I was once locked in banter with the manager of a tyre fitment centre which was part of a big client group. He was convinced that his employees had reached the best possible customer attentiveness while I was skeptical of the claim. So we decided to put it to the test.
I was unknown at his particular shop and brought in a flat tyre to be changed. The employee doing the job was called first by myself, whom he thought was the customer, and then by his immediate supervisor. The employee barely gave me a glance before going to his supervisor. As trite as the experiment may have been, it confirmed at least to the manager that most employees see themselves as serving their bosses first, and serving the customer only as a means to that end. This has more to do with structure and perceptions than employee willingness.
I’m not a great follower of conspiracy theories, but if there were one more successful than most it’s the plot to demean the role of the employee. Everybody and everything is part of it: employees themselves, the trade unions, the shareholders, the accounting conventions, and the economic philosophy and system of our time. The conspiracy is about categorising labour as a commodity and a cost, thus ensuring that employees by and large focus on what they can get and not what they can give. An employee is almost automatically defined in terms of and confined by “what’s-in-it-for-me”.
The employee/resource/cost/drag phenomenon is related to the way we view the hierarchical people structure of an organisation. I used a role-play exercise in our own workshops to illustrate the point. We asked selected participants to stand in a line to represent the “main actors” of a simplified modern organisation.
The representation in the first figure is based on the understanding that the ultimate purpose of a company is to serve the shareholders. We all recognise it as a “self-serving” structure, where each role player is bent on maximum reward in return for homage to the one above. The relationship between the shareholders (JSE) and the executive or “boss” is forged on that principle: the boss is in fact the servant of the owners, i.e. the shareholders. As the chief servant he/she will hold subordinates accountable for various aspects of an overall performance that will enhance maximum shareholder value.
No doubt this boss has a profit-driven incentive package and has been given a bundle of shares in the company, and will therefore be inclined to focus on the short term and on the easiest way of affecting a rise in the share price.
Customer service (and these days other “sustainability stuff”) will be some of the performance areas, but not necessarily the dominant and overriding one. It’s an unfortunate fact that the easiest way to improve the bottom line is by “cost-cutting” (in which the payroll is probably the biggest factor) and account-fiddling or paper-shuffling. The longer and more risky route is to increase market share, sales and customer loyalty.
With strong overt or covert directives coming from his superiors, the supervisor’s domain is filled with the same incentives, measurements and accountabilities. He is also likely to be drawn into one or other profit-driven bonus programme. Depending on the type of business, there’s a shift in language at the level of general employees or workers. Here, functional accountabilities have more to do with standard customer-linked measurements such as quality, complaints, etc. So they are all herded off to smile courses. These may lead to some Oscar winning performances, but they are of little use in breaking the mould. The measurements are still seen as a way of satisfying the supervisor and the employee still sees his or her role as “serving” the one above.
When participants see the first role play, they virtually immediately clamour for the line to change direction to the second illustration. The whole operational line is then seen to be facing in the direction of the customer. The two main issues that this raises are the role of the shareholders and who serves whom at operational level. The latter is addressed by Robert Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership. Regarding the role of the shareholders there can be two views. The one that seems to fit the current behaviour of shareholders is that they will and should simply insist on maximizing profits. For the line to turn it would mean that the operational CEO has to turn his/her back on this requirement towards the customer facing line. That is a very brave thing to do. The time will come when the short-term shareholder interest and customer interests will be conflict. Very few CEO’s have this kind of courage. Comforting though, society is nudging if not forcing them to do so.
A question automatically raised in this presentation is “who should turn first?” Most believe it is the one at the top who has to become more market and service driven than profit and self interest driven. My response is: “does it matter?” Albert Einstein put it so aptly when he said: “The highest destiny of the individual is to serve rather than to rule”.
Service to others is the most empowering thing a human being can do. Why wait for someone else before unleashing this power within ourselves? This is not to understate the enormous challenge for the individual. Since I did these workshops some years ago, things have clearly gone from bad to rotten. Self serving behaviour has become the norm rather than the exception even amongst role models.
But even in those days I was often confronted with: “Why should I bother? Nobody else behaves in the way you’re suggesting I do.” My response is: “Aren’t you lucky. You’ve been given a secret formula that will set you above the rest. Go and try it!”
But companies can go a long way by simply following what their mission or purpose statements say. A sculptor once said: “When you sculpt a horse simply take away everything that does not look like a horse.”