Listening to dissenting voices could be your organisation’s D-Day

Sometimes it pays to listen to the minority view

The recent D-Day commemorations have reminded me that last year I saw a great play about weather forecasting… don’t stop reading there because it was weather forecasting that made D-Day successful and that, in turn, made me realise how important minority views can be.

Under pressure

Pressure” is a play written by the actor David Haig and covers the events leading up to D-Day. Haig plays John Stagg, a meteorologist advising the Allied Expeditionary Force. Despite a run of fine weather in the days leading up to the operation, Stagg persuades General Eisenhower that the weather will deteriorate sharply on the planned date and a delay of 24 hours would be necessary to avoid a catastrophic military failure. After much debate – including with another meteorologist, the American Irving P. Krick, whose own data (crucially derived from the US not the UK) suggests everything will be fine – the weather is terrible on 5th June but clears in 24 hours; the operation takes place and the rest, as they say, is history.

Despite having been turned into a compelling, if traditional, piece of theatre, these events actually happened and John Stagg is, arguably, one of the unsung heroes of WWII. Without his insight – based on a combination of experience and intuition – D-Day would not have had the effect it did on the outcome of the conflict.

Listen up

But what strikes me is that Eisenhower listened to Stagg’s expert opinion. The Normandy Landings constituted the largest seaborne invasion in history, so that’s a lot of effort and careful planning put under threat by one – albeit expert – opinion.

Change leaders don’t always do enough listening to dissenting voices, particularly when they have invested a large amount of effort in a particular solution and someone comes along with a last-minute change.

I think we can draw some leadership lessons from this particular episode in history (apart from the “we must never let this happen again” ones that have been recited endlessly over the last few days). When running a significant change programme, do we:

  1. Take our ideas out for testing, running the risk that people may disagree or propose alternative solutions?
  2. Use experts to provide relevant input on the areas where their knowledge adds the most value?
  3. Trust the experts’ judgement, without requiring excessive proof?
  4. Fully understand the risks of not adhering to their recommendations?

This isn’t to suggest that every change leader should proceed by committee, but an understanding of potential points of failure and their consequences is critical. Sometimes a minority, expert voice can be the difference between success and failure.

This post was originally published on The Next Ten Years

Is democracy all it’s cracked up to be?

The UK’s Brexit debate is about democracy as much as its relationship with Europe. It’s an important debate for workplaces too

If you were trying to get around central London last Saturday, you’d most likely have found 700,000 people getting in your way blocking the route from Park Lane to Parliament Square. The issue that caused this unprecedented turnout was Brexit – an inescapable one if you live in the UK and turn on the news or open a newspaper – and specifically the desire for a second referendum to approve or reject any deal negotiated with the European Union.

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Winston Churchill, 1947

The debate on Brexit has split the country, and it feels that, as much we are debating whether we should be part of the EU or not, we are also debating what democracy means, with specific questions such as:

  • Does a slim majority (52% in favour of leaving versus 48% remaining) mean the matter is settled, once and for all?
  • Did people know what they were voting for and should they have another go now that they are more informed?

and, more importantly…

  • What on earth has this got to do with customer-centricity?

Winston Churchill famously said that “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” but I feel that in the workplace most bosses only heard the first part of that sentence.

There’s an immense gain to be had from having a workforce that turns up to work feeling that what they do makes a difference and that translates directly into happier customers.

So why is it that most companies are run like tinpot dictatorships?


According to Gallup’s 2017 global workplace survey, “85% of employees are not engaged or actively disengaged at work” with an estimated impact or $7 trillion in lost productivity. So, the business impact should be clear even if we don’t consider customer satisfaction, which would add even more benefits on top of the productivity gains.

But if the economic argument is so blindingly obvious we’re clearly not buying it.


Control freak

Somewhere in our genetic make-up we’re hardwired to be selfish: sharing what you have achieved by hard work, guile or luck with people outside your family/tribal boundaries doesn’t come naturally to us. Business leaders and founders who have built something successful have an innate reluctance to share the fruits of their labours out of fear that others might spoil what they have created.

It takes a maverick to achieve something that goes against the grain. Enter Ricardo Semler, the archetypal maverick leader whose Brazilian engineering group Semco is one of the relatively few companies to be organised on principles of active worker participation and self-determination. With its flat hierarchy, self-determination, and peer-set salaries it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there’s no denying it works: Semco is still in business and has evolved in the 25 years since Semler’s account of his approach “Maverick” was published – its evolution potentially attributable to its flexible, bottom-up approach.

