Monthly Archives: June 2013

It’s always the leader

My husband and I chose our last cell phones poorly and have been having problems with them for the past two years. We’ve called the help  line, visited the store, and generally talked to a lot of people without resolution. Recently he received a customer survey from our provider and let them have it! A few days later, he got a phone call from a very helpful customer service person who actually listened to the problem and offered to switch our faulty phones for a better version. We’ll see what happens, but at least it feels like we’re moving forward.

Did we say, “wow, after two years it’s great to finally reach a customer service person who can listen?”  No. What we said was, “they must finally have changed their policy regarding that phone.”  We recognized that the problem went higher than the individuals we were dealing with.

Ken Blanchard is a well regarded author on leadership and management. He tells a similar story about his experiences while renewing his driving license. What had been a frustrating experience was changed to a timely and efficient process. Check out this animated video of the story.

Blanchard makes the point that changes in customer service, whether for better or worse, are always the result of leadership. The positive changes he experienced at his local department of motor vehicles were enacted with exactly the same staff. It was the leader who was driving the difference.

As we conclude our exploration of the leadership competency of builds a customer service orientation, what thoughts do you have about Blanchard’s story? Do you believe that an organizational focus on customer service always starts with the leader?  If so, what type of service does your leadership generate?

Dee Anne Bonebright


It only takes one person

Last week I traveled to a campus I had not been to before. As I walked in the front entrance I was feeling a little nervous about finding my classroom and about how the day was going to go. I had a lot on my mind. Minnesota has been getting a lot of rain and big wind storms and we had lost our power so my sump pump wasn’t working. Will my basement get flooded? How long will the food in my freezer last? Will my daughter get herself to driver’s ed on time?

In reality, this is what our students have going on every day when they show up to our campuses or log on to a course or contact our business offices. They have full and complicated lives and we are just one part of it. An important part, but only a part!

Before our students can even get to the education we provide they must navigate our systems, our assignments, our forms, our office hours, our teaching styles, our registration process, and even our hallways. When I walked into that main entrance last week, distracted, a little stressed and looking a little lost, a friendly voice greeted me and asked “how can I help you?” I immediately felt my stress dropping. I knew someone was going to help me navigate their school. Surprisingly, the person who offered to help was not the front desk receptionist but a staff member who noticed the receptionist was not at the desk and stepped in to help. One person recognized what I needed and responded and that made a difference. My overall impression of the school totally changed and I was able to focus on what I needed to do to make it a successful event because of one person.

Your actions, as a leader, can support each person on your team being that “one person” who makes a difference for our students and all of our customers, in the classroom, in the hallway, on the phone or computer, and in our offices.  Do the people on your team feel like they:

  • Have the permission to step out of their task and check with a student or other customer who needs help?
  •  Are able to make decisions to solve a student or customer issue on their own?
  • Are praised or recognized by you when they take initiative or go “above and beyond” to help a student or customer?

Each one of us, as leaders, can create teams made up of people who will be that one person who makes a difference for a student, parent, or community member at our schools.

Todd Thorsgaard

The problem is not the problem…


Ok. I have to admit that I’m not your usual Pirates of the Caribbean fan, but I do love this movie quote from Captain Jack Sparrow. Let me explain why. A few months ago, I experienced a few big disappointments. I know my natural response to those disappointments could negatively impact my team, their productivity, their confidence in me, and as a result,  their service to others. (If you recall Dee Anne’s blog about mood contagion, she outlines why it is so important for leaders to maintain a positive attitude and how it impacts our service to our customers.) I used this picture and quote as a daily reminder to keep my focus on maintaining a positive attitude, even though my gut reaction was exactly the opposite. I can’t say that I was successful every day, but this daily reminder helped me to focus on what I could control: my reactions.

Shawn Achor, one of the world’s leading experts on human potential, takes this idea further in his book The Happiness Advantage. Drawing from positive psychology, Achor builds a case that positivity or happiness fuels success for ourselves, the people we lead, and our organizations. He says that, “when we are positive, our brains become more engaged, creative, motivated, energetic, resilient, and productive at work.” He also demonstrates how this discovery has been borne out by research in neuroscience, psychology, management studies, and organizations around the world.

He outlines seven principles in his book:

  1. The Happiness Advantage: how happiness gives your brain and your organization the competitive edge
  2. The Fulcrum and the Lever: changing your performance by changing your mindset
  3. The Tetris Effect: training your brain to capitalize on possibility
  4. Falling Up: capitalizing on the downs to build upward momentum
  5. The Zorro Circle: how limiting your focus to small, manageable goals can expand your sphere of power
  6. The 20-Second Rule: how to turn bad habits into good ones by minimizing barriers to change
  7. Social Investment: why social support is your single greatest asset

If you’re trying to lead and excel with increased workloads, stress, and negativity or you want to build on a positive culture you have developed, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Achor’s book.

What strategies do you have for cultivating happiness and a positive attitude in yourself and others?

