The Whiteboard: Connect the dots to keep customers front and center

A manager recently asked me for some advice. He was trying to motivate his people to improve efficiency. I’ve always thought the best way to motivate people is to show them where they fit in the big picture and how improving performance is good, not just for the company and its owners, but for them.

In my experience, simply exhorting people to do better is a waste of time. It goes in one ear and out the other. Yelling and screaming is worse. It creates resentment and it guarantees no one will speak uncomfortable truths or risk sharing an idea.

My preferred approach is helping people connect the dots from their individual performance to customer satisfaction, to profitability and growth, and then back to their own well-being. Most people want to be part of something special and successful. They’ll rise to the occasion when they understand what is needed from them and why.

When I lead a business, I constantly communicate the importance of customer satisfaction to employees. All too often, people who don’t have direct contact with customers don’t think about them or about how important it is to take care of them. Even worse, I’ve seen organizations where people outside of the sales department treat customers as a necessary evil, demanding pains in the neck.

You assume that everyone understands that customers pay all the bills, including every pay check. That it’s significantly harder to find a new customer than it is to get more business from an existing one. You assume that everyone understands that when they are inefficient, taking longer than they should to complete their tasks, they are contributing to broken promises and dissatisfied customers.

You assume those things at your own risk. People don’t think about customer satisfaction all the time, unless you make a point of it and repeat it over and over. You talk about customer satisfaction in small meetings and in large all-hands meetings. You talk about how important customers are to everyone in the business. You talk about how important it is that each person completes his or her tasks correctly in a timely manner.

You measure on-time delivery and customer satisfaction and you talk about the importance of differentiating the business. You explain how each person can contribute to making the business the best in its peer group, to be part of something special. You ensure that managers meet one-on-one with their people regularly, discussing their individual contribution to customer satisfaction. You never stop talking about it.

Of course, you want to satisfy customers because you want to grow sales and profits. That’s the other important part of the message. Why should individual employees care about growing sales and profits? If all the rewards of growth in sales and profits go to the owners or a few people at the top, you’ll demotivate everyone else. But if the rewards are used well and explained well, they will be a performance incentive.

Improvements in pay, benefits, and opportunities for advancement will motivate some people. A well-defined bonus plan with clear goals for the team and the individual can be a strong motivator for most.  Investments in making the business more effective and a better place to work can be another way of making people feel they are part of something special.

Individual performance supports team performance and customer satisfaction. Customer satisfaction supports growth in sales and profits, which in turn supports business investment and individual rewards, which enhance future performance.

It’s a virtuous cycle and easy to explain. Connect the dots. Never stop.

Richard Randall is founder and president of management-consulting firm New Level Advisors in Springettsbury Township, York County. Email him at info@newleveladvisors.com.

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