referring to the company or its departments, they use the word “you” instead of “we” like “You need to take care of this delivery issue.” This is precisely what I heard vocalized by the person I mentioned in the first paragraph. She had been with the company for a long time, was there when the company started. But things had grown and changed. One thing and then another happened that caused her to consider a divorce from her long-term relationship with the business. Soon she started referring to it as “they” and advising the powers that be that “you need to handle this and that” when the “this and that” had been her responsibility. At that point she had transferred it to you and them.

You’ve almost certainly seen and heard it, too. Ownership is gone. The associate or employee may not have ever vocalized to anyone that they were thinking of leaving, but their use of two little words revealed it.  Buy-in has vanished. They may not actually vacate the premises for days, weeks, or even months, but they are already gone…and by then it is almost certainly too late and too far to get them back.

How one company destroyed its employee incentive plan with one act of generosity

deflate baloonIt seemed like a good idea at the time and an incredibly generous act on the part of the company. When Gravity Payments founder and CEO Dan Price announced that he would raise everyone’s minimum wage to $50,000 a year with $10,000 a year increases until everyone’s minimum was at $70K in 2017, it drew cheers and kudos.

But it hasn’t worked out so well.

In an article in Forbes dated August 2, 2015, contributor David Burkis observed that the company is struggling to deal with the implications of the plan (emphasis mine). Some of the most valuable people have left the company and others indicate they are on their way out, too.

One departed employee said that “she was initially excited about the new policy, but as she thought about the details she began to get dismayed. “He gave raises to people who have the least skills and are the least equipped to do the job, and the ones who were taking on the most didn’t get much of a bump.”

Notice that in the past sentence of paragraph three above is the phrase “most valuable people.” Many novice or naïve business people don’t seem to understand that some employees are more valuable than others. A person’s hard and soft skills, loyalty, experience, and job-related acumen add more value to a company than those possessing less.

The downside to across the board raises at the entry level should have been obvious to Price, but apparently they weren’t. He is now renting out his house and took a substantial pay cut himself to keep the doors open.


Because he failed to appreciate the nuanced layers of motivation. When you raise base salaries substantially and those of proven performers only minimally you erode the incentive you’ve put in place. While those whose abilities are less developed and less proven are rewarded, those employees whose abilities are more developed and proven more effective are perceived to be worth less. It redistributes the balance of payments, as it were, to favor the less valuable as much as or more than the more valuable.

In short, it pisses off the very people you do not want to piss off.

Always, and I mean always, reward producers and reward them well. You want to grow the less productive employee into a more productive one. You DO NOT want to inhibit the growth or productivity of the more effective and productive employees.

Price did precisely that and in so doing, did himself and his company much harm. It may have seemed generous to Price, the most valuable people in his company do not see it that way.

Now, before you object that we should all feel happy at the advancement of others, let me suggest we need to live in the real world where there are real emotions and complex psychological forces with which we must contend. It simply does not work. We are emotional being and how we feel significantly affects how we perform. Price should have substantially increased the pay of everyone proportionately, which I am sure he could not economically afford to do. What he did in essence was to make the most productive appear to sacrifice the most. Others got substantial raises while they did not.

So what should he have done?

If he wanted to increase the base salaries, he should have instituted a series of pay increases based on key and critical productivity markers. When an employee reached a defined level of competence, performance, and productivity, s/he would receive an appropriate increase in pay or benefits. And it should apply to everyone.

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.

Internal Combustion – How to Keep Employees and Associates Motivated

sparkplugToday begins a new series, one prompted by two things. First, how to keep employees and associates motivated is a question I am often asked. Second, I’ve been working with a company in the recent past where the use of practical techniques to motivate the workforce radically turned around the company in a short period of time. So, it is fresh on my mind.

But even that description implies something that is a bit misleading. Let me explain

The motivational seminar business has pretty much run its course. There are pockets left but most everyone has discovered that motivation is not something that can be transplanted. Motivation, like a fire, needs certain components to thrive.

In an internal combustion engine, there must be fuel, a container (like the cylinder), a spark, and timing. All must meet at precisely the right time…and continue to function in sync…if movement is to occur.

