Digging A Little Deeper
In the course of a day, week or month, we interact with many people working for organizations that provide various services. Invariably, we experience both excellent customer service as well as absolutely ugly service. Let me indulge in sharing two recent personal experiences that demonstrate this dichotomy:
While recently attending a board of directors meeting in Arizona, I was hospitalized for four days to treat a staph infection in my leg. When I was being admitted, I had the misfortune of being assigned to a physician’s assistant (PA) who was very rude and didn’t listen as I was reviewing my medical history, which includes two knee replacements on the leg that was infected.
During this review, she arrogantly challenged the purpose for certain medications prescribed by my personal physician in Minnesota, whom I’ve seen for the past 30 years. She also dismissed my questions and concerns about the cause of my infection. Her bedside manner made me feel as though I didn’t matter, even though I was the patient (customer), and she attempted to use her medical knowledge advantage as power over me. Her arrogant attitude and lack of compassion made me question the quality of care I was receiving from her and the highly reputable hospital she was representing. I eventually reminded her that it was my life and my body, and insisted on getting answers to my questions—and less of her evaluation of my very capable physician. Had it not been for the seriousness of my infection, I would have transferred hospitals in a New York heartbeat.
Contrast that ugly experience to what happened the next week when I returned to Minnesota to discover that our beloved 6½-year-old Bernese mountain dog, Angus, had cancer that had spread to a number of areas. This happened on a Thursday, so our veterinarian gave us some prescriptions to keep him comfortable through the weekend until we could get him to a veterinary oncologist on Monday.
Unfortunately, by Monday morning, Angus’ disease had progressed to the point where he couldn’t walk or support his weight. We immediately took him to the vet clinic, where our veterinarian postponed a previously scheduled surgery to be with us. He told us the cancer had spread to Angus’ spine, and when we asked him what he would do, he advised us to euthanize Angus, as the pain was acute and would only worsen.
He patted Angus, leaned over and kissed his forehead, and said, “You’re a great dog, Angus, and I love you, buddy.” As he administered the injection to end Angus’ life, he started to weep along with us. His compassion, caring and love for Angus went well above and beyond his professional duties. He demonstrated that he understood and shared our pain and loss. By being so personally engaged, we were comfortable with his recommendation, although it was a gut-wrenching decision.
My intent is not to focus on my personal life, but to illustrate the difference between professionals who are engaged in their jobs. The PA made me feel like patient No. X being routinely spit through the hospital admittance process while she focused on her own power, whereas our veterinarian was concerned about the welfare of Angus and our personal feelings.
The word “engagement” has many meanings, ranging from an appointment or arrangement, a pledge or obligation, or an encounter, conflict or battle. To apply the concept to business, however, the best definition relates to mechanics: the act or state of interlocking. This definition brings to mind an image of being connected and attached, and that’s what engaged leaders or employees do with their customers.
Engaged people exhibit engagement through their actions. It’s what’s in their hearts—not what their job description says, what they learned in college or in training seminars, or what their company values statement stipulates. It’s about being authentic serving their customers, clients or patients, and creating genuine relationships with them. Essentially, it’s about being connected or interlocked with the same goals and interests as those of your customers.
Engaged leaders aren’t found only at the top of the organizational chart, either. Throughout the ranks of successful organizations, engaged employees are leaders in whatever their roles are. They personify the following characteristics:
Being accountable and proactive in recommending and executing solutions to customer issues, when others may avoid conflict.
- Encouraging colleagues to remain focused on customers, with positive energy that becomes contagious and essential to the company’s culture.
- Serving and listening to customers with a genuine interest in the customers’ well-being ahead of their own convenience.
- Connecting with customers and co-workers instead of building organizational silos and telling customers “that’s not my job.”
- Remaining humble, candid, and empathetic in their words and actions.
If I were to describe my veterinarian’s personality, these are the qualities that I would use. I would bet that he had experiences in his early years that molded him into someone willing to learn from and adapt to customers’ needs, with enough self-confidence to act with humility and empathy.
It seems that engaged leaders and employees have had early life experiences from which they formed foundational values that drive their actions and give them the ability to be authentically engaged in others’ lives. For this reason, a deep level of engagement is a soft skill that can’t be easily taught in a training seminar. However, it can be modeled. If executives want to improve the engagement of the employees in their organizations, they should make those qualities a priority for new hires, publicly recognize and reward them, and lead by example. By doing so, they will groom an organization into one that doesn’t just go through the motions, but digs a little deeper for their customers.
Mark W. Sheffert (firstname.lastname@example.org) is founder, chairman and CEO of Manchester Companies, Inc., a Minneapolis-based performance improvement, board governance, and litigation advisory firm.