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Customer loyalty may be overrated, but achieving it is still a challenge

Residents of my little pocket of south London are lucky to have a wide choice of coffee outlets to sit and socialise or work in. When I’m working at home and need a change of scene, I often take myself off to one of them to jolt my brain, not just with caffeine, but with a different working environment.

Lately I have favoured an independent outlet with a bright airy back room and a damn fine cappuccino but my last couple of visits haven’t quite hit the spot for me. I’ve been analysing this as, whilst I am a frequent visitor to my nearest coffee house (a chain, with adequate coffee), I want to support independent local businesses as well. Without spending too much time (metaphorically) on my own psychiatrist’s couch I have concluded that something in the experience must have changed as the product – the coffee – is as good as it’s always been.

What’s going on

Part of the reason I go to my independent is that the ambience suits 30-60 minutes of pondering and writing (that’s my creative process in a nutshell – if I wanted to sound pretentious I’d call it thought leadership) even if I’m surrounded by chatting mums (it’s invariably mums on a weekday), noisy babies and background music that’s not too obtrusive. The service has usually been pleasant enough, but something has changed: the last couple of times I have been there’s been less of a buzz and the service has seemed just a little offhand.

These are all tiny changes – was I being hyper-sensitive? (It does come with the territory of being a customer experience-obsessive…) Or was I starting to become a more fickle consumer?

No, something in my gut was telling me this wasn’t the creative crucible that I had been getting used to…

Hello, lazy brain

Obviously, it’s not my gut telling me this, it’s my brain. As behavioural scientists have observed, our brains are inherently lazy and want repeatable, dependable experiences. My lazy brain got the idea pretty quickly that my local independent coffee shop could fulfil the following equation:

Great coffee + nice ambience + OK service = productive hour’s writing

So, my immediate reaction when thinking “where can I go for a break” was to choose the independent over the nearer chain.

This theme is explored in A.G. Lafley and Roger L. Martin’s HBR paper “Customer Loyalty is Overrated” where they challenge the accepted notion that consumers make conscious purchasing choices and therefore companies are required to come up with ever-improving, fresher propositions. Behavioural psychology research suggests the opposite: our brains are not always analytical; instead they take incomplete information and fill in the missing bits based on past experience. The more often we do this in relation to an experience the more “fluent” we become. When we make a decision that just “feels right” the processing that leads to it has been fluent.

I’ll always buy some brands because I associate them with the outcomes they deliver and don’t give the choice a second thought: in this case those brands make things easy for me by providing repeatable outcomes.

This is tough for companies where service is an integral part of the experience. A product can be manufactured, packaged and priced consistently for repeatable outcomes, but add service – typically with some form of human factor involved – and the outcome is less repeatable. Coffee shops in particular try to get around this by offering monetary incentives via loyalty cards to get you to come back. It’s not an influencer though: both my chain and my independent have equivalent loyalty schemes but that’s part of my conscious choice so not part of the repeatable experience that plays to my subconscious.

The product element in a coffee shop is easily repeatable. The equally critical ambience and service factors are less so, but they can be addressed. A market leader such as Disney puts a enormous effort into ensuring that – given the potential for massive variation – it offers an overall great experience for its resort customers, through focusing on staff (sorry, cast) selection, training and development and continuous improvement of all elements of the customers’ experience.

In my case, I may have been unlucky, and some of the factors I value were just missing on a couple of occasions. But the damage has been done: my lazy brain now has to do a lot more work to find a conscious reason to go there.

Cup half full

What bugs me about corporate attitudes to customer experience is that it’s seen as expendable and something to be cut when the going gets tough. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of making it as efficient as possible – transforming underlying processes, removing friction and augmenting the experience though new technology but too often it’s a discretionary element that can be cut according to the other demands of the business. If you were running an airline you wouldn’t knowingly send faulty planes in the sky or not provide enough fuel for the journey so why take a different attitude to service?

Good coffee in my neck of the woods is easy to come by but a consistent experience that plays to my unconscious, lazy brain is a lot harder.

