Thursday, October 29, 2015

Actually, The Customer Isn’t Always Right

“The customer is always right” is a kernel of received wisdom that has stood the test of time—and will likely remain with us for many years to come. Of course, customer service is essential to the success and viability of any service-oriented enterprise, and no manager who fails to prioritize this dimension of day-to-day business can expect to keep h/er job for long.

Nonetheless, the world is full of imperfect people. Everyone makes mistakes. Some individuals are prone to losing their tempers for no good reason, have irritating habits, or place unrealistic demands on others. The odds are good that, sooner or later, you will do business with a customer who answers to one or more of these descriptions.

In other words, the tired old maxim that presupposes the correctness of the customer isn’t true. On the contrary, customers are frequently wrong.

The expertise gap.

You or your staff likely know more about the products you offer and their best uses than many of your customers do. You may occasionally have superior knowledge about what is in a customer’s best interest. If this is the case, try to be forthright.

Many customers are understandably suspicious of the motives and intentions of salespeople—Is he on commission? Will she try to peddle something I neither want nor need?

By encouraging honesty and integrity throughout your enterprise, you will garner a reputation that reflects those values, and in turn, earn the trust of current and prospective customers. You want them to feel comfortable and confident that you plan to help them, rather than exploit information asymmetries to your own advantage. Obviously, a customer who expects a good-faith transaction will be more receptive to your insights than an apprehensive one who fears a hustle.

Give your employees the benefit of the doubt.

No one is entitled to spew abusive language or direct any other form of harassment toward your staff. If a dispute arises between an employee and a customer, you should give the customer’s concerns a fair hearing, but offer your employee the benefit of the doubt.

By giving your employees the support they need to do their jobs well, you’re likely to end up with more satisfied customers too. Workers who believe that their employer will have their back in a dispute will tend to find their work more gratifying, enjoy higher morale, and offer customers an exemplary standard of service.

Of course, this doesn’t imply that you should embrace the equally extreme position “The employee is always right”. But competent, hard-working staff certainly deserve your support in the face of unreasonable customers.

Don’t reward bad behaviour.

If you dedicate yourself to the maxim “The customer is always right”, you’ll naturally be inclined to tolerate a cantankerous customer’s misbehaviour—and by tolerating it, you’ll only encourage more of the same. Don’t give in to the person who yells the loudest or raises the biggest stink; at the end of the day, this policy will do more harm to your business than good. Do you really want your other customers to perceive that the most annoying shoppers are also the ones most likely to get what they want?

Occasionally, you may have to ask a combative individual to leave the premises, so that you can concentrate on helping those who treat you with civility and respect. Bad customers are also bad for business: they distract your employees from more important tasks, and can create an unpleasant experience for everyone.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Business Travel Tips

Travel is a fact of life for many business owners and professionals, and brings its own distinctive set of pleasures and challenges. Even after all the technical aspects of your itinerary are in place (plane ticket, hotel booking, rental car, appropriate clothing, etc.), you still need to collect your luggage, settle into your room, firm up your work and meeting schedule, find time for nutritious meals, and (if applicable) acclimate to a different culture and time zone.

If possible, arrive a day or two early.
By showing up early, you’ll have an opportunity to do some advanced scouting and familiarize yourself with your surroundings. You can check out restaurants and public venues in the neighbourhood, pick up a map and city guide, get some exercise to restore your muscle strength, flexibility, and blood flow after a long flight, and learn your way around. You’ll also have more margin to wean yourself off jet-lag, and come to terms with any culture-shock you may experience.

Overcome jet-lag by making adjustments to your routine right away.

Ideally, your early arrival will help you adjust to the local time zone. Shift your meal times on day one, and mitigate the disturbance to your system by eating foods that are similar to whatever you would consume at home. Resist the urge to either get up or fall asleep at odd hours of the day, and aim for the bedtime and waking time to which you’re accustomed. By sticking with your usual habits, you’ll enable your body to modify its circadian rhythms more readily.

