At one time or another, we’ve all had to deal with a customer service department whose response and actions left much to be desired. A recent experience my wife and I had with the customer service department for a major retailer also illustrated how a leader shows up in those moments can influence their employees’ perceptions of their roles and consequently, impact their organization’s ability to turn a problem into an opportunity to succeed.
For the last few weeks, my wife and I have been trying to get some after-sales support for a recliner sofa we bought recently. We took turns calling the customer support number listed on our invoice and each time, we got a voice message advising us to leave our contact information and someone would get back to us shortly.
After leaving several messages with no follow-up reply, my wife decided to change tactics by calling the sales department in order to try and reach someone who can help us with this problem. Her initiative paid off as the sales rep directed her call to one of the company’s front-line managers.
When my wife explained to this manager the numerous messages we’d left that were never returned, his first response was to claim that we were probably calling an old extension that was no longer in use.
After she pointed out how this was a recent purchase and that the voice message didn’t re-direct us to a new extension, the manager changed his answer to suggest that we’d encountered a ‘glitch in their system’ as the after-sales department manager was usually very prompt about returning calls.
At that point he took down our invoice number and contact information, telling us that he’d forward our case to the after-sales department and that someone would contact us shortly to resolve the issue.
As frustrating as this whole situation has been, the experience brought to mind the following four questions leaders should ask themselves to help shed light on how their employees view their roles within their organization, and the part leaders play in fostering the kind of behaviours necessary for organizations to succeed in today’s increasingly transparent and global market.
1. Are your actions creating a culture of accountability?
Most of us are familiar with the notion that leaders should share success, but not blame with their employees. While it’s certainly true that passing out blame when things go wrong does little for fostering employee engagement and team harmony, it’s still important that leaders promote a culture of accountability.
In order to accomplish this, leaders need to encourage their employees to step in when they see something going wrong by demonstrating that their organization is not focused on identifying who to blame, but on how they help those who discover problems or issues to address and hopefully resolve them.
If we look at this front-line manager’s initial response to our telling him about all those unanswered messages we’d left, it’s clear that he was coming at this from a blame-game perspective and so, he was more interested in deflecting blame – in this case, back to my wife and I by claiming we had called the wrong extension – than on finding ways to help us resolve the situation.
We have to remember that as leaders, it’s our duty to nurture within our organization a culture that encourages a sense of accountability for our shared efforts and not just for our own individual contributions. That means demonstrating to our employees that accountability is not about who will take the blame when things go wrong, but who has the authority and permission to take initiatives to make sure problems are addressed to help get things back on course.
It’s also the responsibility of leaders to help their employees to be outward-focused on those they collaborate, work with and work for, instead of only looking out to protect themselves and their interests, a behaviour that can be fostered by examining the next question.
2. Do your employees feel a sense of ownership in your shared efforts?
To encourage a sense of accountability within your organization requires more than simply having the expectation that your employees will take the lead in addressing issues that they come across, regardless of whether it was a result of something they did or not.
You also need to foster a sense of ownership in their shared efforts. Your employees need to care about what your organization does because of how it connects to what matters to them. To get people committed to your vision, you first have to recognize and embrace what matters to them and how your vision ties into their inner sense of purpose.
That’s the key factor behind so many of today’s thriving organizations where the emphasis is not simply on what the organization needs to accomplish, but on why that accomplishment will matter for both for the organization and for those who contribute their shared efforts to that goal.
Going back to this manager’s handling of our call, it was clear that because this wasn’t his division, he had no interest in taking responsibility for the situation. If this front-line manager doesn’t feel invested in his organization’s efforts beyond his department, it’s unreasonably to expect that his employees would care or feel a sense of ownership over matters that fall outside of their responsibility.
3. Are your employees empowered to help your organization succeed?
While establishing an organizational culture of shared accountability and ownership is important, how effective these measures will be in helping your organization reach its shared goals will depend on whether your leadership serves to empower those under your care to succeed.
More specifically, do you demonstrate through your words, behaviours and actions that your focus is not on assigning blame, but on facilitating your employees to take action to ensure your organization’s success?
Imagine, for example, if in response to our problem, this manager had said – “I’m sorry to hear that you’ve been having difficulties reaching our customer-service department. They are normally quite prompt on returning calls. I’ll be sure to have someone take a look at our system to find out why your calls went unanswered. And now that I have you on the phone, how can I be of help?”
The message he would be sending to his team (and his customers) is that his focus is not restricted to narrowly-defined roles and responsibilities. Instead, thanks to that sense of ownership discussed in the previous section, he’s driven to help others in his organization address potential problems or issues when it comes to his attention.
In addition, this kind of response doesn’t make one department look bad over the other, nor does it take away control, responsibility or authority from other team members. Instead, it’s outward-focused on how he can use his awareness of new problems or issues to help employees within and outside his team to be successful in their efforts to achieve their organization’s shared goals.
4. Are problems treated as an opportunity for learning and growth?
While all organizations and their leaders naturally want their employees to succeed, the flip-side of this coin is how much do you facilitate their ability to gain fresh insights about their work and processes when something goes wrong.
In order to achieve this, leaders need to create an environment where your employees know that those in charge are aware and care about the problems their employees might have to face, and how they can help their employees to use these opportunities to further their knowledge and skills in order better handle such issues in the future.
The problem my wife and I experienced with this company certainly provided a unique opportunity for this organization to learn about certain gaps in their after-sales support system and how they might address them. However, the ambivalence this front-line manager had towards understanding our situation sent a clear message not just to his customers, but to his employees that this organization’s leadership has little interest in treating such issues as an opportunity to improve their processes and strengthen their brand.
The fact is that your organization is not going to get things right every time and your employees know that. But what they might not be as certain about is whether those in charge will view these situations as moments of truth and growth for both your employees and your organization.
How leaders treat these moments will play a critical role in your organization’s ability to rebound from a mistake as your employees will have the understanding that this is a necessary step towards achieving success.
As competition on the global front continues to grow and with it, continual challenges to organization’s ability to maintain their foothold or dominance in any given field, it’s becoming clear that leaders need to make sure they are mindful of what measures will allow them to differentiate and gain an upper hand against their competition.
By asking yourself the four questions discussed above, you can make sure that the actions and behaviours you demonstrate around your team serve to inform your employees of how they should view their roles and responsibilities and with it, what they can do to help your organization succeed in achieving your shared goals even when things don’t work out as planned.