Saturday, 14 September 2013

Your nightmare is my ho-hum

By the time an insurance claims handler has spent 5 years on the job, he or she has repeatedly seen and dealt with a variety of scenarios. Customers who are clearly legally at fault, yet who cannot accept it; third parties who accept responsibility at the scene of the accident and then can't be found; people who buy a car and think they can drive on the seller's policy without telling the insurance company; losses from lightning hitting a car or customers blithely driving their high-end sedans into (but seldom out of) waist-deep water.

The natural human response is to become blasé and matter of fact. When you figure you've heard and seen it all, it's really hard to see things the way the customer is seeing it. We forget that our 5000th claim, that we already see following the patterns laid down by the previous 4999, might easily be this customer's first such experience. One result is that it is harder for us to display the level of empathy that the customer so often needs from us. 

A few years ago I took a call from an unhappy claimant. He'd been in a three vehicle collision in which he was clearly not liable, but the insurers of the other two cars were blaming each other. He was naturally upset because while that dispute was crawling to (hopefully) some resolution, he was significantly out of pocket. I had experienced a very similar situation a few years ago, that only resolved when I sued, and won, in RM Court. I decided to share my personal story with the customer, while at the same time setting out an approach that we could take that had a chance to move things along a bit quicker.

The change in the customer's mood was instant. Of course what he ultimately wanted was to have his claim paid (so it was important that I addressed his issue at the same time that I was telling him my own story), but he also needed someone to acknowledge the unfairness of the situation. To show  empathy, and validate his anger and frustration.

That's the element of customer support that gets overlooked when we define our roles in mechanical, task-oriented terms. In a competitive market, we absolutely need to be efficient with turn-around times and following up the process. But that's hygiene. We really create distinction when we recognize and take into account that we are dealing with customers who are navigating unfamiliar territory, while worrying about background stuff like: how am I going to get my kids to & from school while the car is laid up; where am I going to find the money for the deductible; how much is my renewal premium going to increase because of this accident?

It's a nightmare scenario, during which the customer encounters what they perceive as the blasé, seen-it-all-before claims handler, writing letters in formal office-lingo designed to mask any trace of personality, delivering bad news via tersely worded emails, casually treating with issues that represent terrifying outcomes for the customer. And it's not that claims handlers are bad people. They are human, and this emotional detachment is entirely predictable based on human psychology.

Knowing this, we have to make an effort to avoid it. We have to define customer-support as delivering what the customer needs. This includes but cannot be limited to the service that we are legally contracted to deliver. It must also extend to offering empathy, emotional support, advice, or whatever else we can. The only way we will be able to do so effectively is by developing the skill of getting out of our own heads, and trying to imagine ourselves in the customer's predicament. Even if we start out not being all that good at it, I'll bet that the customer will see and appreciate the effort, and that by itself will be a valuable upgrade to the level of service that the customer experiences.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Leading Means Following

A couple of months before I started working as a CEO, I saw a television interview that was very timely for me. It was on the American news magazine '60 Minutes', with USA's then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen.

Mullen talked about a congratulatory letter that he received when he was promoted to Admiral. In it was a line that had driven his approach to leadership. It said "Congratulations. Just remember, from now on…you'll always eat well, and you'll never hear the truth again."

Mullen's response to that piece of advice was to spend 30% of his time travelling to far flung US military posts, talking directly to the front line troops. I'm sure he knew that the 'truths' that he was hearing from the troops weren't necessarily any less subjective or self-serving than the ones he heard from his Pentagon staff. But they would have been different ones, and would have helped him to form a more complete picture of what was really going on.

Just having face to face conversations with different groups isn't enough though. For this tactic to be effective, the leader has to be careful not to lead the conversation. People react to power by giving it what they think it wants. That's a rational, if often unhelpful, behaviour.

I was lucky enough to have spent a few years working with a CEO who was extraordinarily mindful of this dynamic. Whenever there was a group discussion in the context of a decision to be made, he very consciously held his own views back, and would go around the table asking each person, however junior, what they thought. I remember on a number of occasions being on the spot on a matter about which I didn't have a well-formed view. I felt the way you do in an exam at school when you have exhausted your knowledge about a topic but are still 100 words or so short of the required length.

But the individual's comfort level is secondary (if it's a factor at all). The process more often than not forced people to crystallize and express a view, and with the spotlight on you, the desperation to say something often brought out useful views that would have otherwise remained buried.

This way of operating is a lot harder than it sounds for most CEOs. People who get to leadership positions are often what DISC analysis refers to as 'High Ds'. That's D for Dominant. It's only by consciously fighting that innate tendency to dominate that a leader can maximize value from those around them.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Let the chips fall…

There was a collision between the world of Formula One and my world of management this weekend. At the Malaysian Grand Prix, the Red Bull team that has won the constructor’s championship for the past three years found itself, not unusually, coming out of the last round of pit stops with its cars running first and second. What was unusual was that their three-time world champion, Sebastian Vettel, was in second place, with veteran Mark Webber leading.

Within the team there was a prior agreement between the drivers and the team management that they would not race each other after the final pit stop. Up to that point, it was hammer & tongs, but once they got to that last stop they would “settle” in position and ensure they brought the cars home safely.

The agreement was reinforced by a team radio instruction to bring the cars to the finish in their current order. Webber turned down the settings on his engine, going only fast enough to ensure that the gap between the Red Bulls and the Mercedes in third was maintained over the last dozen laps. Vettel had other ideas. Ignoring the agreement, and the radio instruction, he set about taking first place off his teammate.