More equal than others

Increased worker participation doesn’t automatically mean businesses should turn into workers’ cooperatives, but it wouldn’t do too much harm to adopt some of the principles to improve engagement. The John Lewis Partnership is hardly a bastion of socialism, but because the workforce consists of partners, everyone has a share in the success of the business. And it’s no coincidence that John Lewis has high levels of customer satisfaction and advocacy.

If you want to get your people more engaged, there are three things you need in place to increase the level of participation:

1. Articulate a compelling purpose

I can’t overstate the importance of a compelling purpose – your organisation’s why – to unite the organisation and give people a framework in which operate.

2. Change the conversation around leadership

This sounds like a big task but as a leader you can start to shift people’s perception of what being a leader means. If the history of the organisation means that a top-down, objective-driven style is prevalent, you’ll need to actively demonstrate and model a more participative approach and encourage those leaders elsewhere in the organisation who do the same.

3. Provide avenues for people to participate and bring more of themselves to work

We’ve outlined the Framework of Champions elsewhere on The Next Ten Years – once you introduce that you’re instantly raising the level of participation

Protest and survive

Dissenting workers (or members of the public) don’t tend to take to the streets until all other avenues have been exhausted. It’s blindingly obvious that social media now provides a platform for all and sundry to vent their opinions and whilst the manner in which people express those opinions may leave much to be desired, it doesn’t negate the importance of those views.

The challenge for leaders is to detect the conversations: I’m aware of many groups on Facebook for example where disgruntled private groups can express opinions about “the management”. Discovering these might require a degree of detective work – also known as talking to your employees – but, just as companies need to take seriously the feedback from customers on social media, the issues raised by employees are also important. Relying on the annual employee survey just won’t cut it in this day and age.

When people protest about something, it means they care deeply about it, so those who complain about their company aren’t just whingeing, they’re usually doing it because they have a view on something the company is or isn’t doing – and that view is important.

Keeping your ear to the ground and encouraging – polite – debate is as healthy for workplaces as it is for countries.

Jerks at work – now running a country near you!

You need industrial strength processes to ensure bullies get the boot

Hearing the phrase “a damning report” on the one o’clock news is usually enough to get me to prick up my ears, but when it’s a damning report on a culture of bullying and intimidation in the UK’s House of Commons, I’m definitely interested. It’s not out of some prurient interest in the suffering of workers but because I’m interested in when organisations have a cultural failure and what they do to put it right.

In the case of Parliament, it looks like a massive failure and an insufficient response.

The report by Dame Laura Cox QC into bullying and sexual harassment cases followed an investigation by the BBC’s Newsnight programme into complaints about a number of MPs. Her findings make depressing reading for anyone who likes to think that the “mother of parliaments” might be reflecting the social mores of the 21st Century. Sadly not, as Dame Laura details alleged sexual harassment by MPs with women reporting abuse in “vulgar, gender-related terms” and being “repeatedly propositioned”, along with accounts of “inappropriate touching”.

Others reported regular instances of shouting, swearing, belittling behaviour or staff being routinely overbearing or confrontational towards their colleagues.

Yes, jerks at work are alive and well in the organisation that’s charged with running the country.

Due process

Most worrying is the criticism of the decision by a Commons working group to implement a new code of conduct before the inquiry was complete. The complaints procedure this would include was based on a 2014 policy which – clearly from the evidence in the report – was discredited and distrusted.

And this is the key point: in order to root out this kind of behaviour you need credible and robust processes to allow affected staff to complain and have those complaints taken seriously. It isn’t just unpleasant for the recipients of harassment but makes bad business sense, since the “stifling of potential, the blighting of careers and the loss of talented and dedicated employees, many of them women” as the report says, carries an economic cost as well as a psychological one.

Leadership fail

The Cox report highlights a massive failure of leadership in the organisation: it takes courage and principles to get rid of toxic members of staff and these are sorely lacking at present. In fact she goes as far to say that the continued presence of some senior leaders – the terms of reference of the report mean they must remain anonymous – means that “Some individuals will want to think very carefully about whether they are the right people to press the reset button and to do what is required to deliver that change in the best interests of the house”.

