Animation: Is It In Your Customer Service Employees?

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“We’re on break!” the warehouse attendant barked in response to the customer’s repeated, “Hello! Anybody home?” as he waited for assistance at the service desk. It was the customer’s third encounter with apathy that Monday. The first was the coffee shop employee who gave him a curt, “what’s good about it?” response to his morning greeting. The next was the gas station owner who offered no verbal response or eye contact as the customer enriched the station’s coffers by thirty bucks. And now, “We’re on break!”

Apathy comes in many shapes and sizes. It can be the complete emotional indifference by the cashier, the sleep-walking actions of a hotel housekeeper, or the wooden sound of the colleague down the hall who promised a report you needed. Apathy robs work teams of energy, marriages of romance, and organizations of much needed service sensitivity. Moreover, it communicates a deadly message of disinterest to customers. It say to customers, “continue to spend your money with us or not– we’re okay either way.”

We live in an era of passion larceny. Downsizing has robbed colleagues of colleagues, leaving them hollow. Constant reorganizing has not only reshuffled key alliances, it has stolen valued allegiances. Organizations continue to ratchet up the workloads of already overburdened employees. The hustle for ever-challenging profit margins has too often put short-term revenues at center stage and long-term partnerships in the cheap seats. As the soul of the organization is put in a profit-at-all-costs vise, what has been squeezed out is the positive spirit of employees. And, we all—customers on the outside or colleagues on the inside—suffer from robotic, half-hearted, or downright rude service.

But, there are organizations that manage to retain excitement and zeal to serve, in spite of the present day dreary, economic tenor.

Late one Sunday evening at my desk, I was on-line ordering promotional visors for our new book from Stitch America in Bremen, GA. I had selected the visor color, style, and words to be stitched in a particular font and thread color. After loading in my credit card information, I sent off the order into cyberspace. I was about to turn out the light to go to bed when I received a text message on my smart phone,

“Mr. Bell, are you still up? May I call you about the order you just placed?” I responded, “Yes.” Within less than a minute, the phone rang. “This is Tonya. Thanks so much for your order. I want to give you superfast turnaround, but I want to make sure you get exactly what you wanted.” I was thrilled someone cared on a Sunday night about an on-line order. “The font size you have chosen will be too hard to read. May I suggest doubling it? I can send you a PDF photo showing the front of the visor in actual size.” I agreed, hung up the phone, and went to bed.

When I turned on my computer early the next morning there was the PDF from Tonya. With it came a short email note, “As soon as you give me the word that this is the best-looking visor you have ever seen, I will get it into production.” Two days later I got an email and text message from the production department that the visors were finished and being packaged for shipment. Later that day, I got an email with a photocopy of the tracking order. Two days later a follow-up email came indicating that their system showed the order had been delivered. And, then, Tonya called again. “Are you totally thrilled with your order?” I totally was! But, the Switch America service made me want to give up shopping centers forever.

The Recipe for Service Animation

This blog opened with a picture of a service statute—a stoic, frozen, and robotic approach to delivering service internally or externally. The Stitch America example was the animated version of service—full of enthusiasm, passion and energy. Looking behind the curtain to learn the source of animation can be instructive for any leader seeking the secret to getting employees excited about serving others.

The old fashioned label for this is employee engagement. It can be viewed as something leaders add or make happen, like turning the key to engage the ignition to crank the engine. Engagement is a military term meaning to encounter the enemy. It is synonymous with rendezvous or appointment, much like an item on a check-list. All these meanings suggest a leader as manipulator, spin-doctor, or exploiter. It is like leaders who say, “I need to motivate my employees,” as if it is a tactic they select and use.

The word “animation” comes from puneri name anima, the “animating principle”, the vital force inside every living creature. The punch line on this fascinating parallel is that animation is something leaders invite out, not something they put in. Excitement, passion, engagement, animation—regardless of the label–are not the gifts of leaders but rather the result of removing the barriers which keep employees from feeling and showing the excitement. Let’s examine a simple metaphor.

I stopped by a shoe shine stand in the airport between flights. Stepping up on the chair to place my feet in position for attention, I excitedly requested: “Please put me a great shine on these boots!” The shoe shine artist smiled and replied, “Sir, the shine is already in these boots. I just work with the polish and brush to bring it out.” I immediately thought of how the shoe shiner was like a great service leader.

Animation is already in employees. Great leaders remove the barriers that keep that excitement bottled up. Below are five barriers that are frequent culprits in most organizations, along with a few tips on how leaders can eliminate each barrier.

  • No Cause

    Today’s employees work with greater enthusiasm when they feel a part of an important mission. In a recent article in USAToday entitled, “Consumers Seek Products with a Cause,” author Christie Garton sites research done by Edelman Purpose, a global PR firm. “The best companies are using a variety of models,” quotes managing director Carol Cone in the article. “But what they all have in common is a compelling and relevant initiative. …They’re authentic, in it for the long term and provide deeper engagement levels for consumers with the goal of leaving a legacy for the community.” Companies with a cause sincerely imbedded in their strategy bolster employee passion when they take steps to link worker tasks to organizational mission.

