Before I returned to Root last fall, I was working as vice president of operations at a software company. I loved being part of the leadership team and together building momentum in the organization. Considering the industry, there was very little cost for one of our customers to switch from our product to one of our competitors’, so one way we could differentiate ourselves and build loyalty was with our customer service.
I was following the Root Customer Experience Playbook: to create loyal customers we needed to create a customer-first culture, we needed to empower our people to act like owners, and we needed to deliver authentic experiences. Many team members were buying in, and our profit was going up. We increased wages and benefits. We reinvested in our facilities and systems. As with any change, some people were excited, while at the same time, some people weren’t aligned with the vision and direction we were heading.
To help keep everyone engaged and excited about the new customer-first strategy, we started having monthly all-company meetings. One morning, the CEO gave me a heads up and said he was going to read an anonymous question submitted about me that would likely get a reaction from the crowd. It went something like this, “Next question: What else does Jared Page do other than fire people?”
Lots of people laughed, and I gave a nervous smile. In that moment, it sure didn’t feel like I was creating a positive movement or an environment where people trusted me. Sure, we’d had some turnover, but it’s not like I had some singular focus on reducing headcount. In fact, I was thinking we needed to keep our team largely intact as I assumed they had a lot of product knowledge, and generally speaking, turnover is costly – I couldn’t build customer loyalty without a team.
I started to feel insulted. After all, I was passionate about creating a workplace where people would thrive and in turn, help our company succeed. I was trying to help them be their best selves, and that question felt completely contradictory to all I was doing. It was one of those moments in my career that I won’t forget.
When Your Intentions Don’t Match People’s Perceptions
It’s no surprise that my priority as an operations leader was to deliver operational excellence. A simple way to define “operational excellence” is managing your company’s inputs (people, assets, money) to create your outputs (products and services) in the most profitable way. It’s a necessary condition for a world-class customer experience. The “People, Process, and Technology” model for driving change in an organization has been around for decades. Sounds easy enough. Just focus on those three, watch the money roll in, and your employees will love you and the experience you’re delivering, and then they’ll create experiences your customers will love too. Right?
This recent article1 from The Seattle Times caught my eye, and the memory of that all-company meeting came flooding back. The article talks about how hotels are experimenting with new technology, robots, and artificial intelligence, or AI, to improve the employee experience, which in turn should allow their teams to focus on improving the customer experience. Sounds pretty cool, but as with all change, some people are wary.
This quote from a bellhop really hit close to home for me: “‘The company, whatever they do, they don’t really care about the worker and the union,’ Huang said. ‘I don’t really trust the company.’” It made me think about when I was implementing change—in pursuit of helping my organization succeed—but I was challenged by some of the workforce who also felt concerned.
As I read the article, I had a couple of thoughts: first, my impression of the Hilton and Marriott corporations is that they do a great job listening to employees, empowering them, and driving for a high level of engagement—otherwise, I doubt they would be Nos. 1 and 31, respectively, on the 2019 list of Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For®. Second, I’m sure there are lots of nuances to the relationships between ownership groups of the new tech initiative and their employees that I’m not familiar with.
That said, I can easily imagine there are leaders at these hotels who are wrestling with the same question I had been challenged by:
“How is it that I have the right intentions and the knowhow to improve our operations, but our people don’t get it?”
I think there are three basic things that they could do (and I could have done better in my past role) to help everyone “get it.”
Get Back to Basics: Three Steps to Help Everyone Connect to Your Mission
1. Make the necessary effort to ensure everyone sees the big picture
If people are only informed about what they must do (or even worse, not clearly informed), they are not set up for success. And when you’re put in a situation where you’re not set up for success, you’re probably not going to trust the person who put you there. So be sure to clearly articulate the full scope of the plan. People need to understand their individual role and how it fits into the big picture.
And don’t expect people to understand your plan immediately. It takes time for people to grasp the vision and direction of their company. It doesn’t happen with one conversation or a couple of interactions. After all, they weren’t the ones to develop the strategy. Most likely, it’s all new information to them. Helping your people understand the company’s overall vision requires many consistent interactions over time reinforcing the same story. There are ways to speed up the process, but there’s no getting past that this takes resources and unwavering commitment. Easier said than done.