Leaving individuals to think doesn’t sound like an industrial strength process, but it’s a start.

When there is evidence of widespread assholery in another organisation it’s tempting to point the finger and feel a sense of moral superiority – criticising politicians is a close to a national sport in most countries and the UK is no exception – but we should also ask ourselves how much bad behaviour we tacitly accept in our own workplaces.

If you’re not part of the solution – i.e. actively working to ensure all forms of harassment are dealt with root and branch – then you’re definitely part of the problem.



Is your business built on “alternative facts”?

It’s a natural tendency, but you should worry about the consequences

Like many people I’m sceptical about the labelling of what people – typically leaders of superpowers, or journalists – say or write as “fake news” or “alternative facts”, and worried that this kind of mud-slinging will lead to a general decrease of trust, when that’s something the world needs more of, not less.

But then I discovered two things:

  • I’ve got a tendency to use “alternative facts” when it suits me
  • It’s something that we’re hard-wired to do and – for better or worse – has made us the dominant species on the planet.

And business leaders need to be aware of the dual-edged sword that this evolutionary advantage gives us.

True confessions

I was picked up by a client recently for appearing to state something as an irrefutable truth when – in truth – it was an observation of some behaviours that indicated an area of improvement. I apologised for my oversight and we moved on. Afterwards, I reflected on what I had done: in my eagerness to reinforce something that my client was already aware of I had over-edited my point to remove almost all the words that had originally suggested it was an indicative observation. The result: drifting into the domain of alternative facts.

Then, by coincidence, I picked up the book I am currently reading – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – where author Yuval Noah Harari makes the assertion that everything that homo sapiens has achieved is built on fiction. What he means by this is that the reason that homo sapiens managed to achieve dominance on the planet – and eliminated other human species such as Neanderthals – was that we developed the ability to tell stories about other people, about what we or they had done and about things that we wanted to achieve, thus enabling large groups (ideally around 150) to cooperate in hunting or other joint endeavours.

This is something I had realised whenever I had stopped to ask myself faintly philosophical questions about why things have a monetary value, why wars start and why so many people like Ed Sheeran. We all agree that certain things are the way they are, largely without question, because we accept the story behind them.

Does this matter?

This realisation made me feel slightly better about exaggerating something to make a point: clearly I was building on an innate human capability to make stuff up and to tell a better story.

But beyond that, realising that the stories we tell each other can have a profound effect is the most important trait that leaders at all levels possess. Leaders that tell stories well, and with authenticity, are more likely to achieve lasting success than those that don’t.

You can see this in the world of customer experience: if I have a good experience I’ll tell someone about it; if I have a bad experience, I’ll most likely tell even more people, maybe exaggerating a little to make the story more interesting.

Brands of course do this all the time, and perhaps should do more of it. Many years ago, I used to stay regularly at a Marriott hotel whilst working in Vienna. At the time Marriott was running a newspaper ad campaign with stories of excellent customer service, including the time a concierge had loaned his cufflinks to a customer who had an important meeting and had forgotten his. I thought of testing this out and turning up to the front desk with un-linked cuffs but lacked the chutzpah to try it, so I never found out how prevalent this excellent service culture was. Looking at some stories of service it’s quite a thing in Marriott and other hotels.

True or false?

You might be forgiven for thinking that if success comes from telling the best stories we might as well just make stuff up to suit our personal or business agendas. But there’s a catch: it helps if the stories are true. A tribal leader who tells people of a great herd of bison to hunt just over the hill isn’t going to last long if that proves to be incorrect just as a business leader who paints a compelling vision based on empowering their workforce is going to have a tough job if a significant number of people find redundancy notices in their inboxes the next morning. And if I had carried out my testing of Marriott’s cufflink-lending service and found it wanting, I’d have moved to another hotel pretty quickly (maybe).

In a world where fake news can spread instantaneously, and alternative facts can seem like a viable alternative to actual facts, leaders at all levels have a responsibility to increase the integrity of their messages they or their companies send out. We might be merely human but that doesn’t stop us taking responsibility for our evolutionary tendencies.

