Big time service in a small town

Since moving to the mountains of North Carolina, we have encountered many “small-town” pleasures… being surrounded by caring neighbors, greatly reduced traffic-induced anxiety, and knowing both our mail carrier and UPS driver by name.

Before we even moved in, we happened to run into a local UPS guy who told us that Eric would be our driver.  Based on our businesses, we knew that UPS would be making lots of trips up and down “The Beast” (our neighbors unofficial name of our steep and curvy driveway).

And Eric has proven to be a reliable, pleasant, personable and considerate deliverer of goods. He is always smiling and ready to offer a friendly greeting or comment.  It’s been fun getting to know him, and we especially appreciated the over-and-above service he provided the other day.

First, a little context: while in Orlando recently, my laptop bag was stolen. And yes, my laptop was in it at the time. Upon returning home, I trucked off to the Apple store to get a replacement.  They didn’t have the exact configuration I wanted, so I had to order it and have it shipped to my house. I had already been without my main laptop for about a week, so what’s a few more days?

I knew I was going to have to sign for the box when the laptop was delivered, so I watched the tracking carefully to make sure either my wife or I would be home.  On the day it was to arrive, it said the earliest it would be delivered was 1 pm.  My wife and I had some errands to run, so we got in the car and headed down “The Beast” at about 10 am.  We would be back in plenty of time.

As we headed down the driveway, a very familiar brown truck made it’s way past our driveway and up the road. I wondered if it was Eric just as the truck started to slow down.  It stopped right in the middle of the road, and I knew what was happening.

Eric saw our car coming down the driveway, and because he knew we were going to have to sign for the package, he decided to stop and make sure we got it right then to avoid missing us on his way back through the neighborhood.

To me, that was amazing. 

He didn’t have to do that. He could have kept driving, knowing that he would have gotten back around to our house eventually and maybe someone would have been there to sign for the package, maybe not. In the grand scheme of things, what difference did it make to him?

Thankfully for me, it made at least a little difference to him, and his actions made a BIG difference to me.

And quite frankly, I don’t know if this scenario plays out the same way in a different municipality, if a different driver was on the route that day or if we hadn’t gotten to know Eric before this point. My guess is that it wouldn’t have.

So first and foremost, I am thankful to Eric and his efforts to make sure I got my new laptop in a timely manner.  Secondly, I think there is a business lesson to explore.

Not knowing a ton about the UPS culture, I would imagine that as an experienced driver, Eric has the freedom to make these kinds of decisions… to alter his route or delivery schedule to better serve his customers.  What’s another way to say “freedom to make decisions”?

Empowerment.

Yes, I said it. And yes, I know that this was an over-used business cliche a number of years ago.  But here’s the thing… when it’s done right, it actually works.

I think empowerment has gotten a bad rap because of the lazy managers who let the process fail.  You can’t simply say to an employee, “you’re empowered” and expect them to all-of-a-sudden know what they are empowered to actually do.  It just doesn’t work that way.

But that’s what we did back in the day. We told people they were empowered and left it at that. We then scratched our heads when this great empowerment initiative didn’t work.

Once you say, “you’re empowered”, thats when the work actually STARTS!  Now you have to set parameters, provide guidance, seek out suggestions, give feedback, equip with resources, observe behaviors, rinse and repeat.

And maybe lazy is too harsh a word for those managers… maybe forgetful is more accurate?  How often do we forget what it’s like on the frontline, or to be a new employee?  How often do we forget that the things we know BY HEART are things that others may just be learning or may be struggling with?  How often do we forget that not everyone has had the same experiences that we have, which means they could be on a totally difference planet when it comes to appropriate empowerment.

Empowerment is like delegation… it takes a truckload (no UPS pun intended) of work upfront to make it work, but the results can be outstanding!

So whether UPS got empowerment right, or Eric just took it upon himself to help me out, the result was the same, and I am thankful.

Thanks for reading!

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Infographic “How To” Post 9: Empowered

This is part 9 of a 10 part “how to” series covering the points in the infographic below.

Employees Stay9I can hear the rally cry now, proclaimed by well-intentioned executives bent on improving customer relations and employee morale:

“We’re going to empower our employees to go above and beyond for our customers!”

So let it be decreed… and POOF! Employees are now empowered.

Not so fast.

No one that I know of has ever acted empowered just because they were told they were empowered.  There’s a wee bit more too it than that.

Let’s start with the “why”.  Why did Mr. or Mrs. Bigshot declare open season on employee empowerment?  As I said above, they meant well.  Chances are that there was a desire to streamline a process… perhaps it was the guest comment or complaint procedure… maybe it had to do with processing a return… or maybe it was so when something went haywire, their front line employees would be able to handle it and spare the guest the further inconvenience of having to trudge up to guest services to have their problem resolved.  Lastly, it could also be to encourage random acts of kindness – want to do something nice just because… go for it – you’re empowered to make that decision.