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Being a leader often means looking to push your teams to achieve difficult results against tight deadlines, with tough customers or with high levels of complexity.

The challenge is to know the difference between very difficult, the improbable and the really impossible. Often our teams will think of things as impossible when in fact they are more likely just very difficult, or perhaps even improbable, but that doesn’t mean they are not do-able.

Here you must challenge your teams thinking, asking probing questions and trying to get them to think differently in order to find a solution that they can believe in. You need to ask them what they need to succeed, rather than why they think things are not possible. 

You need to get them into a can-do mindset, rather than a can’t-do mindset, which can help them with even the most difficult of challenges.

Queen of denial

However, you need to keep your teams grounded in reality, and you need to recognize when you are pushing them to try and achieve the truly impossible because by definition it is not possible. If your teams commit to delivering the impossible, then this will only lead to frustration, disappointment, and de-motivation.

You need to make sure that you create a safe environment where your teams feel comfortable to push back rather than just blindly sticking to a plan they feel they have been forced into.

According to studies, on projects that failed, over 70 percent of the time, the teams involved knew that the project was going to fail from the very start, and often management just ignored their concerns.

You don’t want to be the type of leader that just buries his head in the sand and then just blindly adds to that statistic, as this would make you a what is known as a Cleopatra type of leader, or queen of denial.

That doesn’t mean that you should just accept things when they tell you they think a deadline is not possible, or that a result cannot be achieved. 

But you need to be judicious, and understand their limitations, and also to listen to nonverbal cues or concerns that are mentioned that clearly hint that they do not believe in the plan. Not everyone will come out and directly say what they think, but they will give you clues.

Sometimes we, as leaders, can convince ourselves that the impossible is achievable, especially when it’s critically important to us. 

But here you need to be extra careful because our desire for a given result to be possible can blind us to the reality that it’s not.

There’s never enough money to do it right, but…

Many years ago I worked on a project in Holland where we were seriously underwater on a contract and in order to stem the losses we needed to achieve a go-live of stage one of the project within a four-month period. 

The initial estimate had been 12-months to achieve go live, but we all knew that there was some slack in the plan and that we could squeeze it a little. But as we started the re-planning our boss set the aggressive target of going live in four months and asked us to plan accordingly. Often repeating that the budget was limited and we couldn’t afford for it to take any longer.

So we created a plan which was theoretically feasible, but it required us to execute flawlessly and also required us to have some good luck along the way.

However, relying on luck, just like hoping, is not a reliable strategy for success.

The result was that we failed to meet the deadline. We ended up re-planing the project delivering the stage five months later. Much to the disappointment of everyone involved.

This was a project where I learned the valuable lesson that even though there is not enough money to do it right, there is always money to do it again.

You need to protect your team from over committing themselves, but you also need to ensure that you don’t over commit them too.

You need to listen to their concerns and not just dismiss them, and you need to listen to your own intuition and not just go into denial as that will lead to a potentially expensive failure.

The cheapest and fastest way to achieve any goal is to get it right first time.

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According to a recent survey it is – but fixing it requires commitment across the whole organisation

Whatever you may think about Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, their ethics or market capitalisation, social media companies are not about to disappear as a channel through which brands can connect with the current or future customers. But success in social media – as in real, bottom line business benefits – depends on a much more coordinated approach than is currently evidenced.

According to a recent report by social media management company Sprout Social, 50% of consumers follow brands to learn about new products and services and 48% to be entertained – a good basis then to promote your products in a fun and entertaining fashion. But wait – 56% of consumers say they unfollow brands because of poor customer service.

If you’re a social media marketeer that’s a bummer because it happens somewhere else in the company. There you are creating campaigns that are fun, funky and geared towards your lovely Facebook audience (the most popular channel – 89% of marketers use it) and you’re getting some great engagement metrics but someone in customer service is screwing this up!

What can you do?

I’d hazard a guess – actually it’s more than a guess as this is what I’ve observed in companies over the years – that the problem is that despite the great advantage of all kinds of social media to create connections with consumers, connections across businesses still seem much harder to achieve.