Jerks at work can seriously affect your health

And other aspects of performance can be affected as well

According to recent reports the cardiac surgery unit at my local hospital has a mortality rate almost twice the national average and the main reason given is a “toxic atmosphere” and bickering between two rival camps of surgeons. Since I’m an outpatient at the cardiology unit in the same hospital this is a source of both personal and professional concern for me. On a personal level it’s slightly worrying since I am expecting to have a minor cardiac procedure there later this year, and on a professional level it’s another demonstration of how people who behave like jerks can mitigate the best endeavours of an otherwise doubtless highly competent team.

It’s uppermost in my mind at the moment, not only because of my supraventricular tachycardia but also because I have just finished reading Robert Sutton’s excellent book “The No-Asshole Rule: Building a Civilised Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t”. In what amounts to a manifesto for removing jerks (my preferred term, although Sutton devotes a substantial intro to his rationale for using “asshole” – he’s American obviously) from workplaces.

The most convincing argument for me is the concept of TCA (Total Cost of Assholes) which shows that it’s not just the ‘soft’ cultural issues that are impacted, there’s a direct cost impact as well. When you count up the reduced productivity of the people affected by bad behaviour and the time spent appeasing, counselling or disciplining the perpetrators, together with the management overhead, legal costs, settlement fees etc. you find that it’s just not worth recruiting the brilliant salesperson, surgeon or CEO in the first place.

House calls

But, I hear you ask, don’t we have to tolerate a bit of jerkiness or assholery from leaders just to get things done? This is a tricky question and one which Sutton tackles head-on: you occasionally need to be direct or even downright rude to make things happen – he refers to this as being a “temporary asshole” – but maintains that being a full-time jerk or “certified asshole” is, in the long term, counter-productive and injurious to business performance.

Sadly, our popular myths and stories often feature heroes and heroines with significant personality defects who nonetheless solve the crime or carry out life-saving surgery as a result of their controversial insights. In the latter case, we’ve often discussed in NextTen whether we’d prefer the fictional Dr House as the surgeon you’d want to diagnose your mystery illness rather than someone more “touchy-feely”…

The heart of the matter

But back to St George’s – and real life – the newspaper reports of the “dark atmosphere” in the cardiac surgery unit are frustratingly light on detail and, as always, there may be other reasons for the high mortality rate: as a teaching hospital St George’s often has the more complex cases to deal with. But what struck me was that out of a team of 39 people there was a view that the environment was toxic, but nothing appeared to have been done about it.

It appears that management are now taking action but ensuring a healthy workplace – in all senses of the word – requires that those on the receiving end of sustained jerk behaviour are able to raise their concerns and have them dealt with rapidly and constructively.

It’s not exaggerating too much to say that, in this case, it could be a matter of life or death.

Could you care more? Avoiding the Guaranteed Formula for Failure

Leading with compassion makes you a better leader

How many times have you said “I couldn’t care less what they think” in relation to a work or personal matter?

It feels good doesn’t it? You can stand alone, proud of your own position and invincible point of view?

Unfortunately, it’s also the most corrosive attitude you can take in the modern workplace.

Here’s why: I call it the Guaranteed Formula for Failure (GaFF, if you prefer).

We’ve spent years reinventing the way that organisations are structured: streamlined and automated to deliver better, faster and/or cheaper than the competition. We’ve got smarter and smarter people working in these organisations: we hire the best we can get and get them to perform to help make us even better, faster or cheaper. Those who don’t perform don’t rise to the top and may be encouraged, gently or otherwise, to work elsewhere. A bit of constructive stress keeps everyone on their toes and striving to be better and what they do, every day.

A guaranteed formula for success, right?


The formula I outline above is an idealised one if your workforce consists of machines and, since that day’s a long way off, organisations need to realise that they are made up of human beings who, whatever you may like to think, turn up each day with their own set of quirks, grievances, stresses and strains. Managing that diversity constructively is the hallmark of truly effective leadership. And that requires one quality that’s not often talked about: compassion.

Café society

These thoughts came to mind after a highly stimulating “Knowledge Café”, organised by knowledge management expert David Gurteen. David’s been running these for last 16 years after realising that at the typical PowerPoint-slide-and-speaker-based conference, the most interesting parts were the conversations that occurred in the coffee breaks – often between strangers. He designed the cafés to stimulate active and engaging conversation amongst attendees.

At a recent event, Mark Coles, from the NHS London Leadership Academy introduced the topic of “Paying Attention to Attentiveness” – essentially how we can care more for each other in the business environment, or perhaps whether that was asking too much in an increasingly pressured workplace.

