My husband's nerves were being tested -- stuck in a check-out line at a local Office Depot. Only two people were working at the front counter. When one clerk finally became available, she turned away from her post and walked away.
Stunned, my husband motioned to her and said, "Ma'am, you have customers waiting." She looked at him and said, "Sorry. My stomach's calling. It's break time!"
Compounding his disbelief, and not standing for "talk-to-the-hand" treatment, he took action. The three other people in line looked on expectantly as my husband called for a store manager. The manager eventually made his way to the front of the store. With underwhelming concern he arranged for another employee to handle the check-out.
On the surface, it looked like the store had a customer service issue. But what was the real issue? Often leadership problems are disguised as customer service problems.
The larger the organization, the more difficult it is for senior leaders to connect with the front line. Office Depot is not unique in that regard. Many organizations are unaware of isolated issues customers experience. Customer satisfaction surveys can only go so far.
As a leader, what can you do to make sure you are not just aware of potential problems, but avoiding them in the first place?
•Hire the best talent for the job. Some people are simply not cut out for the job. No amount of training can get them to the level they need to be if they don't have the right attitude. When it becomes evident that the employee will not succeed in the role, don't hope for change or ignore the problem. Quickly move him to another position that's a better fit or help him move on.
•Look for employees with leadership potential. People with leadership potential are naturally motivated and more engaged in their work. They care about their performance and want to make a positive impact in the organization. They will grow with your organization. Incidentally creativity is now one of the most sought after attributes in leaders.
•Help employees get to know their customers better. They don't necessarily need to know them personally, but they should understand the demographics and psychographics (personality traits) that reflect your market. For example, business customers value their time and appreciate handling transactions quickly. They are typically results oriented.
•Work on yourself. Strengthening your own leadership skills will make you a better leader. Pick one area to improve such as communication with your team, public speaking, coaching, strategic thinking, etc. As you develop your leadership, you'll increase the chances of helping others avoid costly mistakes.
•Look for symptoms. Poor customer service is only one possible symptom that points to problematic leadership. Other likely clues include high employee turnover, low employee engagement, poor employee communication and lack of teamwork.
Serious leadership problems may go undetected for some time. Who's got the guts to tell the boss they could be the problem?
Some employees are good at compensating for poor leadership. They plod along working in counterproductive environments. They work for leaders who have no self-awareness about their negative impact. Some employees even make these bosses look good. But they can only sustain that kind of performance for so long.
Ironically leadership problems that become visible can be a positive force in your business.
When leadership problems are revealed, you're forced to take a hard look at your business. Then you can take appropriate actions that create more dramatic improvements in the business.
Leadership issues can be tricky and sensitive to address. But by doing so, you can move your business in new directions.
Once the real issues surface, real change can happen.
What leadership challenges are bubbling under the surface in your business?
How can you see them on your radar before customers do?
PS -- When my husband returned home, he contacted Office Depot's corporate senior management to express his concerns. They were very responsive.
On subsequent visits to the same store, we have seen noticeable improvement in their customer service which likely reflects positive shifts in their leadership as well.