Let the train make the strain

To illustrate, let me go back to a piece I wrote last year about UK train operating company GWR. Its main point was that despite the very poor service customers were getting, following the introduction of new rolling stock, there was no acknowledgement on any of their social media. From what I can tell – my wife is a regular GWR traveller for work – the service has not massively improved and the social medial feedback situation is unchanged.

Only connect

The GWR situation shows how disconnected companies can be: product development designs a great new train, it gets delivered, doesn’t work properly and has seats that almost all customers find incredibly uncomfortable – a sure-fire recipe for poor customer service.

In this situation, social media marketing is an attempt to put sticking plaster over some gaping wounds in the company’s processes and however much engagement there is, none of it will change the design of the trains in the short term.

Image: Sprout Social
Image: Sprout Social

The Sprout Social report – which covers a lot more than I have referred to here and is well worth a read – contains some more revealing statistics. Asked which team social marketers could influence more, 59% chose sales. Sales was also the one that most social marketers shared data and goals with – so I’m not sure how effective that is if it’s not influencing sales – but where is service?

It’s clear from the factors influencing unfollowing that linking social and customer service is key, yet the driving factor is sales, sales, sales. Don’t get me wrong – it works: I am now the proud wearer of a pair of blue brogues following a well-placed ad on Facebook (I may also be having a late mid-life crisis – don’t judge) and a company needs to sell, obviously. But if your social media doesn’t listen to and respond to customers’ feedback on service or understand why you are being unfollowed then it’s not adding as much value as it could be.

What’s needed is a joined-up approach that links social, sales and service under a coordinated brand strategy. The evidence suggests that this is an opportunity most companies have yet to seize.

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During 25 years of my professional career, I would say that my bosses pretty much fell into one of three categories. The good. The bad. And the Toxic.

It was great working for Good bosses, they helped me grow, gave me opportunities and also lots of success.

The Bad, well they were pretty much incompetent, and I just needed to work around them, try and keep them from causing problems and trying to be successful in spite of them rather than because of them. At times it was frustrating but bearable.

Not surprisingly, the same cannot be said for Toxic bosses. They were some of the most stressful, impactful, demotivational, frustrating and downright horrible moments of my career. Whilst they only represent a small portion of my career, they are the ones I remember most vividly and would never want to wish upon another person.

They also taught me some valuable leadership lessons, and here are 4 things I learned from toxic bosses that I’d like to share.

Toxic bosses cause unhealthy and unnecessary levels of stress.

Stress in business is normal. We’re always working to tight deadlines, dealing with difficult situations or customers, working with reduced budgets and trying to do more with less. In a competitive environment that’s totally natural.

Toxic bosses create a different type of stress. One that isn’t normal or necessary it’s manufactured by the toxic culture that they create. It’s that stress of not knowing what’s going to happen, who’s going to get shouted at, belittled, blamed or even fired for whatever takes their whim. With one boss it got so bad, I not only used to dread having to present to him, I used to dread going to work in case I bumped into him. When my phone wrong my heart would race, and not in a good way, but with dread wondering whether he was calling me not. Toxic bosses probably accounted for less than 10% of my professional career and yet accounted for well over 50% of the sick days I have taken.

Toxic bosses reduce productivity

It’s not just that toxic bosses make you start to doubt yourself, have you spend time worrying about your work which reduces your efficiency. But they also can prevent work from happening. I’m usually someone who likes a challenge, will take on extra work and go the extra mile. But with my most toxic of bosses, I tried to do the absolute minimum, not because I didn’t want to do the work, or couldn’t do the work.

No, there were two reasons:

1) I didn’t want to put myself in the firing line. Anytime you had to deal with him it had the potential to blow up in your face, so keeping that to a minimum was just a matter of survival.

2) I didn’t volunteer incase it actually went well and I made him look good. I absolutely did not want him stealing any credit for any additional work that I did, or to help him in his career

Toxic bosses are equal opportunity abusers

The last toxic boss I worked for hired me. He interviewed me, was incredibly charming, complementary and supportive. I thought it was going to be a great opportunity, it felt like we had a similar background and approach to leadership. But that was dispelled day one. Not because of something he did or said to me, but because of what he did to others in front of, not just me, but the rest of the team.