Through Mark Coles’ introductory talk and the ensuing discussion groups taking the topic as a start point, I found a few themes starting to emerge:

  • Pressures on organisations particularly when running at full capacity (a problem the NHS is experiencing in spades right now) mitigates against what might be called “compassionate leadership” – leaders are challenged to find the time and space for their teams to share what’s bothering them. But if you’re not listening to conversations, how can you be aware of the challenges your people face?
  • Leaders and managers may not recognise that they have a “duty of care” to their teams, although this is the basis of genuine employee engagement.
  • “Listening cleanly” or authentic listening (listening without layering on your own prejudices and opinions) is a skill that leaders may need to practice.
  • Line managers are growers of talent and the much-maligned middle manager has a key role as motivator of change. This is true even in “holacratic” organisations such as Zappo’s that still have middle managers even if they may not be referred to as such.

Against therapy

The above list might suggest that businesses need to turn themselves into massive therapy groups but that’s a massive misconception: therapy has its place but only for those who genuinely need it. However, what the discussions in the Knowledge Café recognised is that the effective leaders created space to manage the conflicting opinions, stresses and strains that are an inevitable by-product of any workplace.

Some structures and techniques were suggested that people had found to work: I was particularly struck by one software team leader who used an “escalation unicorn” as a means for her team members to raise issues. The unicorn (a toy one, obviously) was held by the member dealing with a critical issue that threatened the team’s progress, as a means of signalling that they were working on it. The team leader had created an environment where working on the hard stuff – and having hold of the unicorn – was seen as a motivator: dealing with difficult issues was therefore positively encouraged.

Another technique that was cited was originated by KM doyen Dave Snowden and is known as “ritual dissent”. This involves teams or groups offering criticism or support to members while the recipient’s back is turned. This both depersonalises and legitimises constructive criticism and is particularly effective in validating new ideas.

I’m not advocating either of these as magic bullet solutions to the challenge of managing diverse groups of individuals, but it is important leaders create “psychological safety” to allow dissent. As I pointed out in relation to the recent – indeed ongoingdebacle with TSB’s IT systems, it’s those dissenting voices that may point out the truth of the situation.

Passion and compassion

Compassion is a word that crops up mostly in relation to situations outside of the workplace: it’s what we feel when something awful happens to someone – whether that’s someone we know, or someone affected by a disaster on the other side of the world. It stirs us to action, helping us to do something, even if that’s donating to a relief effort or lending an ear to a friend who’s going through a hard time.

There’s no reason why such a basic human quality should be excluded from the workplace. In fact, it makes workplaces much more effective: it means that leaders and managers, far from losing their focus on the hard performance criteria their teams have to deliver, recognise that these are not simple diktats that have to be obeyed, but negotiated to allow each team member to deliver according to their skills and development needs.

It’s a quality that underpins NextTen’s approach to customer success, using the F.A.S.T. principles originated by Gordon Tredgold. As customer experience makes the evolution from “nice-to-have” to business essential, there will be many tough conversations to be had.

Those firms that hold them in a compassionate and caring environment will be the ones that achieve real success.

A question of ownership

It’s not the structure that’s important – it’s ownership

Picture the scene: 1994, a late summer evening in a scruffy office block on the outskirts of Vienna. It is the big one: my client team’s presentation to Herr F, the CEO. He has sponsored a re-engineering of their product management and introduction processes and we are describing the new process-driven organisation structure, the final slide of a small but perfectly formed PowerPoint deck.

“One question,” said Herr F, “where’s the process owner in this structure?”

I should point out that Herr F had read the often-quoted book by Michael Hammer and Jim Champy, “Re-engineering the Corporation”, and was referring to the part – page 103 in my copy – where it says that each of the shiny new business processes should have an owner, responsible for orchestrating performance across the now-irrelevant organisational silos. In his mind, the process owner was an essential part of those that were re-engineered.

Before I could point out that these responsibilities would be carried out by the leaders of the process teams that we’d designed, one of my colleagues leaped to his feet and proceeded to illustrate where the process owner would sit in the structure. This didn’t satisfy the CEO, so another eager team member attempted to re-draw the structure to point to the process owner. This still didn’t work either, so another one jumped up and had a go. Then another colleague got the bit between their teeth, and so it continued until we all agreed with the rather disappointed sponsor that a little more work was needed before he could sign it off. It took a further two weeks before we’d managed to include a role for the process owner in the new organisation, and then rolled it into the implementation phase.

