Are you generating good customer experiences?

In a recent article about that wonderful book Influencers, I mentioned an example of influencing that reminded me of my hospital experience earlier this year.

A large medical centre’s service quality scores had been steadily decreasing, I wrote, as patients and their families felt they weren’t being treated with care, dignity or respect. So a team was formed to locate those among them who scored highly, to see how they behaved in ways that resonated with their customers.

The good behaviours the team found among the high scorers were: smiling; making eye contact; identifying yourself; letting people know what you are doing and why; and ending every interaction by asking “Is there anything else that you need?”

A strategy to influence the behaviour of the other staff was initiated, resulting in the centre’s scores rising significantly.

Splendid. And yet I now have an update on this, emerging from a conversation I had with the CEO of Gertrude’s Children’s Hospital, Robert Nyarango, who introduced me to the book If Disney Ran Your Hospital: 9½ Things You Would Do Differently, by Fred Lee, a former hospital executive.

On Googling the book, I came across a link to a TED talk on the subject by Mr Lee, one of the most engaging speakers I’ve encountered in a long time.

In the talk, he refers to the exact list of five positive behaviours displayed by the best carers as quoted in the book I’d read… insisting this is far from sufficient to generate the kind of “customer experience” that is possible – and that is offered by organisations like Disney at their Disneyworld sites. (No wonder they call those who visit them “guests” rather than “customers”.)

So what should carers do more than smile, make eye contact and so forth? Mr Lee takes the deliberately mild example of a nurse taking blood for testing, where the patient still may feel unduly anxious about the prospective pain and the complications that may arise.

Where there’s anxiety, he explains, the blood pressure rises and so the pain threshold falls.

We hear from Mr Lee about a study that related the lower pain levels felt by patients whose blood was taken by nurses who received only compliments from patients: the positive consequences of feeling psychologically comfortable with the person inserting the needle.

To distract from patients’ anxiety, carers make small talk, like asking if they live nearby, or getting them to talk about their family. Then, they mention how expert and experienced they are, displaying a reassuring combination of competence and confidence – this with a light touch.

Mr Lee quotes that famous line from W. Edwards Deming, about only managing what you measure, but he adds the far lesser-known additional thought from Deming that being satisfied cannot be measured or scripted, as it only comes from the heart – like wanting to deal with the person again.

The approach to patients by the former hospital executive was transformed by reading the 1999 bestseller The Experience Economy by Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, who described this new way of thinking about connecting with customers and securing their loyalty through offering positive experiences beyond good service.

As I have been doing from time to time since my release from hospital earlier this year, I will again relate to my own customer experience while a patient. The gentleman taking my blood each day was a very jovial fellow, and of course, I wouldn’t have minded were it not that his visits were at 5 am.

He would enter my room with a loud greeting and switch on the light, shocking me into premature wakefulness. I would dread that daily pre-dawn knock on my door by the man I came to call my Dracula, and his high-energy entrances made me feel so uncomfortable that after a few days I requested him to tone down his whole performance, which happily he did.

Here I have been describing how to generate the best possible customer experiences in stressful hospital environments. But as you have been reading I hope you have extrapolated to your own situations.

You have your customer experiences, both positive and negative. But how do the customers of your organisation experience their interactions with your staff?

Do your people know how to put your customers at ease and make them feel good about having interacted with them? Can they hardly wait to deal with them again?

Women rising in the workplace

On women in the Kenyan workplace, I am confident that the glass is not only far from empty but that it continues to fill at a reasonably rapid pace. With the exception of the contact sport of politics, there is increasing gender balance at all levels, including in senior management and on boards.

Sure, there’s plenty of scope for further improvement, but I never like seeing the gloomy picture portrayed by over-focusing on the dearth of women in elective offices.

We have so many well-educated, articulate women here, both technically competent and emotionally intelligent, that employers are able to up their gender balance without any thought of affirmative action: for anyone to claim they “can’t find suitable women candidates” is simply unjustified.

In so many places I see women in leadership positions – including filling the roles of both chair and CEO. The 2021 survey conducted by the Kenya Institute of Management, together with Kenya Private Sector Alliance (Kepsa) and the Nairobi Securities Exchange (NSE) on board diversity and inclusion showed that gender diversity in the boardroom now stands at 36 percent, from 21 percent in 2017.

By comparison, the global average of women holding board positions stands at 23.3 percent, up from 20.4 percent in 2018. Then, women here constitute 21 percent of board chairperson appointments, whereas the global average is three percent. And female representation in C-suite roles in Kenya constitutes 37 percent compared to 21 percent globally.

Even in organisations dominated by technical staff, the proportion of women is on the rise. A good example is Davis & Shirtliff, where I am a director. When I first joined the board nearly two decades ago there were very few women among its ranks – not surprising, as the vast majority of employees are engineers and until not long ago this discipline did not attract women.