Anita Rios

Five-star service

BroadmoorI recently returned from a visit with family in Colorado Springs. One of the fun things we did was spend an afternoon at the Broadmoor Hotel.  This local landmark has maintained a five-star rating for well over 60 years. Clearly, excellent customer service was at the top of their priority list. Here are a few lessons I took away.

1.  Treat everyone as important.  With one exception, every single staff member we encountered – and there were a lot of staff members – made eye contact and greeted us.  They couldn’t tell whether we were eating at the reasonably priced pub or staying at one of the exclusive suites.  While I’m fairly sure the shop clerks pegged us as window-shoppers, it didn’t seem to matter. They still offered friendly conversation, advice, and ice cream samples.  The consistent message was that we were welcome and valued.

2.  Pay attention to details.  Everything about the hotel seemed intentionally designed for customer comfort, from customized linen napkins, wallpaper and carpet to loaner umbrellas at the conference center to complementary cheese and crackers broadmoor flowerswhile waiting for our food to be delivered. The grounds showed a similar level of attention. We saw crews laying out plants according to a color-coded plan that would result in a gorgeous array of gardens and flower pots.

3.  Set and maintain goals.  The hotel takes a lot of pride in its high standards. I had the feeling that somewhere there was a manager who wakes up in the middle of the night thinking, “we are NOT going to loose the five-star rating on my watch.” Further, it appeared that all the employees were committed to that goal.

3.  Keep improving. Even though the hotel has been in existence for a long time, there were a number of remodeling projects and new facilities being developed. I’m not sure how one attains such an impressive list of awards and recognition, but it’s clear that the Broadmoor isn’t resting on its laurels. My impression was that repeat customers would find a good mix of favorite amenities and new options to explore.

The message I took from our visit was clear: the Broadmoor cares about what it does, and does it well. As we in the MnSCU system work to meet the commitments of our strategic framework, what can we do to help our stakeholders feel like valued customers of a five-star organization?

Dee Anne Bonebright

Is the student always right?

We’ve all heard the phrase, “the customer is always right,” when referring to providing good customer service in business and industry. But does that same principle apply to us in higher education? Is the student always right? Using student satisfaction is a helpful indicator to measuring our customer service; however, using a student satisfaction scale alone, without other information, can present a biased picture of educational success for a student.

A paper in The Mentor, an online higher education journal (click here) , addressed this conflict and attempted to identify a middle ground for higher education. Student service can be defined to focus on the actions our institutions take to support each individual student and their entire educational experience and not just a simple “satisfaction scale.” The debate over calling our students a “customer” may never end but the 7 principles described in the paper can provide a clear roadmap for leaders.

1.       The success of the institution is dependent upon providing high-quality service to students. Students affect the bottom line.

2.      Employees need to be reminded that every single one of them, regardless of their level of interaction with students, is in the business of serving students. Everything is woven together in the institution, and students deserve to receive assistance to meet their legitimate needs.

3.      When it comes to experiencing service satisfaction, perception is reality in the minds of every student. It is important to understand the student in order to deliver service in a manner that is perceived to be satisfying to the student.

4.      Each student is unique, thus it is important to understand the unique qualities of each student in order to provide service that meets their individual needs.

5.      Employees should follow a variation of the Golden Rule by treating students the way that they would want their son or daughter to be treated.

6.      It is hard to recover from a mistake, so when it comes to service to students every effort should be made to do it right the first time.

7.      There is a need to solicit feedback from students at all times and then listen, especially when it hurts. How else can a high level of service be measured?

In the end a customer service orientation will drive our schools to deliver an extraordinary education for all our students.

Todd Thorsgaard

Ask why…

Last month, I was traveling to one of our colleges in western Minnesota to facilitate a day-long leadership retreat. I stopped at a fast-food restaurant on the way to eat a quick dinner. Tired from a long drive, I said to the server, “I’d like the 2-piece meal deal please, but can I substitute the biscuit with coleslaw?” I explained that I couldn’t eat biscuits due to a gluten intolerance. She glared at me and barked, “Nope! No substitutions.”   Too tired to work out another solution, I paid for my meal deal and carried my tray to a nearby table with biscuit included.

As I thought about this encounter, the first thing that struck me was how awful that customer service experience was. The second thought I had was about not ever returning to that restaurant again. But then, I got curious and thought….why did this server respond in the way that she did? Were there policies in place that kept her from being responsive to customer needs? Did she lack authority to make independent decisions? Did the restaurant not provide her training or incentives to help her make customers feel welcome?

As leaders, we’re responsible for the customer service experience of those we serve, whether our customer is a student, employee, or community member. Too often, customer service problems are not just a “people” problem, where the employee on the frontline is to blame. Yes, it might be that the employee is just having a bad day; but more than likely, the problem is caused by a bad process or lack of process.  When you discover poor customer service in your own organization, rather than immediately fixing blame to the employee, it helps to get curious and to ask “why?” “Why is this problem occurring?”