In my experience, what DIDN’T happen after the “why” was fully examined, was to determine “HOW” this was going to happen.  It was assumed since management was lying down the empowerment gauntlet, that eager and willing employees were going to jump at the chance to pick it up.  That they were just chomping at the bit to do all these wonderful things and were just waiting for permission from the powers that be.

Permission is part of it, but it ain’t all of it. Sadly, this is where many people stop, and wonder why they employees aren’t acting as empowered as they should.

So let’s turn that around.  Let’s dive into HOW we empower employees so they will actually feel and act empowered.

Did you see what I did there?  I inserted a word we haven’t discussed yet.  Feel.  First an employee has to feel that they actually ARE empowered in order to act that way.

Uh oh… we gotta talk about feelings again?  Good gravy.

Afraid so. No matter what age, nationality, ethnic background or chosen NFL affiliation, all human beings are wired in much the same way.  Our actions are based on how we feel.  Are you feeling like you are learning something from this post? If so, you’ll keep reading.  If not, it doesn’t really matter what I type here because you are long gone. (If you are still here – thank you!)

This is why the decree of empowerment alone does not inspire actions. There are still too many variables in play that the employees have questions about.  For example:

  • What am I empowered to do? You said I could go above and beyond.  Above and beyond what and how far above and how far beyond? Who can I ask if I need help? Meh. It’s too confusing. Forget it.
  • How do I do this? Is there a form to fill out?  A procedure?  An app?  In what situations would I empower my empowerment? My manager said one thing, but the guy next to me said something else. Meh. It’s too confusing. Forget it.
  • Am I going to get in trouble?  If I’m giving stuff away or letting people break the rules, aren’t I going to get in trouble?  It was reinforced and reiterated how important our rules are, so I’m not sure what’ll happen if I decide that one isn’t so important. Meh. It’s too confusing. Forget it.

If you’ve struggled with empowerment in the past, this should give you a quick-start guide for revamping your initiatives:

  • Be clear about WHAT sort of things they are empowered to do
  • Be specific about the procedure or steps to take so employees get comfortable with doing something outside of their comfort zone
  • Explain (and live by) what will happen when an employee takes on the challenge of doing something out of the ordinary. (Praise the effort, even if the execution needs adjusting)

For clarity, I should mention that in many cases, there won’t be a specific blueprint for employees to follow every time they want to go above and beyond or do something special. If there were, it would be called a Standard Operating Procedure and it would be part of their everyday routine. We do have to set guidelines and expectations at first to get people thinking in a way that it’s okay to step outside of the norm and do the extraordinary, but the ultimate goal should be about developing their decision-making skills.

Because that’s what empowered employees do, and it’s what Mr. and Mrs. Bigshot WANT empowered employees to do… make decisions that will have a positive impact on the situation.

To encourage these decisions, it will be important to constantly reinforce not only that you WANT them to make these decisions, but again you have to make them feel good about making them (so THEY’LL want to). This process takes time, encouragement, guidance and patience on your part.  Talk to employees about scenarios where different decisions could be made, and walk through the possible outcomes.  Encourage them to try different things to see how they work, and follow-up with them on their progress.  Continue to encourage experimentation while you praise the effort of stepping outside their comfort zone, even if the action wasn’t exactly what you envisioned.

Let me take a quick side journey at this point… when you truly empower people to make decisions, and give them the latitude to do so, it’s imperative that you prepare yourself for a time when they could do something so off the wall it might make your head spin.  People are funny like that.  Give them opportunities to actually use their brains, and they might surprise you.  I would contend that as much as that surprise might make you cringe, there is also a chance that they could come up with an incredible idea or solution to a problem that you have been struggling with for years.  The connections in the brain and the desire to actually share that with you don’t come from people who are only taught to keep their head down and focus solely on the task in front of them.

And now, back to our story…

The more you encourage little decisions, the more comfortable employees will feel about making those, and even larger decisions.  You also get to evaluate and guide their learning in terms of making those choices for the best outcome for everyone. Win-win.

As a little overlap to our final post on Trust, I think it’s important to address trust as it applies to empowerment.

For you, you need to trust that your employees will do the right thing.  They may not all the time, but that’s why you will be there to guide them the next time.  You show trust by not micromanaging, respecting their decisions and helping them grow.

Your employees need to trust you to not change the rules on them midstream.  If you encourage empowerment, but employees get in trouble for thinking outside the box, you will unravel any desire to do that again in the future.  They also have to trust that you’ll have their back if something goes south.

