Saturday, April 5, 2008

Making Partnership the Prescription

The existence of a business is tied to bottom-line results. Successful companies understand customers are the reason they are in business and customer loyalty pays big dividends. Companies also know the importance of paving attention to and caring genuinely about the customer.

What many companies fail to acknowledge is they absolutely need dedicated employees to partner with their customers. Employee devotion grows in time as employees decide to trust the company, feel respected, valued and supported. Then they can become excited about their work and their contribution.

Employee dedication provides the genesis of customer partnering. A relationship starts with an encounter, moves through experiences, then proceeds to enjoyment. Then, somewhere along the way, the relationship reaches partnership status.
Respect and trust are essential in the journey. Respect originates with admiration, esteem and honor. Trust emanates from a firm belief in the reliability and honesty of a person.

You can earn employee devotion through consistent, congruent behavior in time within a context of fairness and truthfulness in the following ways:
1. Communicate corporate values clearly, and then incorporate them as genuine and consistent guiding principles in all organizational practices. Values are the beliefs and convictions guiding individual behavior and supporting the corporate vision.
2. Demonstrate respect for people throughout all levels of the company in dealing with every situation. This is known as “walking the talk.” When discrepancies between stated values and accepted behavior occur, then respect and trust are diminished or lost.
3. Convey positive attitudes and demonstrate positive behaviors — they are highly contagious. Competent people who feel valued have the energy necessary to deal with any situation. Focus on the positive and provide constructive, accurate feedback about areas needing improvement.
4. Disclose information and share resources in response to employee and customer needs. Help your employees serve customers. Removing the mystery is a powerful technique for building trust.

Trust derives from a gradual process of experiences where promises are kept, expectations are met and truth is told. People come to feel comfortable and to trust in such good intentions.To build trust with employees, you must tell the truth, deal with reality and keep agreements.

Everyday your ethical conduct demonstrates the company’s commitment to stated values and thus earns employees’ trust and devotion. Truth provides a base upon which to build. A good leader serves employees by creating a supportive environment in which they can contribute their best through commitment, initiative to solve problems, experimentation, and willingness to fail.

Stephen R. Covey, author of “Principle-Centered Leadership.” suggests the “ultimate test of principle-centered leadership is to be loyal to people who are absent when their name comes up in conversations and meetings.”

In most companies employees and executives do not trust one another. Each assumes the other operates from a position of self-interest and expects to prevail at another’s expense. Such negative assumptions promote self-protective, aggressive and suspicious behaviors. These, of course, reinforce the negative assumptions. Intentional, self-serving manipulative behavior creates a destructive, relentless circular trap strangling creativity and spontaneity and precluding trust.

In a contaminated corporate culture both executives and employees fail to take personal responsibility for their behavior. Instead, each blames, makes excuses withholds information, undermines, sabotages and discredits the efforts of others.
Withholding information is a sophisticated form of lying and manipulating. Tainted organizations habituate to mistrust, cynicism and fear. Unsatisfying relationships and environments become the status quo.

One employee’s bad attitude can contaminate a customer relationship and sow seeds of doubt about the company’s credibility. Repeated negative encounters can jeopardize goodwill. While a devoted customer partner ship can weather a storm and survive some inconsistencies, a recurrent pattern of interactions with unenthusiastic, indifferent employees sends a cautionary signal to even loyal customers.
Companies need caring employees who will do what is required for the customer and the company rather than what is rewarded. Each contribution to the partnership (company and employee as well as employee and customer) creates the opportunity for growth and prosperity.

Superior service is not conditional. It thrives when there is no expectation or requirement of a response in kind. Employees need the freedom to operate with a reservoir of energy, resources and trust in order to delight customers, solve problems creatively and effectively, and have a gift-giving attitude.

Employees will not divest themselves of their protective masks and personas without a kind of safety net — a corporate environment promoting genuine caring, authentic goodwill, bona fide respect and fairness for all persons. Mask removal occurs when employees feel positive enough about themselves and the company to trust in your honorable intentions.

Employees want to know if they are willing to risk, then they will receive authenticity, fairness, respect and truth in return. When the customer perceives an employee disingenuousness or artificiality, a mask, they conclude there must be a problem to hide or disguise. People who cheat, lie and deceive in relationships communicate their inferior view of themselves and do not feel worthy of other people’s trust.

They act distrustful and full of doubt; self-doubt breeds distrust. John Whiteside, Ph.D. offered words of wisdom in the July 1994 Executive Excellence:
“To build a culture of trust, speak the words of trust then act as if your word is your bond. Offer trust freely at the out set of a project, as a gift an expectation; not as a reward for past achievements nor withheld as a punishment for failure."

The luxury of self-righteous mistrust is far too costly for any business to afford in a world where cooperation and creative interdependency of people provide the competitive edge that companies need to survive. Absent trust, cooperation and teamwork wither.

Listening without contact, without authentic emotional connection, is like looking without seeing. When trust is broken or lost, listening is critical to mending fences and healing wounds. This does not mean corresponding. Listening to the customer or another employee means being actively engaged in the process of seeking to understand the other person. It means one must take time to hear without becoming defensive.

Listening is not just what you do; it is about what the other person experiences. It means being willing to make a change, admit mistakes, then make amends. Partners expect you to work diligently at listening and to respond as though their communication matters and is important to you. What percentage of your listening is passive, indirect and rational? What percent is active, direct and emotional? Partnership listening is about genuine contact and connection.

According to Ted Levitt in Oct. 1993 “One of the surest signs of a bad or declining relationship with a customer is the absence of complaints. Either the customer is not being candid or not being contacted.” He further asserts. “The absence of candor reflects the decline of trust and deterioration of the relationship.”

Customers asked directly for feed back are much more likely to give favorable comments than those not queried. Also, customers with a service problem who have had it corrected spectacularly are more loyal than those who have never had a problem.
The process of building a relation ship includes mutual risk-taking and the courage to ask for, receive and give honest feedback without defensiveness. Truth-telling may result in a few bruises or uncomfortable moments, but truth always leaves partners feeling stronger and better because they know where they stand with each other.
False agreement threatens partnerships much more than honest conflict or disagreement. Then, as candor motivates improvement, those who change feel responsible, those served feel understood, and the partnership is strengthened.
Employees feeling respected, important and trusted will more likely demonstrate confidence and competence when serving customers.

A partnership attitude derives from trust. It has a magnetic effect on customers because it conveys a kind of unconditional positive regard. Customers feel valued, not used. Just as customers don’t expect you to be perfect, neither do employees expect perfection. Employees just expect the company to demonstrate it cares enough to strive to improve. When you are trustworthy, employees reciprocate by investing themselves by offering feedback and suggestions and making personal commitments which may never be seen by management.

Employees act like grown-ups when treated like grown-ups. The have the wisdom and maturity to solve problems. The challenge for management is inspiring them to have the willingness and desire to contribute and collaborate. Employees will contribute if they believe they are appreciated.

Equality and partnership requires an investment of energy, trust and mutual participation. Service companies failing to treat their employees as equals will never earn the depth of commitment partnership implies and requires.
Employees are a company’s most important customers. The will give your customers the same quality of service they receive from management. Consequently the values you live are the values employees believe you honor.

If your employees watched where you invested your energy for a week, what would they conclude is your top priority? Leaders must live consistent with the values they espouse, especially in difficult situations.

Jan Carizon, past CEO of Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), said it best: “If you aren’t serving the customer, your job is to be serving someone who is.”

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