If you’ve had jet-lag issues in the past, try taking small doses of melatonin—a hormone that helps to regulate your sleep-wake cycle—about half an hour before bed time. (Melatonin is available in many pharmacies and health food stores.)

Stay hydrated, eat well, and don’t over-caffeinate.

When you feel sluggish because of jet-lag or a long day of travel, you’ll inevitably feel tempted to indulge in copious quantities of coffee, tea, or energy drinks, hoping to artificially perk yourself up. However, you should aim to keep your caffeine consumption to a moderate level, since the caffeine-overload “solution” to listlessness introduces a new set of problems—including dehydration, the need to visit the bathroom frequently, and a tendency for you to crash once the caffeine high wears off.

Instead of saturating your system with caffeine, keep yourself hydrated, start the day with a breakfast that includes protein and complex carbohydrates, and take a power nap if necessary. A multivitamin supplement can also give you a boost by helping your body metabolize energy more efficiently, and defend against travel bugs.

Keep everything in its place.

Travel is inherently stressful, and becomes even more so if you find yourself hunting around at an inopportune moment for something you’ve misplaced. You can avoid this with a bit of discipline. When you feel tired at the end of a long day, resist the urge to just toss things wherever; dedicate each of the items you need to a particular spot, and maintain that arrangement for the full duration of your trip.

Plan your schedule in advance.

Set two to three primary goals for your journey in advance, and keep those objectives in mind throughout.

If you’re unfamiliar with the destination community, do some research to ascertain how long it will take you to transit from one location to another, whether on foot, by taxi, or using public transportation.

Devote a specific amount of time to work-related duties, and try to stick with the program. Although a measure of flexibility is necessary, you’ll also need to be wary of the distractions you’re certain to encounter on your first visit to a new place. If you can, reserve some spare time for sightseeing and exploration.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Fostering Team Creativity

Many extraordinary innovations are the product not of individual strokes of genius, but rather cooperation among highly skilled individuals working toward a common goal. As technology grows more advanced and intricate, and groundbreaking innovation requires an increasingly sophisticated skill set, the power of co-creation is only becoming more essential. Exemplary creative teams often benefit from a diversity of skills, passions, and expertise, and a work environment that allows each member of the collective to shine.

A leadership style conducive to innovation.

As management scholar and Harvard business professor Linda Hill explained in a 2014 TED talk, a top-down style of leadership is seldom consistent with the freedom of thought and expression that enables creative minds to flourish. But a total absence of structure isn’t helpful either.

Hill offers several examples of firms with work environments conducive to collective innovation, including computer animation studio Pixar, and search engine giant Google. Hill and her research partners have concluded that managers at these firms embrace an unconventional style of leadership—one which conceives of the boss as a connector and social architect, rather than a commander-in-chief. Or as Hill says, “Our role as leaders is to set the stage, not to perform on it.”

Development teams at Pixar typically include around 250 members, who spend between four and five years composing a single film. Once the team has established its overall objective (to produce an animated movie with a particular storyline, characters, and themes), the process and details are somewhat flexible. Importantly, effective managers of creative projects do not presume that their own vision is superior in all respects to the potentially conflicting ideas and expertise of the other team members. In any project of this magnitude, unanticipated challenges are also likely to arise, which may require improvised solutions.

The physical design and layout of the workplace is a crucial factor as well. The members of a creative team must have enough isolated space to pursue their own trains of thought, but enough common space to allow discussion and engagement. Instead of consensus and conformity, a manager who aims to promote creativity shouldn’t be afraid to allow constructive debate, and even constructive conflict. The leader’s role in these situations is to moderate the discussion, rather than attempt to influence the entire team toward a single point of view.

Creative abrasion, agility, and resolution.

Hill believes many organizations that display high levels of team creativity have mastered three over-arching abilities.

  Creative abrasion is the frequent meeting of minds in the workspace, which may sometimes culminate in confrontation. The role of a manager at this stage is to amplify voices that might not otherwise receive a fair hearing, and engender a respectful marketplace of ideas.