When I asked him about it afterward, he said that the person was a low performer and that he had just had enough and now it was time to be clear and direct about what he expected. I said but wouldn’t it be better to deal with them in private rather than embarrass them in front of the whole team. He said no, it was better to make an example of them so that the whole team would know what to expect.

At that point, the alarm bells rang, and I knew that my turn would come just the same as everyone else’s.

Toxic bosses never change

In my entire career, I have never seen a Toxic boss change. They may have toned it down a little, they may have turned it off for a while, but it’s always there just lurking waiting for the right moment for it to come out again. I have even tried to change myself to try and adapt to their style, to try and make it more tolerable, but the only want to get rid of a toxic boss is to quit. That’s why according to research 50% of employees quit their boss and not their company. At one firm I actually challenged a toxic boss, and he said to me “I know I am an asshole, but it’s that that makes me successful, it’s that that helps me achieve the results I do”. This is why most toxic bosses never change, they don’t see the problem, they don’t see the carnage that they create.

When I asked this person why no one wanted to work with him again, he said it was because they were jealous of his success, or that they were lazy and just wanted an easy life.

Toxic bosses see others as the problem and that’s why they will never change.

Toxic bosses create a retention and recruitment problem

I appreciate that in difficult times, we need to drive people hard, but doing it with Toxic bosses is not the right answer or the sustainable answer, for either the teams or the company.

Sooner or later, if you don’t deal with toxic leaders, your staff will take the decision out of your hands and just quit. You will lose good people because of toxic leaders. You will create a culture that can take years to replace and it could even damage the reputation of your company which can make you unattractive in the market place. Whilst HR departments review the background of potential employees, those potentials are reviewing you on Glassdoor and if your rating is bad that is not going to make you an attractive proposition.

Toxic leaders are bad for your employees, bad for your company and bad for your reputation and need to be dealt with promptly.

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Customers should be better at providing meaningful feedback
– and service providers should make it easier for them to do so

Another caffeinated customer experience gave me a new perspective on feedback. I was in a local chain coffee shop, taking advantage of a freebie courtesy of my mobile provider and the productivity benefits that seem to accrue from being surrounded by a general buzz of conversation. I noticed that both the coffees I drank seemed to be particularly good – better than usual – and both were courtesy of a “trainee barista” (according to her t-shirt). I passed by her on the way out and congratulated her on her exceptionally good coffee – clearly the training was working well – but she looked slightly non-plussed.

This made me think: are we, as customers, bad at giving feedback?

I think we are. And the trend towards surveying every inch of our experience doesn’t help.

Hi guys, how’s your food?

If I’m in a restaurant I think it’s nice if someone takes the trouble to ask if you are enjoying your food. But how many times has that enquiry been made when I have just started eating and not in a position to offer any feedback? Moreover – and this may just be British reticence – how often have I or people with me said it’s OK when some aspect of the food isn’t quite up to standard?

It’s the equivalent of the “How are you?” enquiry on greeting someone – we don’t usually respond with a list of current ailments or life situations – polite but meaningless.

Anti-social media

Back to my coffee chain. It has an app for payment and collecting loyalty points which is great and, if I’m being brutally honest, almost certainly does encourage me to spend more with them than with other brands. Every time I use it a little window pops up: “how was your last visit?” Are you spotting a problem here? At this point I’m thinking about my current visit and – since I’m in the process of paying for my coffee – can’t be doing with providing feedback on any visit.

I just checked my app: there’s no opportunity for me to provide more reflective feedback on my last visit so that I can’t more permanently record my verbal feedback to the barista.