In the Seattle Times article, frontline employees were surprised by the technology. There was a lot of fear and uneasiness. But if you asked anyone from the leaders to the front line if they believe in creating and maintaining a world-class customer experience, I’d bet the clear majority would say they do. You’ve got to help everyone connect the dots before everyone can start operating at a higher level.
And I’m guessing the managers on the property weren’t set up to lead and engage their teams in the best way possible. Bringing managers into the fold is critical. They’re the ones who have to drive change and keep the momentum, communicate with frontline teams and answer questions, keep spirits high in times of distress, and reinforce that everyone plays a part in the customer experience and the success of the hotel. If managers and leaders aren’t aligned and ready to translate the C-suite’s vision for their teams, things can spiral out of control quickly. Leaders spend tons of time and effort wrestling with implementing change. (I certainly did!) After they decide on a new strategy, they’re pumped. They love their plan. However, they don’t always give the next level of management or the rest of the workforce the same amount of time to get them up to speed.
2. In showing everyone the big picture, ensure they understand the “why” behind what’s happening
A Seattle hotel is testing out AI to see if this type of innovative tech can help improve the guest experience. Hotels are trying new things to meet and exceed guest expectations because if they don’t, someone else will. Helping employees understand the story of why their hotel is changing and trying new things is critical to implementing the change.
My guess is that these employees are smart and they care. If the “why” behind the change is valid, people will get it. They just need the opportunity to digest the reasons for themselves. Given the opportunity to figure out the need to change and what’s in it for them, they will likely get on board. In this specific scenario, if the new AI technology is rolled out smoothly, the staff has more time to do other things to further enhance the guest experience—which helps to create more job security, more opportunities for things like hours and higher pay, and hopefully, their jobs become more fun.
So when it comes to change, make sure your people understand the “why” and have the chance to discover the benefits for themselves. If you do this, people will take ownership and continue to drive improvements to the customer experience through how they work.
3. People want to be part of something bigger than themselves—so involve them early—and create a safe environment for them to voice their opinions
When you force a new system or tool on someone who believed that they were already operating at a high level, it typically isn’t received well.
At my previous company, we focused our energy on a big shift to improve the customer experience—this was one strategy to differentiate us from our competitors. But many frontline people already thought they were doing a great job. And rightfully so, as they had been recognized or rewarded for their effort in the past. So it would have been naïve of me to expect them to accept a new way of working on a whim. That’s why involving them early was so key. Equally critical was giving them the opportunity to ask questions, voice concerns, and be heard. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking everyone is on board with your strategy because no one voices questions or challenges your way of thinking. If people aren’t talking in front of you, they’ll be doing it in the bathrooms, halls, and at the vending machines. But when people are included from the get-go, they’ll feel a part of the mission. At my previous company we quickly started seeing results that culminated in a five-fold increase in overall profit from one year to the next—and it’s all because we had the support of the workforce.
Be Smart About Prepping for Change
Just like the Seattle hotel employees, the people I worked with were smart and cared a lot about their customers. My lesson learned was to introduce them to the whole picture early, make sure they clearly understood the “why” behind the change and how they each played valuable roles in the pursuit of big picture success, and give them a safe environment to share their real thoughts about the operational change. Wanting to be included and heard are basic parts of human nature. This doesn’t change at work. So consider these three steps when you’re planning your next change initiative.
If you’re interested in talking about operational excellence as a necessary condition for a world-class customer experience, and how to achieve both, I’d love to hear what you think. Let’s take a minute to get back to the basics.
1 Hellmann, Melissa. “As Seattle’s New Hotels Roll out Automation to Serve Guests, Workers Worry.” The Seattle Times, May 18, 2019, www.seattletimes.com/business/technology/as-seattles-new-hotels-roll-out-automation-to-serve-guests-workers-worry/.