“We will grow one operation at a time, when the customer tells us we are ready,” one of my mentors, Web Sherrill, consistently reminded everyone in the enterprise almost three decades ago. The purpose was both to be a mantra for leading people at all levels of the enterprise and to build on a common purpose (success) and focus (the customer).
He knew that to execute this challenge would mean hard managerial skills for structure and discipline and softer relationship skills for an entrepreneurial ethic of continuous customer dialogue. A continuous customer dialogue requires discussion with customers, fellow associates and partners.
Sherrill grew the enterprise to almost 2,000 operations over a span of four decades. He did this through relationship building. And his teachings and experiences were inspirational in leading the hearts and minds of associates, partners and even customers through daily operations.
Relationships drive sales. Relationships are built on customer experiences, and building relationships is a process, a set of actions, and not an event. And, through working with him, I came to appreciate that, to remain customer-centered, enterprises can lead customer relationships through frontline activities that involve and motivate associates.
A lesson from TQM
Two decades ago, Total Quality Management, as it came to be known, transformed production processes (and possibly even lifestyles) in the United States. At the time, the fear was that the aim for high quality was a losing battle. TQM was a way for enterprises to get everyone involved in quality processes, as demonstrated in the teachings of W. Edwards Deming and his peers. Deming famously said, “Experience teaches nothing unless we ask a question for experience to answer” and argued that all workers should be involved. Not only did the technology of the day help execute, measure, and create efficiencies for production processes, but also participants increased learning, commitments, and focus through their efforts.
A supervisor overseeing several production processes at the time, I witnessed firsthand a welcomed transformation from directing instructions, measurements and feedback to demonstrating attentions, asking and intentions. For the first time, associates could get feedback from their own daily activities.
By leading the practice of a five-step process through daily operations, my mentor helped direct Shoney’s, Inc., a regional hospitality company, from a public offering in 1987 (NYSE: SHO) to a valuation increase of more than 10 times within five years. This valuation reflected sales effectiveness based principally on customer retention (same store sales increases) and associate retention for managing expansion units.
A frontline perspective
Most great entrepreneurial stories, regardless of industry and whether it is Walt Disney (entertainment), Sam Walton (retail), Ray Kroc (hospitality) or Thomas J. Watson Jr. (technology), share the common characteristic of sustaining a customer dialogue. Sustaining a customer dialogue requires four elements:
- Managing programs
- Leading hearts and minds
- Encompassing all levels of the enterprise
- Engaging in dialogues with customers (as well as between associates and internal and external partners)
For this to happen, not only must everyone support frontline operations but maybe even more importantly, those in frontline operations must feel a need and desire to ask for support. This will occur when they are given the opportunity to re-ask, informally, some of the same questions senior management has been asking to determine “what” needs to be done. But in the case of the frontline people, the questions will be from a daily operations perspective to help with the “how” involved in getting it done.
Every enterprise must buy into the importance of relationships. Corporate leaders must also appreciate that managing, while critical for structure and discipline, be overdone. Over-management in the frontline operation can lead to information and feedback overload. It is only through asking, reflection and inquiry that people can continue learning. The company’s structure must support frontline leaders by encouraging associates to ask questions whenever possible, rather than simply leaving them nothing but static information.
This questioning process should be non-verbal for the most part, and it should take place through processes or sets of actions that cycle—even unconsciously—through most daily operations.
This five-step process is a good way to structure it. Ask frontline leaders to go through these stages as part of their daily operations:
- Ask (critical questions)
- Get feedback (from activities)
- Share (assess)
Such a practice would lead workplace experiences and relationships between customers, associates and partners alike. Here’s how it works:
- Thanking builds recognition and leads appreciation.
- Inviting demonstrates intentions, which leads to commitments.
- Asking the critical questions for the success of the group will create attention and lead to long-term focus.
- Associates receiving feedback from their daily individual and group activities continue to be engaged at a high level.
- Sharing develops assessments (opinions) that foster dialogue.
One salesman Sherrill coached used those skills to involve and self-motivate his own team to greater sales. As he was promoted, he would practice the five-step process as a tool to build focus, learning, and commitments for as many as six hundred other teams over a period of years.
These activities would be a career skill for any team leader or first-line manager to practice with associates to involve and self-motivate. They also are a means for a supervisor to build long-term customer focus, learning and commitments among enterprise groups/teams.
It’s also perfect for a single team trial, because the practice complements and continues—but does not change—existing managerial activities.