I learned a few lessons from this experience about organisation design and stakeholder buy-in.

The real lesson I learned though has taken a few years working in the management structure of a large company to sink in. Which is this: we are obsessed with organisational structure and therefore changing this is the one thing that you have to get right.

But it’s not a question of designing a new hierarchy or turning the hierarchy on its side and creating a process structure (OK, I know there’s more to it than that), it’s making sure the people involved know where they fit.

This provides the one thing that people crave during times of change: security.

But, hang on, isn’t this the one thing we can’t guarantee anymore? Jobs for life are so last century, surely, with savvy millennials only staying in jobs for 2-3 years before moving on to bigger and better things?

Well, maybe, but not for everyone. Most people want a job and, if not a job for life, a job that gives them security.

And leaders of organisations have a duty to honour that desire, by focusing on ownership.

In the case of my Austrian client, the team had a strong sense of ownership that was a result of having lead roles in reshaping their unit, and I’ve been part of many projects since then that have had the same quality: the members of the team feeling that they are part of something and have a stake in its future.

But leaders, particularly when they are business owners can go even further and change the whole structure so that employees cease to become employees and instead allow the business.

One firm that did this was the branding company Novograf, based in East Kilbride, Scotland. When the two owners, John Clark and Alistair Miller, were looking to sell their business and retire they were approached by an American company looking to buythem out. As recounted in a recent article in The Guardian they were close to a deal when they enquired what would happen to the East Kilbride factory. When they were told that it would be closed down they had a rethink: retiring on a large pile of cash would mean nothing if you had to face the employees and their families existing on benefits the next day.

With the support of Scottish Enterprise, they set about selling the business to their employees and since their employees didn’t have access to a wad of cash to buy the business, they effectively set up a bank themselves, transferring shares to the employees and allowing them to pay back the money – with interest – over a number of years.

Partnership modelslike this are relatively few and far between – much-loved retailer (in spite of the TrustPilot scores) John Lewis Partnership is the largest employee-owned firm in the UK – and their high customer experience rating and employee satisfaction are a data point that suggests that spreading ownership has benefits on both sides of the counter. In spite of research in the US that indicates that younger workers who are worker-owners enjoy higher wages and household wealth only 300 British firms have made this change.

I’m not suggesting that all companies should be partnerships, but I’d certainly advocate considering alternatives to the traditional hierarchy but keeping not just process ownership but enterprise ownership front of mind.

The missed opportunity in complaints handling that might save your marriage!

Complaint handling departments mostly miss the opportunity to turn a dissatisfied customer into a raving fan.

I recently talked about how critical it is to detect and, if possible, avert complaints before they even happen. If a complaint does occur, it is so important to make sure it is easy for the customer to provide as much feedback as they want – ideally in the form they want. Once you have received the feedback you have a critical and short time period to not only resolve, but create a raving fan.

Be careful, time is very sensitive in these situations. Any perception of slowness can quickly make a situation considerably worse. Dealing with the complaint effectively – and simultaneously creating a significant jump in loyalty – needs a new and more innovative approach.

Understanding the“hierarchy of needs”

I’ve noticed that complaints are something that most organisations avoid like the plague! No-one wants to admit to making mistakes –all too often the attitude is to deal only with the specifics of the complaint, throw some money or gift at the customer as compensation and then move straight on to the next one. Timescales are often set by a regulator, which leads to incorrect priorities and dysfunctional behaviour.

This is about as far away from customer-centric as it’s possible to get and ignores what I call the Complainer’s Hierarchy of Needs. This is  different from the Hierarchy of Needs developed by Abraham Maslow – except that it also has five levels:

1) Hear me. I want someone to be able to listen, understand and resonate with my complaint. I don’t need an argument, I don’t want excuses and I certainly don’t want shallow apologies with no real action. Ask me questions, but only if it helps unpack the full story.

2) Acknowledge my pain. I wouldn’t be contacting you unless I had suffered in some way. It may be minor, it may be a “first world problem” but you’ve fallen short and I’m upset. Don’t overdo it but please show some genuine empathy.

3) Sort it out.At an absolute minimum, I want to be put back in the state I was in before you screwed up and I’d like some form of compensation for my inconvenience. I also want it quickly – preferably almost immediately.

