It was a warm evening on the terrace of the La National Hotel in Havana, Cuba. After several days of long meetings, my client opens up after having his “Ah-Ha!” moment. It’s funny how a cigar and cocktail can cause an executive to express themselves; but then again, a country which has been closed off for over 50 years can have an effect on a person.
Our client is in the hospitality industry. After a few puffs on a Cohiba the CEO said to me, “our people no longer focus on relationships with our customers. They seem to be focused on themselves, rather than connecting with others.” I asked him, “what makes you think that.” He went on to say how this trip was eye opening because no one could connect to the internet or use their cell phones. No texting, email, GPS for directions, or booking a reservation, etc. He observed his VP of Sales, CMO, and Director of Operations complain about not being able to function to the point of getting angry. He said, “I’m afraid we have let technology become the doer rather than the enabler, and it’s impacting performance and causing our people to lose their interpersonal skills.”
When we returned to the United States, we initiated an assessment to test the CEO’s observations. After looking at a variety of factors such as customer satisfaction and employee reviews, we found some startling trends; including, increasing employee turnover and highly variable customer satisfaction scores with a declining trend. Digging deeper, we saw multiple uncompleted projects, less face to face contact and no collaboration. Internal upward feedback surveys showed employees felt no connection to the customer or their peers. Although, they applauded the technology that was made available to them to do their job.
The CEO was right. We’ve become a generation of “me” and “now” of impatient controlling consumers. More importantly, the company and its people were losing their human connection. This is not an isolated example but
common trending behaviors in society. People are more likely to cancel a meeting at the last minute, not manage their time because they can text they will be late, or not travel to a meeting because they can schedule a conference call.
We are losing the skills to communicate and socialize. In a world of instant gratification, we get a cab and know where it is located, reserve a table at a restaurant, or even go on a date. This impact is not only happening virtually but physically through same day delivery of on-line purchases and diverse types of vending.
Being a progressive company, our client wanted to know what could be done. He realized he cannot alter the trends of technology and society. However, he wanted to know how he could improve performance in order to create a better experience for the customer and the employee. Having recently went through ACL surgery, technology has been integrated in our lives just as a brace is used to help us walk. When the brace is removed our muscles are atrophied and need to be retrained and conditioned to maintain their strength. Mere training is just the first step to improvement. Making a complete transformation in a company requires a cultural shift.
Our client began deploying a complete set of initiatives and practices which ultimately are transforming the culture and having a profound impact on the business. Some of these include:
In-Person Meetings – Conference calls are almost like emails. We are shielded from the recipient of our communication. We cannot see their expression and we cannot connect with them. All on-site departmental meetings were to be conducted in-person. Quarterly management meetings of regional leadership were to be conducted on-site. Corporate executives and regional management were required to visit their properties and spend a specified amount of time at the property. In addition, while visiting a location the executive/director would actually perform the activities of a position/role at that site for a minimum of a day. This strengthens the relationship between managers and the field.
Note Writing – Between email and texting, we have lost our personal touch. Employees and managers are all provided note cards to write hand written thank you notes to customers and employees where appropriate.
Storytelling – Technology often isolates people. We catch up and learn what’s going on by watching television and checking Facebook posts. Storytelling has been incorporated in the company as a learning tool at lunches and meetings, such as town halls, etc. In storytelling, an employee shares either an experience they had with a customer, something they have learned, a vacation they recently came back from, or a new hobby or skill, etc. This allows the employees to truly connect with their coworkers, and the storyteller gets to practice their communication skills.
Play Time – Technology has made us more productive; however, we often find we don’t have enough time in the day. The concept of play time provides employees the opportunity to perform an activity together. This is accomplished with a sport, learning event, or some form of challenge. It creates an environment to further in-person socialization.
Leading by Example – All of the above examples are great initiatives which can be used to help transform a culture. However, none of these are effective if the leadership doesn’t lead by example and put them in practice themselves. Our client embraced this concept and began randomly showing up on company sites, hand writing notes, and working in customer facing positions.
The overall program has been transforming the culture of the company in just a few short months and the employees are enjoying the change. The company is now modifying their performance reviews to include measuring interpersonal skills and relationship building. Although it is early in the company’s efforts, they are already seeing the following results:
- Increased closure rates on sales contracts/proposals
- Improved repeat customer counts
- Increased average sales dollars per transaction
- Positive employee feedback
Cuba opened the eyes of this executive. Not because of the opportunity of the market, but the absence of technology showed him his weaknesses and that people matter.