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Where To Begin? December 18, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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As some of you may have noticed, I like to extract lessons from the day-to-day incidents that surround us.  If I’m able to extract some little nugget from an experience, I count it as a worthwhile event.  Imagine my delight to uncover five lessons in a short, two minute encounter earlier this week.

I was in line at a local craft shop. The fellow in front of me was part of a larger group of dads and their kids, making crafts as Christmas gifts.  Apparently, they all paid on arrival, but this dad had discovered he had a 50% off coupon in his wallet.  He was asking for a refund of half of his fee.  And thus the lessons in poor service began.

  1. Develop policies that punish your customer. The salesperson immediately responded with “We do not give refunds.”  The customer was taken aback but undeterred.  He asked again, pointing out that he had just paid a few moments before. Apparently, the policy does not address timing, so again, the request was refused.  When the customer asked again, we moved to lesson two.
  2. Blame someone else. The salesperson then shared that this wasn’t her policy, but instead had been created by “accounting.”  I wondered how big the accounting department might be at a little mom-and-pop store like this one, but no matter. Someone else had set this policy, and we were all powerless to change it.
  3. Pass the buck. When the specter of “Accounting” did not seal the deal, the salesperson called over another employee.  Unsurprisingly, she confirmed the bad news: that was the policy, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. It became clear that both employees had been taught lesson four:
  4. Don’t care. It was obvious that these two had no vested interest in making this person happy.  For whatever reason, their engagement with the company simply involved showing up, doing their job, and going home.  Apparently, long-term customer satisfaction did not figure into their performance review. As a result, we finally got to lesson five.
  5. Offend a member of a larger group. This guy was part of a group of dads.  You can be sure he told each one of them about the refusal.  You can be sure that when the group has to pick their next outing, this store would not be on the list.  For want of a small refund and a bit of kindness, a whole collection of families were alienated.

This whole conversation took less than five minutes before the dad finally gave up.  The salespeople had no idea of the damage they had done, and neither would the store owner, who was not present.

Good customer service is hard, but bad customer service is so easy.  For all of us in service organizations, we need to remember that good service is a continuous effort and even a slight slip can create lasting damage.

The unhappy dad went back to his child, and I moved forward to pay my bill.  I didn’t have the nerve to ask if I could use his coupon.

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Lifetime Impact December 14, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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Early in my career, I had the great good fortune to work with a pure research team.  The team had two distinct research areas: advanced digital communications and large-scale parallel processing.  The former was populated by absolute geniuses who, among other things, developed stuff  like 16 kilobit modems back in 1980, along with a nifty technology we now know as HDTV.  I was in the latter group; we were a bunch of young Unix hackers who tinkered with odd things like parallel processing, the internet, the web, and email.  It was a wonderful place to be, and I still have many fond memories of the people and the projects.

Last week I learned that one of the senior members of the communications group, Dan McRae, passed away.  Dan was a brilliant engineer, but he was also a kind, supportive mentor to many, many people.  As his coworkers learned of his passing, they began to share memories of Dan and the profound impact he had had on their lives.  Although I had only known Dan peripherally, those who had known and worked with him for decades echoed a common sentiment: he had made a profound difference in their lives.

Several people shared the same comment: that were it not for Dan, their lives would be dramatically different today.  His guidance and intervention at an early point in their career had led them to decisions that made a big difference for them and their families.

Dan did not set out to make a big difference.  Dan was being Dan, quietly inspiring people to do great things personally and professionally.  Yet the impact he had on so many people is immeasurable.

Thinking of Dan made me realize that to be remembered in this way may be the greatest achievement to which any of us could aspire.  Paradoxically, you cannot try to achieve this kind impact; rather, it occurs as a side effect of doing the right thing, all the time, for a long time.  I suspect that even if you had asked him, Dan could not have explained how he had this impact on people.

If you died today, would people say the same thing about you?  Do you live your life in a way that makes a profound difference to someone?  I hope that in the end, we will all be able to claim a similar legacy as Dan McRae.

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Toddler Audit December 4, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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As any parent can tell you, there comes a time in a child’s life when they seek to learn everything.  Around the age of three or so, children suddenly want to understand the reason for everything.  No matter what the issue, they ask one simple question, over and over again: “why?”

Parents are driven to distraction by this, as their children soon discover.  It’s tough to argue with a thirst for knowledge, though, so parents will tolerate a lot of questions before hiding behind the old stand-by of “because I said so.”

As leaders, we would do well to emulate toddlers on occasion, at least on the thirst-for-knowledge front. But don’t misunderstand: I’m not suggesting that we go around asking other people “why?” They have enough  to do without our constant intrusion.  Instead, we need to spend time asking the question of ourselves.

The pace of leadership is ever-increasing, which forces us to make decisions rapidly.  We rely on instinct and history, letting our experience guide us.  There’s nothing wrong with this, of course; it’s why experience is so important in making successful decisions.

Even so, we need to stop periodically and make sure we understand why we are doing certain things certain ways.  And like that persistent toddler, we need to question each successive answer to drill into the foundations of our decisions.  If those foundations prove to be solid, then our decisions will be solid.  If you find yourself winding up with answers like “we’ve always done it that way” or “because so-and-so says so,” you may want to reconsider what you are doing.