4) Satisfy me. Remember I was a pretty big fan of your company before this and I’d like to believe this is a one-off and get back to those happy times when you delighted me on a regular basis. Now, what have you got? I’m not talking about a box of chocolates – I’m talking about an outcome that has value to me – assuming you understand me well enough.

5) Delight me and keep me loyal. Give me a reason to stay with you – what’s our future together going to look like? If the value is perceived to be there I will invest a bit of time asking your questions but make sure the outcome is a great reason to stay.

The best part of breaking up

And if that sounds like getting back after a bust-up with your significant other then it’s supposed to be – yes, it’s that serious! Bad significant other experiences have resulted in divorce rates at46% in the US. Interestingly, according to data from NewVoiceMedia, 44% of US consumers switch to a competitor following a poor customer service experience.Like disenchanted marriage partners, customers will exercise that level of rebellion if they don’t get what they think they need.

People in a failing marriage often cite a lack of empathy as a key reason driving the split. Customer rebellion is driven by exactly the same issue. We simply don’t recognise the complainer’s hierarchy of needs sufficiently. We extrapolate that to a belief the company does not care, and our reaction is heightened as a result. In fact, as far as complaints handling goes, we only recognise part of it, getting as far as sorting out the problem and providing what the company views as appropriate compensation without sufficiently understanding the customer’s desired outcome.

The Missed Opportunity

Aligning the customer hierarchy to the what the company does in response is fundamental:

1) Listen. Provide a channel that “works for the customer” – which often means giving choice. Technology is now more widely available and relatively cheap as an enabler. Behind that enabler should be a non-judgemental, open and sympathetic “listener” for the complainer. If you receive the complaint in writing, responding quickly with follow up is key. Customers will react much more favourably to a personal conversation, so call them back within two hours of receiving the complaint.

2) Empathise.This bit is almost obvious to state but much harder to deliver. Empathy is acknowledging that whatever happened was in some way unpleasant or inconvenient for the customer and showing the customer you genuinely care. This is not as easy as it seems. Some customers want only a “leave it with me, give me ten minutes and I will sort it” style response whereas others want more time to air their views even if that is simply to “blow off steam”. Of course, some people are more naturally empathic than others, but it can be taught and if sufficiently practised, internalised into everyday handling that is repeatedly exceptional. Make sure it’s on your training programme for all.

3) Empower people to act – rapidly. It’s too easy to hide behind processes, procedures and rules. Too much “guidance” is in place because an organisation doesn’t trust its staff sufficiently to do the right thing. Having to check or refer upwards again and again, wastes time, reduces productivity, andmotivation, and further infuriates an already-angry customer. The key here is empowerment and flexibility to allow the agent to do what is right. Post hoc checks and regular reviews are a much better way to make sure that staff are doing “the right things” instead of “doing things right”. There is a big difference!

4) Make sure your customers are satisfied. The emphasis is on the word “your”. If you think of the customer as “your customer” rather than the company’s customers, then that is a subtle but significant first step.Very often customers are happy just to have the mistake corrected or a refund provided but equally often we don’t think of asking how the experience of complaining was for the customer and, more importantly, how they feel about the outcome at a detailed level. The investment required to find this out is minimal yet it’s a practical demonstration that you weren’t just following a process, you had flexibility and you really care.

5) Understand the customer’s desired outcome and take it up a level to delight them. Having got a satisfied customer, you need to enhance the relationship and take it to a level beyond what it was before. The single most critical success factor to achieving delight is to understand what their desired outcomeis and deliver it better than the competition. And the key to this lies not only in your feedback and handling on the specifics driving the complaint. The key is to drive a deeper understanding of the outcomes and related experiences that are most important to the customer and creating an environment to deliver against it. At a basic level, reversing their negative feedback – specifically the things they couldn’t do as a result of your screw-up – gives you the starting point for understanding their desired outcomes at a deeper level, aligning your products, services and supporting processes to make it happen. This might sound expensive but the loyalty and revenue uplift that this can bring will make it an immensely profitable and rewarding exercise.

You read it here:applying this approach can make customer complaints into a revenue generator and there’s a case for treating it a profit centre. That’s slightly different to the norm don’t you think?

In the next part of this series we’ll “close the loop” on complaints by making sure that you genuinely learn from your mistakes and build a better understanding of your customers’ desired outcome