Motivation should be defined in our setting.  I explain it as

“a desire within someone to do the right things at the right time with the intent of producing the right result.”

But I want to really emphasize that motivation and motivational skills are not applied as much as they are gathered and made to be integral components of the work environment.  They are not one and done tasks (too gimmicky) nor is it the result of one, two or three things done at one time or another (too haphazard).

An atmosphere of motivation is far more effective than anything gimmicky and far, far more enduring.

How you motivate, the things you do to motivate others, and the expectations you have about those things you do definitively reveal your values and those of your company or organization. What you believe about others will absolutely be seen in what you do, when you do it, and how you carry it out.

So, let’s settle it now. Motivation is not merely something you do. It originates from the core of your character and is a manifestation of your value system. It is almost certain that we’ve all been subjected to clumsy attempts by bosses to appear motivational. Here is just a few of the things covered in this series:

  • I’ll detail some of the clumsy attempts and what should have been done instead.
  • I will also explain the things you can do to create and sustain an atmosphere of growth, inspiration, and motivation.
  • I’ll also explore some mistakes commonly made and how small changes can make huge differences.
  • I’ll talk about the four levels of development in subordinates and associates and what effective motivational leaders have to do at each level.
  • Finally, I’ll explore some simple techniques for building a fire in others and keeping it burning.

So, if you’re not signed up for The Practical Leader newsletter, please consider doing so right now. Not only will you receive practical leadership tips not found on this website, you will automatically receive a notice that another blog post is up and ready.

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.

4 things to consider before dismissing that suggestion or idea

elephant tied with stringIf it didn’t work then, will it work now?

Elephant syndrome is what I call it, the tendency to never forget. But I am not referring to a good memory. I am talking about a faulty forgetter. Like the elephant in the photo, we remain tied with string to obstacles we could readily overcome. That elephant was tied to an object when it was little but does not now understand what happened and what it could do to break out.

Consider this. You are the leader of a company on its way to fulfilling its purpose. One of your associates suggests an idea which you’ve already tried. You’ve tried it before and it did not work.

What would you do?

Most of us would reject it outright. We tend to have elephant syndrome. We remember those things that stymied us before, those tactics that failed, those efforts that fell short. And there well could be a good reason not to pursue them again.

On the other hand, it might be more effective to take another look at it.


  1. Because that was then and this is now. The circumstances, components, and dynamics that stopped you back then may not exist anymore. When the economy crashed here in the US in 2009, it was virtually impossible to get a business loan. Many simply gave up trying. But that was then. The economy has changed and lenders are loaning again. Just because it didn’t work then does not mean one should not try now when things are different. You could be tied with string. What you remember as being insurmountable then is well within your power to do now.
  2. It’s impossible to steer a ship when it is not moving. In organizations beset by inertia and stagnation, the principle effect you want is movement. You want people to think, to project, to create, to propose, to experiment, to act. When the ship moves it can be steered. Your role as a leader is not to stand at the helm looking splendid in your captain’s uniform. No, your role is to guide and steer the ship. Everyone else gets to make it move. Let them do your job while you do yours.
  3. Never stomp on someone’s idea outright. It may indeed be a bad idea but don’t take the mere suggestion of it personal. Those who work for you and with you can either be associates or lackeys. How you respond to their suggestions says a lot about what you think about them, about yourself, and about your authority. People who have an inflated opinion of themselves and their position tend to dismiss others. But remember what I’ve written earlier, that a leader’s circle of concern is greater than their circle of ability. They need, indeed you need others to extend your reach, multiply your effectiveness, and divide your work.
  4. If it is indeed an unworkable idea, the mere suggestion of it suggests a teachable moment. So teach already. Define your objections, analyze and verify their validity, explain your reasons, invite participation and feedback in the discussion and, this is important here, come to the same conclusion together. There’s more to getting things done than just doing things. You are also in the process of developing capable people as well.

There are, of course, some things that will never work. But you need to be fair about discerning what they are. There’s more at stake here than just exercising your authority.

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?