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How Do I Assess Thee? Let Me Count

The authors of Human Sigma take a pretty damning view of the evaluation process of most companies as being antithesis to productive improvement of the employees.

“First, where did the set of things to be rated come from? Did they come from a systemic study of the necessary outcomes of your job, or did they come from a committee of people who described all the things they think you should do in your role? Does the list mix hard financial and operational outcomings with fuzzier ratings that sound good but may nor may not have any bearing on how well you do your job (as compared to how others think you should do your job)?”

They also feel the way those measures are utilized during the evaluation period is flawed.

“Once your manager has identified your “deficiencies,” how much of your review is spent discussing them and how to fix them? Now compare that with the amount of time you both spend discussing the ways in which you most naturally and powerfully think, feel and behave, and how better to capitalize on that.”

Their feeling is that “most workgroups and managers can be optimally measured with only two classes of metrics: the critical financial and operational outcomes that are the purpose of that business unit and the HumanSigma level of that unit.” In their mind, the aim of the evaluation process is to forge a productive and trusting relationship between supervisors and subordinates rather than a primarily corrective one.

As mentioned in my earlier entry, the focus of an evaluation should be on what the employee is expected to accomplish, not how they are supposed to do it. It isn’t about if they are working hard toward a goal or following every prescribed step, but rather if they reach the goal. (As a cog in an bureaucracy with an often inane attention to detail, I am all for that!)

Achieving a situation where such an approach will be successful starts with the hiring process. The authors urge focusing the interview and hiring process on inherent talent plus willingness to pursue new skills and mastery as a measure of performance. They counter the argument that it is difficult to identify and measure talent by noting that there are instruments out there, that while not perfect, are accurate enough to be useful in assessing an individual’s talent. Even with talent, hard work is necessary. Even someone as talented as Mozart was pushed to practice early in life by his father.

They cite the necessity of 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery for everyone, regardless of talent. Without effort, even a great talent atrophies. This is not to say that hard work allows people to achieve mastery in the absence of talent. A person receiving training which emphasizes their talent will likely progress at a much greater rate than one whose talents are unsuited for the position.

I would really love to know if there is any performing arts organization that actually pursues a hiring process that even closely approximates this approach for their non-performance employees. In an industry which subjects highly skilled and talented artists to grueling audition processes which are often resolved by attempting to discern minute differences between people, how many administrative managers, executives and general employees are subjected to a comparable detailed assessment of their talents and abilities in relation to the various dynamics of their positions? For most arts employers it is matter of experience and passion for the arts (for some, passion doesn’t seem to be a prerequisite.)

Two years ago I wrote about an article by Peter Drucker urging people to learn about how they work best and communicate that information to colleagues and supervisors. Fleming and Asplund make a similar suggestion when it comes to rewarding people in relation to how they would like to be recognized. Some people love attention and want public parties, others don’t and would prefer a private intimate acknowledgment. Rewarding people counter to their preferences may undermine their investment in the company.

I think that the company’s varying procedure for rewarding employees needs to be made very clear from the outset otherwise other employees’ investment may be undermined vicariously. Someone who has a big party thrown for them to celebrate their success may be perplexed and hurt when no overt recognition is accorded an esteemed co-worker who achieved just as much.

These same basic suggestions are applied on a larger scale to workgroups and segments of a company. Each group has its own set of traditions and symbols associated with celebration. Trying to replicate that with another group hoping to motivate them may fail because the practice has no significance to them.

Their suggestions for corrective action are more measured. You accentuate the positive quickly and publicly, but consequences for sub-standard performance, while clear, are not as enthusiastically applied. Their purpose is to remove fear as a motivator for improvement. If change does not manifest, the authors suggest mentorships and retreats as later steps for bringing about change.

Most of their suggestions are far more nuanced than I am able to present here. For example, awards where one group continually wins or everyone gets a chance at winning are equally worthless in helping to motivate improvement. Likewise, many mentor programs and retreats are ineffectual.

Obviously, if anything I have said in the last week or so of entries sparks your interest, you should pick up the book to explore further. While I have linked to Amazon’s listing in my entries, it was for convenience sake rather than to sell anything. I got my copy at the library.

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Gulp! Let Employees Set The Rules

So getting back to my Human Sigma discussion in this entry. There is quite a bit I am skipping over generally because I have discussed many of the concepts before in other entries. For example, the idea that customers can develop an emotional investment with a company based on how different factors align with how a person identifies themselves. The surroundings and other customers conform to their idea of cool and upscale and so they develop an attachment with it.

One thing authors Fleming and Asplund mention that evoked an “ah-ha!” connection for me was the importance of having design empower customers. People want to feel competent in their relationship with your organization and design contributes to that. This is why many chain stores have standardized layouts. Nothing erodes the confidence of a do-it-yourselfer like not being able to find what they seek in a big box hardware store by yourself.

