In the summer of 1998 one of my all-time favorite sales gurus, Jeffrey Gitomer, published a book that would become my chief “most gifted” book – Customer Satisfaction Is Worthless, Customer Loyalty Is Priceless: How to Make Customers Love You, Keep Them Coming Back and Tell Everyone They Know. I’ve given that book to employees, friends, business owners, CEOs and even people with no real business element in their life. It’s a book about and for fanatics – or those who need to become fanatical about service. I had encountered Gitomer sometime earlier – I don’t remember where – and I was already a fan by the time the Business Journals around the country picked up his column on selling.
Hard to believe a southern boy fell for a guy from Philly, but I did. Gitomer was blunt, candid and delivered his message with a passion I felt was long-overdue. From my earliest days I saw the benefit and long-term value of not being transactional. Customer happiness was always my focus, even as a teenager selling stereo gear. Why would any sales guy or business owner be okay with customers who just felt “okay” about their purchase or their service? Made no sense to me.
What did make sense was Gitomer evangelical passion and candor. Twenty years ago – as now – businesses continued to market how much they cared about their customers. Few walked the walk. That’s still true. It’s common to see salespeople and business people grab the money. And run.
Earlier in the 90’s – years before Gitomer’s book – a couple of authors wrote another book I had fallen in love with – The Customer Comes Second: Put Your People First and Watch ’em Kick Butt by Hal Rosenbluth and Diane McFerrin Peters. At the time it was quite a remarkable message. Love your employees before you love your customers because the employees are the ones serving the customer. Again, I had intuitively believed that and been mostly attracted to companies who behaved that way. It helped that Mr. Rosenbluth ran a high growth company that wound up topping revenues of $6B (that’s BILLION) before selling to American Express. How could a guy like that get it wrong? Well, he didn’t get it wrong. Others do.
This clearly was a time of enlightenment for me as a business guy because somewhere during this time I became aware of a man who appeared to be the epitome of a nice guy, Jim Goodnight. He ran a little enterprise in North Carolina called SAS. Talk about fanaticism. Goodnight was fanatical about making SAS the best place on the planet for employees. The Internet had yet to be born. Silicon Valley startups wouldn’t happen for many years. Goodnight put employees on a pedestal and provided services for them that made other business owners cringe. Even then employers were searching diligently for ways to reduce overhead in the way of employee benefits. Instead, Goodnight was searching for ways to provide more benefits that would enhance the lives of his employees. He fascinated me. And made me want to be more like him albeit on a much smaller scale. Goodnight’s SAS blew past the $3B (that’s BILLION) mark last year.
Why do business owners and CEOs still not get it?
I’ve only reached one conclusion. It’s because most are too short-sighted. Yes, some just don’t see people as valuable as they should. They figured humans are like generic parts, interchangeable. One is as good as another. If you lose one, no big deal. Let’s just plug another in place. But even those who believe people are valuable has set limits on that value. I mean, after all, the benefits packages have to be reduced by 25% this year no matter what. It’s easy to say people matter, but it’s very different to make the investment to prove it.
Even privately held companies are under constant pressure to exceed last month’s numbers. Group think kicks in because we’re all reading Fortune, Forbes, Fast Company and Inc. Innovation. Creativity. Blah, blah, blah. We read about it, give it a few seconds of thought then we go back to the reality that it has little to do with our life and our business. We’ve got to get sales up. And costs down. It’s the ying and yang of business building that mostly lures all of us. Along the way, we can easily forget the impact on our people — and our customers. We grab today’s dollars because we’re unable to see the five dollar bills we might be able to garner next month. A bird in the hand and all that.
It’s understandable. Well, sorta.
I’ve sat with too many CEOs who lamented about an employee’s performance – a key employee – who performed well until a bit more pressure was applied (intentional or not), proving they couldn’t quite hold up. We’re no different. Apply enough pressure on us to grow that top line, or the bottom line…and we’ll be likely to grab the dollar in front of us. I don’t make harsh judgments about leaders who grow short-sighted, even if I don’t always agree with that strategy.
It was in the early 80’s when I first wrote down and began preaching what I called “non-negotiable standards.” I was involved in turning around a company that was just a few years old, but quickly the inventory had grown obsolete, the people disenchanted and the systems non-existent. Two things ruled all my early actions: cleaning up the company (physically) and establishing non-negotiable standards. I wasted no time telling people what that meant – “non-negotiable standards.” It means things you must do or refrain from doing else you’ll put your job at risk. Now before you think, “Man, how heavy handed” — tap the brakes.
