Knowledge : "Asking" to Lead Customer Focus, Learning, and Commitments for Your Group or Team

George Reavis, is founder of ThankingCustomers.com at www.thankingcustomers.com - a site dedicated to helping team leaders and frontline managers lead workplace relationships through daily operations. He can be reached at george@thankingcustomers.com


The word relationships has reached buzzword status. Every enterprise has them and most view customer relationships as something to be managed. Here we explore a practice or innovative idea to approach the creation, fostering, and leveraging of an enterprises connections with associates, customers, partners, and clients. Introducing a user-centered approach to leading relationships from the frontlines of operations. The closer you move towards the frontlines of operations in an enterprise the greater the need for managers to lead and manage relationships simultaneously. Frontline managers must continuously juggle the needs of the enterprise, their team members, the customer, as well as their own, at the same time.

Not a new idea, the approach is at least a hundred years old, embodying the entrepreneurial spirit, and representing what has been a missing link for those providing services to customers in daily operations for the past fifty years! A practical way to lead relationships and keep associates/partners connected between their services/products and clients/customers. Importantly, not replacing but complimenting existing managerial activities, including workplace relationships, by providing follow-through for their continual execution.

What is this big idea and missing link for fifty years ? A practice as simple as asking! Currently a process for senior management, this practice extends asking to the frontlines for supervisors/managers who are leading daily operations. We call it a "secondary group asking process." Mostly non-verbal, managers need to lead a process, or set of actions, for everyone taking care of customers to have the opportunity to become involved and participate in the back-to-basic activities that accompany asking/inquiry. A process for ownership, that includes exposure to such activities as who to ask, where to ask, when to ask, what to ask, how to ask, and why ask, in addition to sharing and assessing the feedback resulting from the asking.

Sound difficult ? Not really, the information is already there and can be provided, through support, from the enterprise which currently uses the asking process in senior leadership to determine the what for operations and its structure. In fact, asking as a process for involvement and learning moved to the purview of senior management, disappearing from the frontlines, some fifty years ago, post WW II, when enterprises grew vertical to manage capital and production. Even though over the past two decades feedback from this asking process is often shared and assessed on the frontlines through both supervisors and colleagues, a preferable and often missing feedback is that from daily activities themselves. The difference, put simply, is in continually giving someone the answer versus also letting them participate in asking the questions so that they have the opportunity to then own the answers. Stated as a Chinese proverb:

If you give a team member customer feedback, you focus them for a day. If you teach a team member how-to ask for customer feedback, you focus them for a lifetime.

Why is asking so important ? The process of asking transcends all diversities and differences in the workplace because it is a part of the human experience. Since early childhood, we all have used asking/inquiry to focus our attention, demonstrate intentions, and create experiences with a completely natural process for interest, learning, and commitments. Making it the quintessential leadership tool for managers as well as a career skill. So, for an operations team, regardless of commitment level, education, cultural background, race, sex, age, interests, social background or even parental influences we all use a process of asking to create attention, experiences, and demonstrate intentions. These lead to focus, learning, and commitments, which are fundamental to leading relationships, not only with customers, but fellow associates and partnering teams as well.

How can a frontline supervisor or manager get started with creating a process of asking for their group/team to daily operations ? Simply ask their Supervisor if they, with their group, can ask their customers How are we doing ? Do a WOW Leadership Project or team trial so that everyone taking care of customers can have the opportunity to share and assess more customer feedback ? Note that not everyone has to actually do it initially, for being a part of the process will draw them to it to grow the attention, experience, and intentions for a firm foundation of leadership activity.

If you currently receive customer feedback from your enterprise and/or your Supervisor, and most do, then ask if they would help you get better through practicing getting additional feedback by also asking customers yourself ? Simply use the existing feedback to re-state the questions most crucial for the group or team to have the opportunity to ask How are we doing ? This practice is back-to-basics and serves to draw everyone in to the process. Make sure it is understood that asking is a leadership activity to compliment and not replace any existing managerial activities. In fact, the number one rule is: "Do not change a single thing you are doing now!"

The Practice is a leadership activity for daily operations in the delivery of services and/or service associated with products. Important, as service in general is critical to todays enterprise and managers of daily operations, being caught-in-the-middle, have a special need to simultaneously lead their team members while managing results. However, the same process of asking has proven itself over the past two decades as a management program for production. An example of how the process of asking can work on the frontlines of operations developed in production with a management program known as TQM ( Total Quality Management ). Being threatened with losing the quality war and market share abroad, management of United States enterprises producing products needed to involve and empower those who were producing products for customers. One important principal of that managerial activity was to give those in operations the tools to get their attention, create experiences, and allow them to demonstrate their intentions. For instance, instead of only being given feedback on costs the frontline managers could ask, share and assess with their team How are we doing ? on costs by how, what, when, and why with tools such as Inventory, Schedules, Budgets, Forecasts and COGS. This not only helps them make their own decisions but also provides accountability, goals, interest, participation, and involvement. When the managerial activity achieves attention, experiences, and intentions then they will realize long-term focus, learning, and commitments.

The difference in this leadership practice and the above managerial practice is not in the activities or asking process, but rather, in creating career soft skills to compliment hard skills and assessments ( opinions/dialog ) to own the measurements. Creating a type of TQL ( Total Quality Leadership ) where it is more important with what you do with the feedback in leading the how, as opposed to TQM where the accuracy of the feedback is paramount to manage the what needs to be done to maintain the structure and discipline of the enterprise. Both should remain tied to the operations ball and compliment each other with leadership guiding the how to get the what needs to be done from senior management. Operational activities, whether managerial or leadership based, should also create experiences as a foundation for accountabilities in realizing long-term results.

An idea whose time has come. Services and service are critical now. Gone are the days that you could produce a product and sell it without any services to enhance or support it. Chances are there will be a number of supporting partners and collaborators helping you serve your customer. For this to happen long-term, there must be focus, learning, and commitments in the workplace relationships between not only your team members and customers ( customer service ) but also among team members themselves ( teamwork ), and the supporting teams ( partners ) as well. These supporting teams are both internal, such as Marketing, as well as external ( Outsourcing ) to your enterprise.

This practice helps you lead these relationships simultaneously, one group or team at a time, beginning with the frontlines of operations. As a leadership process, not a managerial program, any manager can use it to compliment their existing activities and provide follow-through without changing a single thing they are doing now. It is not necessary, or often even advisable, to plan it, budget it, or even announce it. Simply do it!

Think of it as a secondary group feedback - one whose cost is primarily time and attention. A feedback that uses the existing feedback shared by the enterprise to quickly, simply, frequently, and continuously let associates ask customers How are we doing ? Feedback whose sole purpose is to involve everyone providing services and products to customers on a daily basis by maintaining their attention, creating experiences, and demonstrating intentions.


© Copyright George Reavis 2005

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