Over time, however, not only has the number of women among the annual graduate intake significantly increased, but those who preceded them have been rising steadily up the organisation.

Also, in running my workshops on change management and culture strengthening, I have observed that it is disproportionately the women who not only contribute more but also more impressively.

Contrary to many studies that show women are less vocal, my experience is the opposite. Their competence is matched by a well-earned self-confidence, which leads them to articulate in ways that show they are headed for higher leadership.

In disciplines like HR and company secretarial, women have for long been prominent, and as these functions have moved more centre-stage those within them have been increasing their circles of influence.

When in 2019 Evelyn Mungai published her book on women’s empowerment, From Glass Ceilings to Open Skies (full disclosure: she is my wife, and I was the book’s editor) it gave women encouragement that the glass ceiling is disappearing, at least for educated urban women.

And to retain the mindset that it is still blocking their progress may be more a self-defeating choice than a rational judgment.

The onset of Covid, resulting in the spread of home-working, part-time working and flexible hours, has brought new opportunities for women in the workplace.

More organisations are now providing lactation locations and onsite nurseries, plus also back-to-work programmes for women re-entering the workforce. Those that do will attract and retain the best female talent, having them be productive and happy.

The rise of so many strong, competent women in this country is indeed encouraging. But it leaves us with concern for an increasing number of their male counterparts. In some workplaces, leaders are already worrying about the men being left behind. The aspiration is not for women to be included at the expense of men.

Rather, each person, irrespective of gender, should be nurtured to develop both their technical and non-technical skills so they may fulfil their own potential while maximising their contribution to the broader group objectives.

That is when we will no longer need to be talking about the struggle to include women in the workplace.

It will be as much history as giving women the right to vote or to have a bank account.

How to offer and receive feedback at workplace

In a recent coaching session, my client and I were discussing his initiative to improve the ways in which feedback was being given and received in his work environment.

As we shared how each of us approached doing so ourselves and how we encouraged others to offer and absorb suggestions, we emerged with a list of do’s and don’ts that he and I felt would be helpful to share with you here.

What makes us more or less receptive to feedback? It’s a mixture of, on the one hand, how it is offered and by whom, and on the other hand our openness to changing how we feel, how we think and how we behave. Are we into learning and growing by experimenting with new approaches?

Or are we so convinced of the rightness of our existing ways that there’s no need for listening to what others think? Maybe we feel so insecure about venturing beyond our comfort zones that we need to hold on to where we are, however good the idea that’s being offered?

However receptive we are to feedback, much of our reaction has to do with how it is offered. Too many do so in ways that make us feel we’ve been under-performing and that we are inadequate.

It comes across as criticism rather than as a way of improving a situation, thus making it harder for us to be anything other than defensive.

Such people also tend to focus exclusively on feedback regarding what isn’t going well, while taking the positive for granted – like the exception reporting in appraisal interviews or school reports. (Your child might have done well in all subjects except one, but that’s the only one that receives a comment – “Must do better in mathematics.”)

At the other end of the spectrum, we also have those who restrict themselves to only offering positive feedback, perhaps worried that suggestions for improvement may give offence and only lead to pushback. Having said that, it’s usually good to start with acknowledging successes, along with celebrating the supportive strengths that enabled them.

This puts the recipient in a more relaxed and confident state of mind, and with heightened self-esteem, they can then more easily handle tougher inputs coming their way.

During our conversation, we talked about the benefits of role-playing and rehearsing feedback-offering sessions to develop more effective techniques that can lead to the desired impact. Much has to do with emotional intelligence, with choosing the right words and tone, including appropriate body language and maybe a light touch here and there.

This is how high-trust relationships are built, ones that allow for what would otherwise be difficult conversations, where the one offering feedback has a reputation for doing so only to see the recipient be at their best. Then, however inconvenient the input, it will be evaluated more constructively.

Soon after that coaching session, a friend of mine was complaining to me that her suggestions as a board member to management were rarely greeted positively. Why were they resistant to what she felt were helpful ideas?

What could she do differently, as the default blocked mindset she perceived has led to her being more reluctant to make her suggestions? As we talked we felt it would be good for her to go beyond offering suggestions informal meetings but to float them one-on-one in less formal settings, like over lunch with the CEO.

In such a setting, even before getting into the specifics, it would help to explore why her suggestions were rarely pursued. So I encouraged her to exchange offers and requests with the CEO and his colleagues in order to bridge the gap between them. “If you would do more/less of this, it would be easier for us to react positively,” the CEO might propose.

And my friend could offer to continue sharing her suggestions provided she felt more motivated to do so by not feeling she was speaking to an intrinsically unreceptive audience.

The ability to offer feedback in ways that make a difference is a valuable skill, whether with subordinates or peers, never mind with superiors, and perhaps most importantly of all within families. And being open to feedback from others is also something to cultivate, within organisations and from other stakeholders. Oh yes, and from coaches too.