Maya Angelou – Employee Engagement – the role of communication

April 23, 2015

communicationThe realisation that the first anniversary of Maya Angelou’s death is fast approaching reminded me of one of her best known quotes.

“People will forget what you said.
People will forget what you did.
But people will never forget how you made them feel”.

As much as I agree whole-heartedly with the sentiment expressed in the last line, I have difficulty accepting the rationale upon which this conclusion is based.  How people feel about their family, friends, supervisor or the organisation for which they work, is heavily influenced by what people say and even more so by what people do – or don’t do.  Your emotional state is not an independent variable, it’s an outcome, conditioned by many factors.

One of the more disturbing features of work life in the 21st century is the generally low level of employee engagement.  The latest Gallup research for 2014 has the overall percentage of “Engaged” employees at 31.5%.  Those “Not Engaged” totalled 51% with the remaining 17.5% “Actively Disengaged”.

Now engagement, like one’s emotional state, is not an independent variable.  It is the outcome of clear goals and objectives and the strategies to achieve them; of organisational alignment; of an empathetic attitude to the management of change; of leadership at all levels of the organisation and the fostering of teams and teamwork.  And the catalyst for making all this happen is communication at an enterprise and personal level.

Many years ago, I worked for a multi-national chemical company and the new CEO instituted a quarterly informal gathering called Face-to-Face where he and his fellow directors took impromptu questions from the staff on a whole variety of topics on the current and future well being of the company and its staff.  As an alternative to raising questions from the floor, one could write them down beforehand and give them to the company PR manager.  I penned about six questions and four were addressed by the CEO at the meeting before time ran out.  So imagine my surprise when on the following day, I was told by the CEO’s PA that he intended to come down from his lofty perch on the top floor and answer my remaining questions.  Sitting on a borrowed typist’s chair, this is what he did and at the end of each response, he asked me whether he had fully answered the question I had raised.  I don’t remember my questions nor the detail of his responses but I do remember him asking me if I was satisfied with his answer.  I will never forget his act in coming to see me.  It made a deep impression and certainly raised my spirits and made me more optimistic about my own and the company’s future.  Unfortunately, his action did not serve as an example to my more immediate superiors and so, disenchanted by the lack of a clear strategy and the absence of those other factors mentioned in the previous paragraph, I resigned 18 months later.

There is no doubt in my mind that what managers do is the key determinant of how their staff feel.  Let me give you three further examples.  A Nursing Unit Manager or NUM at a public hospital, much loved and respected by her staff, makes a point of helping our with bed making and other menial tasks if her staff are under time pressures.  The head of the NSW ambulance service, a trained paramedic, rosters himself on at least one ambulance shift a month to take the pulse of what it’s like on the frontline of the service he’s responsible for.  Rob Fyfe, former CEO of Air New Zealand used to act as an impromptu steward when flying on an Air New Zealand flight and invited Air New Zealanders with varying degrees of seniority to spend a day with him to observe the work of the CEO firsthand.  This is communication at its most powerful.  These people know how their actions impact on the morale of their staff.  Nevertheless, they are also aware that the “feel good” factor may be a transitory one if not complemented and supported by people centred planning and those key execution factors.

Maybe Maya Angelou’s quote should be modified to read as follows:

“People will remember what you said.
People will remember what you did.
And people will never forget how you made them feel”.


Customer service – the parable of the plate spinner

April 20, 2015

Marketing guru, Theodore Levitt postulated that the “product” could be likened to four concentric circles.  Starting with the innermost circle representing the Core product, the three outer circles represent the Expected, Augmented and Potential product respectively.  In his article “Marketing success through differentiation – of anything”, he alsdisho concluded that what one customer might regard as product Augmentation, another might see as Expected.

It’s 35 years since the article was published in the Harvard Business Review and there is no doubt that the impact of competition and technology and the resultant rise in customer expectation has seen the migration of features that used to represent the Augmented product being regarded as the Expected Product and those of the Expected Product becoming part of the Core Product.

Product quality is a given these days.  So are such attributes as reliability of supply, competitive order lead-times, delivery-on-time and competitive pricing.  These are the  qualifying dimensions of any product or service and no supplier can perform below par on these attributes for any length of time.  In Levitt terminology they are all part of the Expected Product.  The real battleground between competing organisations is customer service and despite the growth in e-business, customer service invariably involves people.

My company has completed customer/client feedback surveys for all manner of organisations from large multinationals to boutique consultancies covering every type of business from freight forwarding to stock feed and IT.  There is always a high correlation between the respondents’ rating of the level of service they receive from their main contacts at the supplier (my client) and the overall Customer Satisfaction Index.  But it is one thing to achieve high indices, another to maintain them.  And to illustrate the nature of the challenge, I tell them about the Parable of the Plate Spinner.

customer service

In the beginning, there was a plate spinner who became skilled at spinning an increasing number of plates.

He was so successful that he was being asked to do shows every night and increase the number of plates he could spin simultaneously.  This got to be too much for him so he decided to teach others to spin plates.  Naturally, they were not quite so good as him but it enabled him to take the occasional break and when they all appeared on stage together, the results were truly spectacular.
customer service
But then things started to go wrong.  The number of plates to be spun kept on increasing and there wasn’t time to train the new plate spinners to the standard required.  Instead of a set number of plates being the sole responsibility of one plate spinner, a system evolved whereby several plate spinners shared responsibility for the same plates.  At times no one was certain who was responsible for keeping the plates spinning.  Last – but by no means least – they began to spin plates of greatly differing sizes and they found that large plates took up a disproportionate amount of the plate spinners’ time and resources – both to get them up and spinning and to keep them spinning without losing equilibrium.

When a large plate started to wobble, it would require more than its fair share of spinners to reset it and the only spinners that could be spared were those who had plates that were spinning well.

customer service

The result was inevitable.  Whether or not the efforts of the spinners to restore a problem plate to equilibrium were successful or not, other plates, deprived of their regular re-spin began to oscillate ominously and inevitably some fell from their poles, never to be spun again – at least not by this troupe of plate spinners.

The moral of this story is that when the quality of your customer service is of such a standard as to attract new customers, you have to increase the resources to provide the Core, Expected, Augmented and Potential product that they have been led to expect.  Furthermore, the standard of service given to new customers must not be at the expense of the established customer base.  Even the most stable plate will fall off its pole if you ignore it for long enough.

Always bear in mind the research by TARP (Technical Assistance Research Programs Washington DC) that showed that 68% of customers changed their suppliers because the supplier “appeared disinterested or indifferent to its customer’s needs”.

Graham Haines runs his own consulting practice Plans to Reality and has been conducting his proprietary customer feedback surveys for over 20 years.  The feedback from these surveys provides a key input into operational and strategic initiatives for improving the performance of any enterprise.  You can read about these surveys and others covering executives, employees and workgroups at

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