Give us feedback – and your organs

And so it continues… a friend with a donated kidney posts a link to the NHS organ donation site. Although an opt-out approach will be adopted in England next year, it seems simple enough to register and it proves to be. And there is the inevitable feedback tab at the bottom of this screen – how can we improve the site? Well to be quite honest it does the job perfectly, so I leave a very satisfied rating and a comment to that effect, adding “you’re doing a great job” as the web team have implemented a nice clean website that helps you register quickly and, moreover, the outcome of their work is saved lives. I’m faintly surprised they didn’t ask for a Net Promoter Score as, in this case, I would recommend the site to friends, family and total strangers – if you’re in England, please do register!

But, actually, what is the point of feedback now? For all I know it may have been terrible to start with and customer feedback improved it but at this point it’s just creating work for people. This illustrates a tendency I have noticed in organisations:

Once we start collecting data, we get stuck in a rut and it has the potential to be wasted effort.

Get inspiration: get meaningful feedback

So, let’s be clear, there’s nothing wrong with collecting data on customer behaviour and feedback: technologies are available to allow you to collect and manipulate ever-increasing amounts of data from all touch points. But it’s getting meaningful data that allows you to turn data into insight and insight into action that’s important.

In my view it’s qualitative feedback that gets you that insight, whereas quantitative data will give you trends and aid segmentation. We can cover quantitative data in another article but for now let’s look at five ways to get meaningful feedback from your customers to inspire you to improve.

1) Always provide a qualitative channel to capture feedback

My coffee chain is a good example of how not to do this: there’s nowhere on the app to provide ad hoc feedback which suggests they’re not that interested. Even the Feedback tab on their website is broken but there is a link to email channel, so I’ll be sharing my feedback with them soon.

2) Get feedback at the right point in the customer journey

Whilst you need an always-on channel for ad hoc feedback, it’s important to identify the points in the customer’s journey where it makes sense from their point of view to provide you with feedback. Most companies, to be fair, put this at the end of a transaction but there are still a significant number who don’t or who launch a feedback pop-up on their website before you have even done anything.

3) Ask the right questions – and the right number of questions

You should always add on a qualitative text input field to allow customers to explain why they gave a particular quantitative rating but do this sparingly: there’s nothing more annoying than having to justify every score you’ve given. And always have a general text input field at the end – some people like to save their comments for a single message.

4) Recognise negative feedback as inspiration

This is tough: I have long maintained that complaints are an under-used source of feedback but treating them as inspiration is a bit of an ask. It’s a question of mindset: if you have repeated complaints about some aspect of your products, services or experience then this is a great opportunity to turn that around. Genuinely customer-centric companies will have this mindset.

5) Follow up and reward

Whether grumpy or inspirational, your customers are devoting their time to improving your company, which should generate plenty of business value, so it seems right to offer some form of reward. My favourite is the pizza chain that sends you a voucher for free dough-balls for every time you feed back. The incremental cost of this is negligible but it encourages customers to provide feedback and – I have experienced – they do follow up with further discussion if appropriate.

Do let me have feedback both on this article on your experiences with customer feedback.

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“Magic moments” are not the be-all and end-all of customer experience – but they are important 

Wednesday in Wimbledon – I’d say wet if I was seeking an alliterative effect but in the interests of veracity it was a fine day – and I had an hour’s “office time” before a meeting. I went to an independent coffee shop on Wimbledon’s main drag – once apparently the high street with the most chains in the UK – not because it was an indie but because I knew it would be quiet, got my coffee and my WiFi code and logged on.

The welcome screen was not what I was expecting. Instead of the usual MSN collation of news items there was a poem (see below).

Now whilst I don’t read a lot of poetry and my limited abilities as a literary critic are safely confined to my book club, I’d say that the author’s efforts were a bit overwrought. Nonetheless I loved the idea of the coffee beans’ “cologne” and this little poetic pause set me up in a good frame of mind for the next 60 minutes.

And it made me think: how often do businesses go out of their way to inspire their customers?

In my experience – not very often.

At which point, if you’re in the business of providing customers with a service on behalf of your company you might be thinking “hang on Nick, isn’t it enough that we provide a great service day in, day out? That’s hard as it is without expecting our agents to be inspirational poets!”