It was fair. Candid, but fair. I wanted employees to own their behavior and performance. That hadn’t been happening. People were lackluster, lethargic and apathetic. Many of them didn’t last. I don’t doubt their goodness as people, but the culture had betrayed them. They had grown accustomed to the pathetic environment. Good performance happens at the hands of good performers. Good performers need fostering, training, encouragement and rewards. In short, they need standards to meet.
Quickly I learned that the good performers who survived had long been frustrated by the unfairness of busting their humps while the slackards sat around without accountability. They embraced the changes and soared. I’ve since seen it happened many times.
Talk is cheap.
I’ve not yet met the CEO or business owner who openly admits, “I don’t much care about my people. They’re all replaceable.” Instead, most of us – okay, all of us – give it lip service. Yes, some of us back up that talk, but many of us don’t. Some of us wish we could or would back it up. Others of us don’t much care, we just want to be polite and politically correct. A few of us are bullies who honestly don’t care about people. They’re a necessary evil and they vex our existence as leaders. Those are the folks I call “managers.” They’re not leaders. Honestly, they may not be very good managers (that is, people who oversee systems, processes and operations).
We lead people. We manage the work.
That’s my view. You may not share it. It’s okay. You can be wrong. 😉
I could write volumes of books on the horror stories I’ve heard about bosses who behave badly and who treat people even worse. You could likely be a contributing author. We’ve all got tons of these stories. But the behavior still persists.
I cringe every week because every week I hear multiple stories of bad boss behavior. Yelling, screaming, threatening – they’re just too commonplace in some workplaces. Grown people treated like pre-school children. Workers being humiliated. Supervisors and bosses feeling good about themselves by making sure the staff knows who is in charge. Like medieval fire breathing dragons, they roam the office just waiting for a white knight armed to the teeth to cut their head off. Unfortunately for many employees, no such knight ever arrives. Eventually, human indignities realize their limits, and people quit.
No big loss. Hire somebody else.
How much does it cost to hire or replace an employee in your company?
Most don’t know. They’ve never taken the time to compute the lost time, lost productivity, lost revenue or any other losses associated with a good employee walking (or sprinting) away. Sometimes it’s because the profits and revenues are high enough, it doesn’t much matter. That’s really shallow thinking. A business earning strong double digit net profits doesn’t seem bothered because they’re fat and happy. Unproductive perhaps, but fat and happy none the less. If an owner is banking $1M…it can be a daunting task to show him how a shift in his culture might result in a $1.25M income.
I live in the Land Of What’s Possible. What if?
What if we really embraced finding, training and retaining top talent? What if we pushed our chips into the middle of the table to build in some consistency and longevity among our employees? What if we actually put our employees first – above our customers? How would all that impact the customer experience?
Unfortunately many businesses will never find out. They’ll churn through people never figuring it out. They won’t calculate the cost – human cost or business cost.
Some will go out of business. The odds of failure in business are still staggering.
Others will survive in spite of themselves. They’ll never realize their full potential, but they don’t care. Enough. If they did, they’d find another way.
Books and articles about leadership may help shift a collective culture, but then again there’s Steve Jobs. Tyrants get worshipped. Some buy into the notion that you must be an insufferable maniac to succeed. Rather than try to persuade people otherwise, long ago I just decided to urge people working for such people – or people working in dysfunctional organizations – to find new opportunities. Get gone. Sooner than later. Protect yourself. Guard your heart and your own passion for doing good work. Life is way too short to work for a tyrant.
I wish I could impact the bigger picture, but I’m not naive about my own reach. Instead, I think it best to soar with my strengths as Donald O. Clifton wrote (the father of StrengthsFinder). I’m committed to serving leaders who already know the truth of profit generation and business building. People make THE difference. It’s not lip service. It’s not some better-felt-than-told philosophy. It’s a working culture that daily is willing to be tested to prove itself. Owners and CEOs who refuse to give an inch to behave otherwise. They remain committed to doing the right thing all the time, no matter what.
That kind of leadership resolve is rare, but it exists. Just today I had a nice conversation with a CEO who shared his story with me proving that his talk was anything but cheap. Big customer, little customer. They’re all the same to him – deserving of a great experience. He’s in the real estate game. He’s got a good sized team. Back last summer he recounted how he had to part company with an employee who simply didn’t understand that the CEOs “non-negotiable standards” are indeed NON-NEGOTIABLE. Grabbing the money – even for the firm – violated the principles and culture established by this high integrity CEO. He put his money where his mouth was. He acted, not based on financial gain, but on doing what was right. Why? Because he understands how big he’s going to win over the longer haul.
If business guys who achieved $3B and $6B respectively don’t convince you to value people, then I’m certainly not successful enough (financially) to persuade you.
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