Over the years I’ve seen many people talk about a conversation they’ve had where they have reached an impasse.
Whether it was selling an idea, gaining business, or trying to gather intel they would seem frustrated with the final answer(s) by the person they were talking to.
Invariably they walk away with “so-and-so is doing this,” or they were standing pat on an earlier decision, or “they are just not ready to listen.”
And the counter I’ve coached them is “Did you ask them ‘Why?'”.
When someone is asked why, it gives the power to the questioner and not the person giving the answer. It causes them to give an explanation and reveal more information as to their mindset.
Sometimes the person I’m teaching this to says “Yes, and they said they would rather do <other action>.”
To which I say “Did you ask them ‘How come?’ “
This creates some thinking on the person asking the questions to which I reveal the process of the alternating asking “Why?” and “How Come?”.
Each question peels away another layer of information that the person being asked might be hiding behind, or neglecting details, or being non-committal.
It opens up the talking and gets the other person starting to reveal their intentions so the questioner can get to the heart of the matter.
Whether using this to ask employees about an HR issue, in a sales pitch, or in parenting or counselling, it’s simply an effective way to keep drilling down to where the real intent lies.
Two simple questions anyone can ask that can be non-confrontational and open conversation to get results.
For years an empty seat in company meetings has been the symbol to remind leaders and employees about being customer centric.
Starting with Jeff Bezos with seeds planted in years leading up to him implementing the idea at Amazon, leaving an empty chair at each meeting – whether physically when in real life or digitally during a virtual meeting – should stand as a reminder to keep the customer in the main view of focus at all times during any company meeting, strategy or endeavor.
Many companies try to imitate this method, but very few actually execute on being fully customer centric. That’s mainly due to a misplaced understanding of how the empty chair should actually work.
Here are the ways to ensure that focusing on the customers with help from the empty chair can make an impact:
- Determine to actually be customer centric. Before deploying any steps to remind your team about the customer, leadership should work to manifest the customer at the core of all the company does. Starting with the mission statement and working through a culture constitution and core values, without taking the necessary steps to create a customer dynamic in the DNA of the organization will guarantee failure to actually make any difference for the customer.
- Create processes and policies that support the customer. Many customers leave because of poor procedures or policies that are onerous and make for an unsatisfactory experience. When asked, many employees, powerless to make any suggestions or changes, simply state to the customer “Sorry, that’s our policy,” which leaves the customer with a sour taste of the organization. While policies and procedures should help the company against losses and inefficiencies, if that is all they do, the customer will feel neglected and take their business elsewhere. Procedures should not be left just solely to external customer facing processes, but also to those key components like training that carry a customer focus through all touchpoints.
- Hire, train and develop your people to be customer advocates. None of these steps can be effective without having your team properly trained and developed with a focus on excellent customer service. Starting with your incumbent staff, develop a training plan as mentioned just prior and work to train and continually develop your people to focus and perform in the customer’s best interest. Then devise a hiring process that attracts and keys in on customer-aligned candidates that will seamlessly dovetail into the new customer culture.
Once those three foundational pieces (at the least) are in place, then consider these steps to ensure an empty customer chair is best implemented:
- Explain the chair and it’s expectations. Just dropping the chair and having a quick “OK this chair means the customer is here. Let’s start … ” without any preface is poor execution. Have a thoughtful short meeting about the chair and its core purpose, explain why it aligns with the customer centric steps that the company has embarked on, and state a clear expectation that the customer needs to be heard at every meeting. Then ensure that at the start and end of every meeting this will be reinforced to continue the habits, behaviors and culture to truly make this happen.
- Place the chair everywhere. Have a physical chair at every in person meeting, and a digital chair in every virtual one as well. Create customer chair backdrops for virtual screens, posters for every break-room, and other methods to remind people what you’re all about.
- Set agenda points for the customer chair. When creating a meeting agenda, make sure there is the first couple and last couple of minutes to remind folks to focus on the customers, and also create specific points to stop and reflect on the customer viewpoint of what is being discussed.
- Rotate and have team members speak for the customer. Appoint a person on the team who is very close to the front line and the customer to actually speak for the customer. Give them intervals throughout the meeting to have them voice concerns, questions, and put the strategies and ideas to the test. By giving an actual voice on behalf of the customer, the team will have a person who is committed to looking at everything through their eyes and providing much needed insight as to what the customer may expect, understand, be concerned of or appreciate.
It’s not the chair that makes a company customers centric, it’s the cultural mindset that the customer becomes core to the efforts the company puts forth. By implementing the right strategies in support of this endeavor, the empty chair will not just serve as a token reminder, but a real process that drives every action.
You hear it from bosses and parents many times.
“Now make sure we behave ourselves when (regional leadership)/(grandparents or minister) comes to visit us.”
“After all, we need to look good in front of them.”
When anyone is worried more about looking good for the sake of optics, rather than doing what’s good and right as a matter of practice – there raises a red flag that those in authority aren’t truly being the example leadership they should be.
Whether it’s fudging the numbers on reports, checking the boxes to ensure tasks are done, or creating the rehearsed “dog and pony show” to stay in someone’s good graces, the failure of leadership to develop their people to create the right patterns of thinking and behavior to do what should be done reveals the leader’s true heart.
Optics are just a cheap way to be a leader. The great leaders ensure that their people are solid performers.
Great leaders don’t ask their people to “stay in their lane” or be scarce when others come to check on them. They encourage honest conversations and want to place their people front and center to prove how great their people are. This is the antithesis of leaders who want to do all the talking to control the situation so they look good.
The optics problem always reveals a leader or a broader organizational culture that allows this type of leadership mindset to exist. It fosters the place-holding of a leader who doesn’t want to look bad instead of generating a dynamic of leaders who excel at developing great people and great systems.
Optics aren’t everything, but they reveal more than the facade they create.