Up to a point

Well, you may have a point: broken processes, malfunctioning systems and a back office that’s still in the 20th century may be some of the daily challenges your front-line people successfully manage every day to deliver a great service. In which case any further requests to create moments of magic will fall on deaf ears.

Note that in my example the magic moment didn’t require any human intervention – in fact, the coffee service was pleasant but unremarkable – but someone had taken the time to think about what might make the experience a little bit special.

Your call is important, so here’s something that’s not muzak 

Of course, the effect can wear off. For example, my bank, First Direct, have a different approach to hold music, playing some ambient street sounds while you wait to speak to someone. As I have been repeatedly calling FD with regard to a foreign payment that’s gone astray (that’s a CX epic that will find its way onto this site soon), this is now as grating as listening to 16 bars of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on a loop. Any element of surprise wore off about 30 seconds into my first hold.

Maybe First Direct think they’re being smart and different but it’s part of what’s become, for me, an increasingly frustrating customer journey so it’s having a negative effect.

That old black magic

The quest for “magic”, inspiration and out-of-the-ordinary elements of a customer journey is important, but it’s not the only thing that’s important. One organisation I came across liked to devote considerable management time to deciding whether a customers’ experience could be classified as a “magic moment”. If it was deemed to contain insufficient pixie-dust to make it magic, it was deemed a “brilliant basic”. Both were rather aspirational terms as exceptional customer experience hadn’t exactly become the norm and there were plenty of basics that were far from brilliant. In my view they were well-intentioned but probably should have been a bit more rigorous about identifying and fixing process breaks and then empowering front line staff to create magic themselves.

Having a commitment to inspiring customers is a worthy ambition and it’s something that’s etched into NextTen’s DNA. We challenge ourselves to present material and ideas to our customers that inspires them to think differently about their businesses to deliver better results. Whether or not we succeed is something only our customers can judge. We haven’t yet employed seaside sounds or poetry to help us, but who knows what the future holds…

Meanwhile, what are you doing to inspire your customers?

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The blame game – it’s so easy. When sh*t hits the fan, the easiest thing in the world is to point fingers and find some poor unsuspecting employee to blame.

Hell, it’s so much easier just to fire whoever was responsible for creating such a panic in the first place. At least as soon as you get rid of them you’ll make sure it never happens again.

Why take the responsibility for the situation when you can blame others? Why own up to your own mistakes and shortcomings that most likely contributed to the situation?

Unfortunately, this whole idea of blaming others instead of being accountable has become part of our culture. It’s everywhere. It’s in individuals, families, celebrities, athletes, the government, and it’s very much alive in businesses.

When a leader throws his or her hands up in the air and blames someone else in the company for what’s happened, they’re pretty much saying: “Hey, it’s not my fault! It was completely out of my control!”

To the leader that blames, sentences beginning with “You…”, “If only…”, and “They…” are commonplace. And if there just happens to be an “I” in there…you can almost guarantee it’ll be quickly followed by “but”.

In the world of business there are some truly expert blamers. Incredibly skilled both verbally and interpersonally, they can be captivating to watch from afar but brutal face to face. With great skill they can verbally run circles around others while appearing to be the defeater.

How do you know if you’re a blamer?

You’re hesitant to accept any kind of responsibility for your choices and actions, especially if they’ve led to an unfavorable result.

A blamer also tries to get out of a sticky situation. They’ll intentionally make it appear to be somebody else’s fault, even if they’re partly or fully to blame.

But the crazy thing is, these same people that continue to point the finger and make their employees feel insecure, are also usually the first to take the credit when everything pans out the way it should and champagne bottles are popped open.

The short of it is: bad leaders blame, great leaders don’t!

Yes, blaming is easy, too easy in fact, but it’s also extremely unproductive and detrimental. Part of being that ‘productive and creative’ leader also means taking responsibility.

Blaming others also wastes so much time. When you try to prove someone is right there’s no progress and there’s certainly no progress when trying to prove someone is WRONG!