This made me think of the need to have easy to navigate websites and voice mail systems, but most importantly for the arts—an easy to navigate season brochure. How many season brochures have you picked up and couldn’t figure out how to buy single tickets much less fully subscribe to a season? The fact that people aren’t subscribing much any more may be a partial blessing for organizations’ relationships because negotiation of many a brochure has been the bane of arts patrons.

One study finding I alluded to in earlier entries is that Human Sigma isn’t just about getting customers highly invested in the company. According to their research, even within the same company, the branches that were most profitable had high emotional investment by both customers and employees. Having one group actualized but not the other is good, but having both improves success exponentially.

Now you may be thinking this is great and your organization is about halfway there because arts people almost by definition are highly emotionally invested in what they do. But they aren’t necessarily invested in promoting and interacting with patrons. If you recall the list of quotes in yesterday’s entry, at least one artist wondered why he/she needed extra training to be an arts educator given all they had received in their discipline.

Employee-Customer interactions contain the most terrifying suggestions in Human Sigma because Fleming and Asplund urge instructing employees about the end goal but leaving it to them to achieve it. Because a standard script of responses can’t cover all eventualities, the authors essentially propose using one as a FAQ document rather than as part of a set procedure. This is pretty scary because it requires giving up a lot of control. Though I should note, it doesn’t mean relaxing standards, just re-evaluating how those standards are measured.

Instead they suggest creating a series of strategies employees can use to improve their interactions with customers. Rather than rewarding people on the basis of how many people they can process in an hour, the focus is on engaging in conversations to assess their needs. “The uncomfortable truth here is left on their own, employees will develop their own strategies for interacting with their customers and their fellow employees, whether you play a constructive part in that process or not.” They posit that you are better off involving yourself at the start to keep it constructive.

The process is more than I can explain here so you will have to read the book if you are interested. In summary though, they say that the best environment to help people develop new strategies for customer interaction is one where they are held accountable for their mistakes and high quality feedback is provided. What they aren’t suggesting is that each person does their own thing, but rather that employees be allowed to develop new approaches by group consensus.

One of the things that popped out as I read the book was the concept of decision making silos. These silos emerge when decision making is compartmentalized rather than shared throughout the organization. The example they use was an airline whose advertising arm promised much better service than the front line service personnel had the resources to deliver. In fact, each had been provided with contradictory guidance. Advertising was tasked to improve market share, the front line was instructed to ruthlessly control costs. Neither consulted the other to discuss how to resolve an essentially mutually exclusive set of expectations.

I have talked about how marketing isn’t just the job of that department before. The authors go a step further by suggesting the position of a Chief Human Sigma Officer who will watch out for such conflicts and has the authority to move an organization toward more interactive decision making. They suggest consolidating all marketing and human resource responsibility into this executive position. (Though acknowledge other configurations are possible.) I don’t know how this might manifest in many art organizations. Though given that disciplines like theatre are merging artistic and management executives into one position, maybe merging marketing and human resources isn’t beyond the realm of possibility.

I am nearly done with my discussion of the book. Next entry- Assessment and Reward

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That You Care Is What Matters

Yesterday I alluded to the research findings presented by Fleming and Asplund in their book, Human Sigma, that how you handle customer problems is more important to your relationship with them than actually solving the problem. (I should mention, HumanSigma is a program of Gallup so they have a lot of experience in surveying.) They say that “customers who encounter a problem and are extremely happy with how the company handled the problem often have levels of emotional attachment equal to—and in some cases exceeding– those who have no problem at all.”

The Means, Not The End That Matters
They say that customers don’t expect a business will always resolve a problem to their liking, “but they do except the company to handle them in an exemplary way.” There is also the issue that not everyone has the same expectations of a solution to contend with. They use the example of receiving an undercooked meal at a restaurant. Some people may be content with having the meal cooked properly and the offer of complimentary dessert. Others may feel the whole meal should be free. You are likely to be more successful creating good procedures to address problems than you are at creating solutions that will please everyone.

They have found that people who have a high emotional investment are likely to give a company the benefit of the doubt when a problem arises viewing it as an honest mistake or even pondering how they may have contributed to the situation. Those with low engagement are more likely to place heavier blame on the company for the problem making it more difficult to please them.

Steps to Resolution
Fleming and Asplund suggest six steps that should be part of resolution procedures.

First is to acknowledge the problem exists. Second is to apologize. They are quick to add that apologizing is not accepting the blame. Lawyers warn clients not to apologize out of fear it can be used against them in lawsuits. But according to a NY Times story, policies of apologizing have cut malpractice suits and legal costs for the University of Michigan and University of Illinois hospitals. People who feel wronged view the refusal to apologize as a lack of empathy for the situation and so they escalate matters in an effort to gain acknowledgment.

Good resolution processes can actually strengthen a relationship with people who have experienced a problem. According to Fleming and Asplund, people who have encountered a problem and have been extremely satisfied with the way a bank handled it were 51% full invested in the bank versus 26% full investment by people who never experienced a problem. They say that apologizing validates a person’s trust in the company and reinforces their value as a customer.