    Ever see a slow moving FedEx delivery person? Not likely! FedEx chairman Fred Smith reminds FedEx employees of their purpose or cause: “You are not just ‘taking stuff by 10:30 am.’ You transport the most precious cargo in the world—perhaps an organ for a vital transplant, a gift for a special ceremony, a factory part that may have halted a company.” That connection with cause translates to a sense of agility and assertive action.

    What can leaders do? Talk about the mission often. Focus on what you want the unit or organization to BE, not just what you want it to DO. Communicate the “whys” when making assignments, not just the “what’s” and “whens.” Recognize heroes by “telling their stories”–especially the details of their accomplishments that are examples of the mission. Make sure your actions are consistent with your mission or purpose. Employees don’t watch your mouth, they watch your moves.

  • No Confidence

    Animation comes from people who are confident; confidence comes from trust. Trust is learned when employees feel the response after making an honest error. If the error is met with rebuke, it sends a very different message than if leaders see error as an opportunity for learning and problem-solving. Isn’t it highly unlikely the person in charge of hiring employees said, “Let me see how many dumb, evil, or shiftless employees I can hire this week?” Yet, notice how quickly an error- making employee can be labeled as stupid, careless, lazy or malicious…and, on whose watch?

    Trust also comes from clarity. When employees are crystal clear on expectations, understand the guidelines or boundaries, and more importantly, appreciate the rationale for those boundaries, they can operate in an environment of security. Quality guru Edward Deming said that the first step to quality (he could have added employee animation) is to drive fear out of the workplace.

    What can leaders do? Are employees clear on what’s a “thou shalt not…” law versus what’s an “it would be better if you didn’t…” guideline? Recall a time an employee made an honest mistake. Was forgiveness spoken, or just implied? Are employees publicly given the benefit of the doubt? Do they get more coaching or more critiquing? How many times do employees get praised for excellent efforts that failed to work? Are employees commended for seeking assistance from others, including other leaders?

  • No Consent

    Employees need guidelines, not unlimited license. The leader who says, “Just go do whatever you think is best,” is probably demonstrating abdication, not unleashing animation. But, guidelines need elbow room for the employee to adapt to the situation and the person he or she serves. Neither customers nor colleagues want robotic uniformity in service. While they want consistency, they also want to be treated as unique. And, this requires flexibility.

    It is dangerous to assume employees will just know what they are and are not allowed to do–or even that they’ll believe you the first time you say, “Yes, you can.” Employees might have been hearing ‘no’ for a long time.

    What can leaders do? Take to heart a line from Carl Sewell, author of Customers for Life: “the answer is ‘yes,’ what’s the question?’ Apply that kind of attitude to employees. Examine your reward and recognition practices. Which is more valued: creativity or compliance? Being resourceful or being always right? Who gets praised or promoted–and for what?

  • No Competence

    “Knowledge is power,” said philosopher Sir Francis Bacon. The capacity to find clever, resourceful, and creative solutions is the mark of a wise person prepared and empowered to go beyond the traditional, and the ordinary. Training your employees,
    not once but constantly, provides wisdom, not just competence. And whereas competence promotes confidence, wisdom fosters power and engagement.

    Building competence also means sharing information about the organization. If you want employees to focus on long-term relationships with customers (and not be completely preoccupied with the transaction cost of each encounter) then they need big picture direction and details about the balance sheet. If you want employees to make front-line decisions like owners, they need the benefit of owner-type information.

    What can leaders do? Emphasize proficiency by recognizing employees whose performance stands out. Use them as mentors of others. Allow time in meetings for your employees to share key learning’s. Be a lifelong learner yourself. Harvard professor and author Rosabeth Moss Kantor wrote, “Leaders are more powerful role models when they learn than when they teach. Your example is one your employees will follow.

  • No Chip

    We have an expression in our consulting firm that goes something like, “He or she is missing a chip.” The metaphor is obviously borrowed from the computer world and used to communicate a description of someone without the personality capacity to achieve a particular goal or task. There are people who come with an animation chip. They love helping, serving and assisting despite any organizational barriers. They just cannot help themselves.

    The lobby of the corporate headquarters of a large quick service company has a security guard with an animation chip. His mile-wide smile and enthusiastic manner suggests more the bearing of a super concierge. “Oh, no,” he announces to everyone within earshot, “they let you guys come back. Who do I need call and warn?” he jokes. Passerby employees shake their heads and smile, amazed at his relentless excitement. You cannot get to the visitor sign-in log without passing through his cordial handshake. “You don’t have to use your real name,” he teases, keeping the fun machine revved up. All the leg-pulling entertainment is only an appetizer for the abundant service entrée about to be delivered.

    What can you do? Take great care of the employee with the too rare animation chip. Spotlight his or her inherit assets as practices others should emulate. Search for prospective employees like this person. If you are having dinner at a restaurant and get a wait staffer with the chip, pass that person your business card and encourage him or her to apply for a position. Make sure the person calls you first so you can lay the proper groundwork with HR. Celebrate a personality plus attitude demonstrated by employees who historically rarely or never reveal it.

E. M. Forester wrote, “I’d rather have one person with passion than forty who are merely interested.” The path to that kind of passion is not through the carrot and stick approach or boss as manipulator style. It is through recognition that animation, like motivation, is a door opened from the inside.

Great leaders seek out the barriers that keep employees from wanting to open that door. And once open, they provide the cause, confidence, competence, and consent needed to keep it open enabling all to benefit from the spirit behind the door.

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