This “Toddler Audit” is an obvious exercise when dissecting a technical decision.  Technical decisions have technical foundations, and it is relatively easy to get to the bottom of why you are selecting a tool or deploying a system.  A Toddler Audit can also be useful during a budgeting exercise as you seek to justify each item and confirm that you have a good number assigned to each expense or income item.

Toddler Audits get a bit trickier on the soft side of our business.  If you are figuring out how to challenge people, or divide up work, or expand an organization, the answers to “why” become much more subjective and soft.  That’s not to say that the process breaks down; you just need to be more thoughtful with your answers to make sure you are being honest with yourself.

Finally, Toddler Audits really help analyze what we are doing at any given point.  Here’s an interesting exercise: at random times during the day, stop and ask why you are doing whatever it is you are doing at that exact moment.  Is it the right thing to be doing?  Is it the most important?  Is it taking up too much time, or stealing your attention from something else?  All good questions, and you should have good answers.

If you survive a Toddler Audit, I suspect you’ll know a lot more about the foundations of your decision process, which should improve your decision making.  It may even prepare you for the dreaded Teenager Audit: “Why not?”

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There’s Not An App For That November 30, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Technology.
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I’ve been in a few CIO briefings of late that have revolved around the topic of business process management.  There is little doubt that much value can be found in formally capturing, defining, and managing the hundreds of processes that keep our companies running.  Even the simplest processes can have costly inefficiencies that can make a big difference in delivering good service and maintaining efficient operations.  A good BPM exercise can find and eliminate those issues and yield a good return on the effort.

For many of these initiatives, much time is spent selecting and implementing the right tool.  Certainly, having a sound workflow system to drive your processes helps.  The right system can automate mundane tasks, track all sorts of things, and make sure people know who needs to do what when.

As with most tools, however, it is easy to get so wrapped up in the tool that you lose sight of the real goal: creating a better process.  While it may be fun to connect lots of boxes with lots of lines, you’re creating a monster, not a better way.

I was once a party to just such a monster, several years ago.  As part of a workflow design team, we were tasked to formalize and automate a process within  our company.  This process had several gates, at which point someone could reject the item and stop the process.  This had been a bit of a sore point in the past, so we were careful to design in ways for rejected applicants to appeal their rejection.

This quickly escalated into a multi-level appeal process, with committees and advisors and automatic hearings.  It looked great on paper and took seven pages to draw out all the various options and choices that could occur.  We were pretty proud of this “better” way of doing things.

Finally, we all came to the same conclusion: this was a disaster in the making.  First, it would be extremely difficult to implement.  Second, it attempted to automate tasks that really needed to be handled by people.  And third, it would cause confusion and chaos among the users.

The real answer to the problem was far simpler: when an item was rejected, the rejecting party was expected to call and explain the circumstances to the rejected party.  The whole group realized that actual communication had an important place in the automated workflow.

That lesson hasn’t changed.  Tools are useful, but they can only go so far.  We cannot automate the most important part of any business: the interaction between team members as they get work done.  We need to use tools to remove the drudgery so that people have more time for the high-value interaction that really counts.  Freed from mindlessly shuffling paper (or email), people can actually discuss issues and work things out.  Communication is the most important thing we do; unfortunately, there isn’t an app for that.

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After The Beep November 16, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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There was a time, many years ago, when telephone answering machines were state-of-the-art technology.  They used little cassette tapes to hold both your incoming and outgoing messages.  Fancy ones could count how many messages you had; cheaper machines just blinked to get your attention.

The first time you ever set one up, you were instructed, when recording your outgoing message, to include instructions for the caller.  What should they do after the beep?  Leave a message, of course, and you’ll call them right back.

Many years have come and gone, and physical answering machines have evolved into voice mail stored on some remote server in the ether.  Every single person in every developed country on Earth has both sent and received voice messages.  Yet we persist in including those same instructions when we record our message in the voicemail system.

Why are we beholden to instructions that are absolutely useless?  How much time is wasted as people wait for the message to play before being able to record their message?  Even with the shortest message possible (“Not here. beep“) everyone would know exactly what to do.

Perhaps the worst possible offenders are those voice mail systems that tack on additional instructions, in a smooth female voice, after your message.  You’ve heard it a thousand times:

Leave your message after the beep.  When you are finished, you may hang up, or stay on the line for more options.

Is anyone unclear as to the next step after leaving their message?  Has anyone ever “stayed on the line for more options?”

Of course, many people are fairly gregarious when leaving a message, in a sort of karmic revenge for the long outgoing message.  There is nothing more frustrating than listening to some lengthy explanation in a voice mail when all you really want is a name and a number.  People ramble on and on, going into all sorts of detail that, truth be told, you are ignoring as you anxiously await the crucial data they might spring on you at any moment.

And when they get to that part?  They rattle off their number faster than anyone could ever transcribe it, mumble their name, and hang up.  You know what’s worse than listening to a long, tedious message?  Listening twice to check the name and number at the end.

I propose that we establish a new set of voice mail rules that will save everyone time and frustration:

  • Outgoing messages need to be short and sweet. No extraneous instructions; we know what to do.
  • Incoming messages need to be short and sweet. You get no more than twenty seconds to give a reason why you need a return call.  State your name and number slowly.  Pause and repeat it.  Hang up.

Get the message?  Together, we can change the world, one beep at a time!

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