Jim Collins refers to an effective leader’s ability to “confront the brutal facts” in his classic book Good to Great. What he means by this is to become a great leader, you ultimately have to be willing to face and accept the reality of the situation, and then deal with it. Collins’ analogy of “conducting autopsies without blaming” sums it up perfectly. In other words you need to step back, look at the situation, analyze it and figure out what actually went wrong.

Use these mistakes as invaluable lessons. Look closer at what led to those negative series of events and the decisions that contributed to the failure. It’s the perfect way to grow as leader and a team and learn.

A great leader will always take ownership of the results. They won’t try to find excuses or blame others, because when you place blame elsewhere, you’re ultimately pulling on the handbrake for any kind of improvement.

When we blame others, we’re also giving away our ability to solve the problem. There are so many different examples of business failure turning into success.

So what do you need to do?

Simple. Ask yourself: “What can I do to fix the situation we’re in and make it work?”

When you really step back and take accountability, it creates an ideal opportunity to innovate and add more value. In short, taking responsibility allows you to look forward.

Taking ownership is what sets the tone for the organization. Not only this, you’re unwittingly setting an excellent example for others to follow – you’re encouraging everyone to take ownership of their mistakes and possibly wrongdoings. Instead of creating a culture of blame, look forward and create a culture of accountability instead!

Takeaway: Look at how you lead in a situation when things don’t go according to plan. Monitor your speech and how you say things. Avoid using pronouns and words that suggest blame and learn how to say: “Yes, it was my mistake, and I’m working on the solution.” Remember mistakes happen all the time. We’re human after all. Just don’t let the same mistake happen twice; learn from it. 

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A few years ago, I spent a week in Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates, near the tip of the Arabian peninsula overlooking the Persian Gulf and is a little under 8 hours flight time away from London. As to what I was doing there, at that time of year (March) daytime temperatures average between 28-30C, I was in serious need of some sunshine and there was a ripper of a deal.

I had arrived around 9pm and after making my way though the cacophony of the arrivals terminal I spent over an hour shuffling through passport control with the rest of the queue. My pre-booked transfer was waiting patiently on the other side and I was whisked away to my hotel in the sumptuous leather back seat of a pristine white Audi. By a driver that sensed I was too tired to chat.

A little thing, but nonetheless appreciated.

My room was lovely and spacious – on the 7th floor overlooking the lights (at night) and the white sands of the private beach (during the day). The Traders Hotel, Qaryat Al Beri is a 4-star hotel – yet there was a robe, slippers, a gigantic bed with an assortment of pillows and a fully equipped bathroom: when I say fully equipped I mean not just the requisite toilet and basin but also a bidet, a big bath and a separate shower (not a shower over a bath).

I also found two complimentary bottles of water on the bedside table – these are rarely free or left in multiples – there were both English (3-pin) and European (2-pin) plugs in the room and the wifi was everywhere, fast and completely free.

These small attentive details made me feel incredibly looked-after, like the hotel had actually thought about what might make my time with them seamless and comfortable.

After the haunting sounds of the Muslim call to prayer echoed across the hazy dawn sky each morning, I’d head down to the breakfast buffet. You cannot imagine my delight at finding not only a plethora of healthy and indulgent options but a tray of turkey bacon. This may not mean much to you but little things like this are a great treat to someone who doesn’t eat red meat. It was a happy find indeed.

After a post-breakfast stroll it was time to hit the private beach. Another two free bottles of water were delivered – in a little esky to keep them cold no less – to my sun-lounger of choice along with two big towels. Another even larger towel was wrapped over the mattress with an offer to replace this later in the afternoon. And all this was ten steps away from a cooling, salty swim.

Little things. It takes such little things to make me happy.

I can remember sitting in my room during lazy afternoons, wrapped in my plush hotel bathrobe reading and listening to that wailing call to prayer. Then the city lights would start to shimmer under the dusky sky and my biggest decision would be whether to watch the sunset from the comfort of my room or head down to the outdoor terrace to admire it over a pre-dinner cocktail. 