I know I’ve told this story before, but it more than applies here as we talk about employees making decisions and how trust factors in.

When I was an Operations Area Manager at Valleyfair, one of the departments I oversaw was Admissions, which included Guest Services.  I was extremely lucky to have a returning Supervisor on my staff named Lisa.  Lisa had worked there for many years already, and had probably forgotten more than I would ever learn.  One day early in my tenure as manager, Lisa came to me with a guest complaint issue.  She explained the situation and asked my opinion about what she should do.  Based on her experience, I had more than an inkling than she already had a resolution in mind, so I asked what she thought.  She quickly provided a great solution, so we went with her idea.

Lisa KNEW what to do, and of course I had told her before that that she could make those decisions, but we hadn’t established the trust in our relationship yet that made her feel comfortable to go ahead and make that decision without my approval.

The moral to that story? For empowerment to work, it takes time.  It’s a perfect storm of knowledge, desire, permission and encouragement.

Oh, and trust. Can’t forget trust. Good thing that is the topic of our next post in the series!

Next up: Trusted

Thanks for reading!

Matt

About the author – After 20+ years in hospitality leadership and human resources, Matt Heller founded Performance Optimist Consulting in 2011 with one simple goal: Help Leaders Lead. Matt now works with attractions large and small and leaders at all levels to help them improve leadership competencies, customer service, employee motivation and teamwork. His book, “The Myth of Employee Burnout” was released in 2013 has become a go-to resource among industry leaders.

OMG – I can’t believe he missed that!!

During a recent dinner out with friends, I couldn’t believe the service opportunity that was missed by the restaurant manager.  It was right there, set up for him beautifully, and he missed it. If he were playing wiffle ball, people would have said that he “whiffed”.

Especially in this day and age when companies and brands are FIGHTING for customer loyalty, it’s hard to imagine that he would let this opportunity slip right down the drain.

But he did.

Let me set the stage: We were eating at an establishment that had an advertized promotion/policy that if a Manager did not stop by your table to check on things, then you get $10 off your next visit.  (To me this sounds like a strange attempt to motivate the Managers to do what they should already be doing, but that’s another topic for another time).

As it turned out, our friends had been to a different location in this restaurant chain, and had NOT received a visit from the Manager.  Nor had there been any follow-up on the $10 offer when they mentioned it.

So, when the Manager of this restaurant stopped by our table, my friend jokingly said something about the $10 off.  It was all very lighthearted, and I don’t REALLY think my friend was expecting the $10 – he just wanted to have some fun with the guy.  The managers reaction at first was okay, saying, “I’m so sorry that happened, my name is Kevin and please let me know if I can do anything for you tonight.”

To which my friend says, “Okay, how about $5 off the bill for tonight?”.  Again, this was said in a joking, lighthearted manner.  And here comes the whiff…

The Manager says, “Unfortunately, I am not at liberty to do that.” Then he smiled and walked away.

Did that just happen?  Did a guest just deliver a loyalty building experience to you on a sliver platter and you turned it down?  I was a little dumbfounded.

I thought about the “not at liberty” statement for a while.  That could have been code for many things, such as:

  • I don’t want to
  • I don’t have time
  • I don’t know how
  • I don’t think you deserve it
  • I can’t fix something here that didn’t happen here
  • I’m not allowed to
  • I’ll get in trouble

I’ll bet if we didn’t like our food or the service was lousy, or we made a big stink, that he would have jumped at the chance to knock $5 off our bill.  That would have been the easy way out. Yet he still chose not to, even though he has the power and the capability to do so.  Why?

I would imagine there is something broken or underdeveloped in his skills as a manager, or more likely in the edict and communication from the corporate office about what managers are truly empowered to do and what they are not empowered to do.  There was no latitude for out-of-the-box thinking here, which could have made a huge difference.

What if he said, “great idea, sir, I am going to take $5 off your bill tonight”?  I think we would have been pleasantly surprised, if not stunned. Maybe he would have gotten in trouble from “corporate”, but he would have created a memorable situation that we would want to talk about (in a good way).  The question is: what is a bunch of free promotion and positive word of mouth advertising worth to your business?  More than 5 bucks?  Then you better let your managers make the call that would create those kind of situations.

It’s hard enough in business today to try to anticipate or guess what our guests want.  So when it’s delivered to you all wrapped up and tied with a bow, you gotta take it.

Thanks for reading!

About the author: Matt Heller has a passion for helping leaders in the attractions industry get the most out of themselves and their teams.  One of his specialties is coaching leaders one-on-one to get through their specific roadblocks.  If you are hitting a wall, give Matt a call (rhymes optional).