  Creative agility is the testing of ideas and concepts on a small scale in order to ascertain possible solutions to problems. The immediate goal of this is twofold—to examine the viability of those ideas in practice, and refine them by identifying practical shortcomings. This is an experimental, trial-and-error process, and team members should understand it as such.

  Creative resolution is the decision-making process by which the members of a creative team collectively determine a path forward. This may require integration of conflictual or divergent ideas. However, Hill believes managers should discourage team members from “going along to get along”, accepting compromises they find unsatisfactory.

In sum, successful leaders of creative teams don’t necessarily “lead” in the conventional sense; instead, they aim to provide fertile soil for the emergence of ingenuity.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Overcoming the Under-achievement Bugaboo

Successful people in any field tend to hold themselves to a lofty standard. As a result, they often experience disappointment or feel frustrated when their designs don’t immediately come to fruition. If this happens repeatedly, it can accumulate into an overall feeling of falling short of one’s potential. Highly intelligent, creative, and visionary individuals in particular are susceptible to this syndrome, particularly in a world filled with distractions.

Unfortunately, disappointments and diversions are facts of life; what sets high-achievers apart from under-achievers is the ability to achieve concrete, specific goals consistently, in spite of these obstacles.

The following list draws on the ideas of Dr. Ned Hallowell, a psychiatrist who specializes in attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Set two or three specific goals for each day.

Very few of history’s great achievements materialized overnight. Many famous works of architecture, like castles and cathedrals in Europe, required decades to build. Professional athletes, musicians, and artists rehearse and train rigorously for years in order to attain a sublime level of performance and make it look easy.

Even if the goals you set for yourself are ambitious, demanding, or significant in scale, focus on the process, and divide major undertakings into small pieces. This approach also offers a proverbial rope to help you climb out of a productivity rut: rather than concentrate on a huge task, direct your attention to a single component of the larger task. If you’re overwhelmed by the thought of writing a book, try writing a few sentences instead. You’ll have made progress already.

Establish medium-term, long-term, and lifetime goals too.

Beyond your daily goals, you should likewise establish two or three medium-term goals (for periods of two to three weeks), an equal number of long-term goals (six months to one year), and lifetime goals.

The key is to avoid taking on several big projects at once—which tends to result in partially completed works, but no tangible final product at the end of the time period in question.

Stay disciplined around e-mail, social media, and other online time-consumers.

If you’re a curious, active thinker who craves knowledge of the world, the internet is equal parts blessing and curse—the former, because an immense quantum of information and insight is available at your fingertips; the latter, for the same reason.

E-mail and social media are arguably the worst offenders, because as we see updates from our friends, new messages in our inbox, and replies to our tweets, we feel the urge to read and respond to those communications. For the sake of productivity, however, it’s important to resist the temptation to reply to online messages as they arrive.

Barring exceptional circumstances, try to reserve a time slot of about an hour each day in which you respond to e-mails, reply to Facebook messages, read news headlines, scan through your Twitter timeline, or whatever. For the remainder of the work day, steer clear of these potential time-leeches.

Devote yourself to projects that are consistent with your priorities.

If you’re a naturally enthusiastic and generous person, you may have a tendency to stretch yourself too thin. Realistically, life is full of worthwhile opportunities and undertakings for which we either don’t have time, or toward which we simply cannot devote enough effort to instill pride and satisfaction.

In that light, it’s important for you to prioritize endeavours that are consistent with your ambitions and passions. This will require you to politely decline some proposals. In other words, sometimes you need to say “No” in order to say “Yes”.

Be honest with yourself, and with the person who is making a request of your time and commitment. Rather than agreeing to do something right away, offer to think about it and get back to h/er. If for whatever reason you don’t feel up to the task, decline the offer by saying “This looks like a great idea/worthy project, but I just don’t think I’ll have the time to do it justice.”

By steering away from over-commitment, you’ll avoid disappointment, and free up time for the things that are most important to you, both personally and professionally.

For more information, check out Dr. Hallowell’s website, and this 2014 interview by life coach Marie Forleo.