The third step they suggest is “Take ownership of the problem and follow up, even if the problem is unresolved.” Promising to follow up by a certain time or date is better than a vague “as soon as possible” because the customer may feel they have to continue checking in on your progress. Even if you haven’t solved the problem by the appointed hour, it is better to contact the customer with that information than leave them wondering or in the position of having to track the contact person down again.

Suggestion four is to handle problems on the spot rather than bumping it to a supervisor. This means empowering front line service people to respond with a solution appropriate to their position. If the customer is not satisfied, then someone higher in the chain can be contacted. They use the example of a hotel chain that generally had managers resolve problems with free nights’ stays. Among the steps they took were to empower housekeeping to offer gift baskets, robes and bouquets of flowers and only refer a problem to the manager if a person was dissatisfied. Because they weren’t defaulting to free accommodations to resolve their problems, their costs dropped and satisfaction rose.

Their fifth suggestion is have a process which quickly brings the problem to the attention of a supervisor or manager. The mention a logging system which alerts managers if a problem remains unsolved after a certain period of time. Most arts organizations are small enough that a computerized system is not needed to communicate complaints to other staff. Just the same, there is plenty of opportunity for the complaint to lie dormant on someone’s desk and never be brought to a supervisor’s attention so the importance of communicating a complaint needs to be emphasized. The authors warn to be wary that your system not make people feel their responsibility in addressing complaints ends upon handing them off to someone else.

The last suggestion is to leave people better off than they were before the problem occurred. Even if the solution is not the one they desired, they should still be in a better position than they were before. Presumably this means gaining intangible benefits such as feeling more valued as a customer and perhaps having a specific contact person who can address future difficulties if the current problem hasn’t been completely resolved.

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Business Solutions Unfair to Customers

Emotional Advocacy
Yesterday, I started writing about the book, Human Sigma by John Fleming and Jim Asplund and as promised, I wanted to continue exploring the book today. One of the things I was happy to see addressed was the idea of the single question customer survey. I had pondered the validity using the question, “Would you recommend this company to others?” in a past entry.

Fleming and Asplund note that not only do you miss a lot of information by asking only one question, but also all advocates are not created equal. As discussed in my last entry, people can be satisfied and thus have no reservations about suggesting a company or service to others, yet they aren’t really invested in the company and may defect. Then there are those who are emotionally invested and can serve as enthusiastic promoters.

The authors don’t have any specific suggestions about what questions to pose on satisfaction surveys, likely because they urge you to “get under the hood” of customer relationships and ask about things that matter. What matters to one business may not have any significance to another.

The authors give an example of a survey they conducted at an amusement park where most of the feedback they received was negative. People complained on and on about the parking, lines, the prices, the food and the lack of shade. When they were asked if they would return, everyone said they would without hesitation. The deciding factor was their childrens’ enjoyment. Had they the same experience on a Saturday night (sans the lack of shade) at one of our performance venues, they would never come back again, but the vicarious joy they experience through their kids provides an emotional connection with the theme park.

Fairness In Interactions
Later in the book, the authors discuss perceptions of fairness and how that can feed people’s emotional investment. That section of the book is fairly long so it is difficult for me to cover all the ways interactions can be viewed as fair or not. Anyone who has worked in customer services knows that people’s preferred treatment can swing between wanting to be treated exactly like everyone else to wanting an exception made for them, all depending on their situation.

There were a few examples they gave that are recognizable as significant the arts world. For instance, subscribers and donors who have invested themselves in your organization expect preferential treatment in return for their loyalty. (The example the book gives is airline frequent flier program.) If you launch a campaign to attract new business that offers a better situation to new people than to long time customers, you run the risk of alienating them. An example that comes to mind is the low introductory rates offered on cable television packages that are only good for new accounts while you get no recognition for your long term relationship.

Another example in the performing arts world can be found in ticket exchange policies. Many organizations have a no return/no exchange policy with subscribers and donors being the only exception. As long as policies and procedures are enforced equitably, there is no problem. But once you perform an exchange for a flat tire but not my canceled babysitter excuse, then the inequity in the system is exposed. And then there are policies that are confusing to patrons from the start such as why internet and phone orders incur a service fee but walk up orders don’t.

Business Solutions Unfair
One example they give as an impediment to good customer relationships is the phone queue with the recorded message about your call being important leaving you to reconcile how this can be if the place is so poorly staffed the average wait time is twenty minutes. What the authors say about this really struck me, (my emphasis) “From the customer’s perspective, any process or system whose primary purpose is to solve a business problem rather than a customer concern is unfair.”

They also note that treating people equally can appear unfair. If your customer service staff follows the exact same scripted process with customers not recognizing that the script can’t cover all eventualities, the result may make you look incompetent and patronizing for asking questions or suggesting solutions which obviously do not apply to the situation.

Tomorrow I want to address what the book says about solving customer problems. It turns out how you attempt to resolve a problem is much more important than whether you actually solve it.

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