5 whysOne of the most simple and effective  problem-solving tools  I know of is the “5 Whys.” With 5 Whys, you’ll continue to ask “why” until you get to a root cause.  I’ve found that with most problem solving, it helps to stay curious and not land on a solution before getting to the root cause.  Here is a great resource with more in-depth information about the 5 Whys:

When you’ve faced customer service issues in your organization, what problem-solving tools have been helpful for you?

Anita Rios

If momma ain’t happy

mommaWe’ve all seen versions of this poster – if momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.  It’s popular because it seems so true. A parent’s mood can dictate the mood for the whole family.

Turns out it’s true in the workplace as well.  There has been a lot of research recently showing that one team member’s mood, bad or good, can impact everyone else. Moods are contagious. I can talk myself into a bad mood in a matter of minutes.  And if I’m really crabby, it’s easy and fun to bring others along with me.  It takes more effort, but I can also talk myself out of a bad mood and contribute to a positive team environment.

As leaders, we need to be aware of mood contagion and its impact on team members and customers.  The Wharton School has some good advice for how to do this.

  1. Be aware of your own mood.  If it’s not constructive, change it. At the very least, act as if you’re in a better mood.
  2. Pay attention to what mood your nonverbal communication is projecting.
  3. Spread your positive mood by focusing on individual team members. Use eye contact to help.
  4. Actively work with negative team members to neutralize their contagious effect.
  5. Create a positive emotional culture. Encourage positive communication and manage destructive emotional behaviors.

Our staff and customers can easily pick up on our moods in the workplace, especially since the moods usually translate directly into actions.  As leaders, we can play a role in setting the climate for everybody.

Dee Anne Bonebright

Listening to your customers

Customer service is based on truly understanding what your customers need from you. That sounds simple, as leaders you understand higher education. You have studied and worked in the field and made contributions. Yet, that exact experience and expertise often ends up filtering or distorting a true awareness of what higher education customers need and want. Our view from inside the system is different from our customer’s view of the system. As the old saying goes, “a fish in water doesn’t know it’s in water.”fish in water

An example of this occurred when I was consulting with a team of health care leaders on improving patients following their treatment plans. We focused on providing in-depth education and detailed background information. We then asked a group of patients what would help them follow their treatment plan and they asked for a simple ½ page visit summary that they could put on their refrigerator! A big ah ha for us to “get out of the water” and listen to our customers.

Bianca Male, from the BusinessInsider Group, provides a nice summary of proven methods for listening to customers.

1.      Surveys – identify what you are doing right or wrong.

2.      Focus groups – describe why things are happening.

3.      Observation – understand how your customers behave.

4.      Customer satisfaction data – identify trends.

5.      Social media – instant feedback and two-way relationships.

6.      Your website – direct feedback on specific issues.

Each of these methods can help you identify customer needs and build a culture that responds to the true needs of your customers.

Todd Thorsgaard

I have a customer?

I have spent over 20 years working with leaders in health care and higher education who do not like the word customer. “We don’t have customers; we serve patients/students/the community/family/society” (fill in your own word.) For some reason it feels like the title of customer diminishes the value of the work or the service provided. Yet, who among us does not value having our needs, concerns and requests met? Or being listened to or asked what we believe is important? In the end that is what a customer is, someone we pay attention to and work to deliver a valuable service, experience, education or future!

As the president of the Performance Excellence Network says, “High performing, world class organizations focus on their customers.” To be an effective leader requires the ability to build a customer service orientation in your team and to use your management skills to ensure that the day to day work focuses on your customers.

Over the next month we will be sharing ideas and asking for your insight on the competency of building a customer service orientation.  Yes, we all have customers and staying focused on them keeps us moving in the right direction.

Todd Thorsgaard

At my earliest convenience….

phoneI just returned a call to a vendor and got the following voicemail message, “I’m sorry, I’m either on a call or am away from my desk at the moment. Please leave a message and I’ll return your call at my earliest convenience.” Really? At your earliest convenience?  Does this message make anyone else crazy? Maybe it’s just me, but this message doesn’t communicate the best customer service. It doesn’t give me confidence that my call will be returned as soon as possible. Instead it will be returned when it is convenient.

Word choice in a voicemail message may seem like a small thing. At the same time, I think great customer service is built on many small things in how we listen to our customers and how we respond to their needs.

This month we’re focusing on the leadership competency of building a customer service orientation. Here is our definition of key behaviors that are critical to having great customer service in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities:

  • Demonstrates a positive attitude
  • Listens attentively and respectfully
  • Responds effectively to internal and external customer needs, requests, and concerns
  • Exercises creative problem solving

As leaders we have a great responsibility to model these behaviors and create a culture that not only values great customer service, but demonstrates it every day with our students, our colleagues, and our community.

One of the innovators and leaders in great customer service in the last few years is Tony Hseih, CEO of Zappos. I encourage you to listen to what he’s done to make his organization customer focused in this short video:

It is an inspiration!

Anita Rios