As-salamu alaykum (السلام عليكم) is the traditional Arabic greeting there and while it is used as ‘hello’, it actually translates as ‘peace be upon you’. Peace was definitely what I was feeling and I repeated the whole luscious process the next day, and the next day, and the next. It was my perfect holiday with every little detail taken care of.

I use the word “my” with intention here. You see my perfect holiday was to lie about, read and do very little for seven days. But that’s not what every guest wanted. In fact. looking across the busy breakfast room each morning I could see families, couples, business people, friends – all with different agendas.

And that’s what made this so great, that in the midst of all of those different expectations, I felt that everything that I wanted from my experience was completely catered for. From selecting the ‘best’ sun-lounger to choosing the perfect cocktail each evening as I watched the sun dip below the horizon.

You might say that I was lucky, that I chose the ‘right’ hotel or that it was the ‘right’ time of year. But as a customer, I don’t care about being lucky or clever – I care about being heard, getting what I want when I want it. Back then it was an oasis of calm for a whole seven days.

And without a doubt, it was all of the little things that really made the difference.

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Practically every coaching client that I deal with who is having a hard time either because they are feeling overwork or overwhelmed are struggling with the same problem.

They are spending too much time managing and not enough time leading. Management is about the day to day grind, dealing with issues, reacting to situations.

It’s a tough job, one that can grind you down leaving you feeling burnt out, frustrated and de-motivated, and it doesn’t feel much better for our teams either.

Management is stressful.

Leadership is forward thinking, it’s about being proactive, rather than reactive. It’s about ensuring that our teams are set up to be successful, simplifying things, making sure that the road ahead is clear. Leadership focuses on tomorrow so that today will run more smoothly.

One of my favorite tools for coaching leaders is MCCL Model, which looks at how much time leaders spend in four different areas.

Managing, Coaching, Clienting and Leading

When new clients take this assessment, practically every one of them is spending at least 70-80 percent of their time managing,

The average split of time is usually:

Managing – 80 percent

Coaching – 5 percent

Clienting – 5 percent

Leading – 10 percent

When this happens, you and your teams end up in a situation which Bill Gates describes as being over-managed and under-led.

To get out of this situation leaders need to take a moment, stand back, and look to free up some time to start leading. The more time you can spend leading the less time you will need to devote to managing.

Now I understand this is not easy to do. It’s like trying to worry about fire prevention at the same time as you need to stop your house from burning down.

It doesn’t feel like a top priority.

But if you never get into fire prevention you will be forever putting fires out.

I believe that the best ratio for a leader is

Managing – 30 percent

Coaching – 15 percent

Clienting – 15 percent

Leading – 40 percent

When you can put yourself into the position, you will have a much more productive and less stressed environment.

To this, you first need to start by doing an honest assessment of where you spend your time now. If you’re feeling stressed and overworked, then for sure you are spending too much time in management.

You need to look to see what you can do to reduce this and free up some of your time to start leading more. That might require you to delegate some of the work to your staff, or take on an extra resource for a short period, or work some additional hours to start to lead more.

The latter option is not one that sounds appealing, but you need to do something to find the time to lead.

The more you lead, the less time you will have to manage.

Review your meetings, see which ones you could cancel, look at all your tasks, and re-prioritize. Try to find some time to lead, as this will really help you get the situation under control and allow you to start to turn it around.

It isn’t easy I know, I have been there too. Management creeps up on you, and you can find yourself working crazy hours, but if you can do it you will appreciate the benefits and so will your teams.

So if you’re feeling overwhelmed, overworked or stressed, take the MCCL assessment, it’s easy to do. Then look to put in place the steps needed to increase the time you spend leading, which will reduce the required management effort.

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NextTen Managing Partners Nick Bush and Kym Hamer spent a day at the Qualtrics X4 Experience Summit in London last week. Here they spend 5 minutes discussing what impressed them about their X4 experience and why NextTen has forged a partnership with Qualtrics.

(And thanks to Derrick Feerick from Qualtrics for handling our impromptu request for interview with such eloquence and enthusiasm.)

NextTen live from the X4 Experience Summit (5mins) - YouTube
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