It may well be that Vettel would have been able to pass Webber even if no team orders had been issued. But as it was, Vettel was racing, and Webber wasn’t. So it’s no surprise that Vettel was able to overtake and ended up winning the race. Webber was a very unhappy and angry race driver during the podium ceremonies.

The body language speaks volumes. Webber's on the left (duh).

The part that interests me is something that team boss Christian Horner said after the race. In an interview he said that Vettel knowingly did what he did, and when asked why the team did not order Vettel to give Webber back the place that he had ‘unfairly’ taken, this was Horner’s reply, "Do you honestly think that if we had told him 'slow down and give the place back', he would have given it back? There was no point. He had made it quite clear what his intention was by making the move. He knew what the communication was. He had had the communication. He chose to ignore it.”

But Horner is wrong. Not in his assessment of what Vettel’s likely reaction would have been to such an order, but rather in his statement that there was no point in giving the order. Before we go any further, I need to say that I’m going to ignore the issue of PR & spin here. I’m well aware that Horner will not necessarily be saying the same things in team meetings as he is saying in an interview. But for the purposes of this blog, let’s just take it at face value.

By saying that there was no point in ordering Vettel to let Weber back in front, since he wouldn’t have done it, Horner is the one who misses the point. It’s one thing for Vettel to breach the agreement in the heat of the moment. But it would have been quite another thing to refuse an order from the team boss. And even if Vettel had taken that option, the team would at least have gained from Webber knowing that they had done everything they could to support him. As it is, you have one driver who is a loose cannon, and the other feeling cheated AND let down by his team.

I see this a lot. People abandon the right course of action because they think they know what the outcome is going to be, and maybe are afraid that it will lead to having to make a difficult decision. Supervisors with a chronically late employee stop giving feedback, instead of escalating the issue. Sales representatives mentally bail out of negotiations because they think the customer has already made up his mind. But we don’t know the future. The supervisor doesn’t know whether the escalation of the issue will lead to an unpleasant confrontation with the employee, or to the situation turning around. The sales rep doesn’t know for sure whether the customer has made his decision, and even if he has, doesn’t know what building the relationship with the customer might lead to in the future.

I think some of it is due to insecurity - if you don’t try, you can’t fail (not true of course - if you don’t try you guarantee failure). Sometimes it may be due to fundamental attribution error (thinking that someone behaves a certain way because that’s who they are rather than because of the specific context that they are in). Whatever the pathology, it’s a terrible way to make decisions.

You have to do what’s right, and let the chips fall where they may. Often the way they fall can be valuable information that guides you in the future.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Management Judo

I faced a slightly testing situation this week at work. A client needed something from my company. This client is a sister company in the same group as my company’s major shareholder, and we have common board members.

The same day that the request came in, the client’s CFO emailed one of those board members to ask him what he could do to expedite the request. He in turn forwarded it to me.

Effectively, she went over my head. My ego was bruised. I was not happy.

As soon as I received the email, I drafted a response to the board member responding with a status update. I also added a deadpan, but undeniably snide comment to the effect that the CFO could have gotten the same information from me had she simply asked.

Then I put the email in my drafts folder, telling myself that I would decide in half an hour whether I still wanted to send it. I ended up letting it sit overnight.

When I came back to the issue, I realized that had I sent it I would have been guilty of the same thing that had pissed me off – I was complaining about her to one of her directors.

I also realized that this was a very time-sensitive issue for her and she was trying to pull out all the stops to do her job. Yes, she was thoughtless in how she went about it. This could have been because the urgency caused her to overlook the niceties, or it could be because she’s simply one of those people who don’t have a strong sense of empathy (I know lots of them).

But at the end of the day her intentions weren’t important. What was important was to solve her immediate problem, and also to improve our relationship.

So I deleted the draft, and emailed the CFO directly. I gave her a status update, explained why this particular process was necessary, and gave her my best estimate of when we’d be ready for her. And I told her she could call me if she needed. 

It’s not that I’m not still irritated with she did. But that is done and I can’t change the past – I can change the future though. The best way to avoid this happening again is to make sure I’m her first port of call when there is an issue. And the best way to do that is to make it more efficient, effective, and pleasant for her to come directly to me.

So that’s what I tried to do. Whether it’ll have the desired effect, I don’t know. A lot of management is about doing and saying the right things and then hoping that it has the desired effect.

More often than not, it does.

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Don't Be An Asshole

Some of the dialogue around issues of racism and bigotry is infuriating and infantile.

People who say “[insert minority] are hyper-sensitive”, or “Political Correctness is bullshit and inhibits communication”, what are you really thinking? What right are you so determined to exercise?

Imagine you meet someone and a debate arises on the merits or otherwise of the death penalty. You might wonder why that other person is so strident and seems to have such a personal stake in things. And imagine that when you deliver your reasoned, logical, copiously well-informed argument against the death penalty, the other person bursts into tears. You might think, reprovingly, “Don’t be so emotional”.

But wouldn’t you also disengage from that topic of conversation, knowing it is so upsetting to someone else? Even if you thought that person was being ridiculously sensitive, would you press on regardless?

And if it comes to light that the other person’s context is that they lost a loved one to violent crime, would you ignore that and continue with your unassailable argument? If so, you are an asshole.

Don’t get me wrong. You have a right to be an asshole. You are legally entitled to ignore people’s feelings, and their specific contexts, and to continue being an asshole.

But why would you want to? Who sets out to be an asshole, and then loudly proclaims that other people have no business telling you not to be an asshole? No one that I want to hang with.

If using a term to describe a group of people causes some members of that group anguish, or pain, or anger, and you keep doing it regardless of what you know of that group’s history of marginalization, deprivation, or torture at the hands of established society, then you are an asshole.

Don’t be an asshole.