Problem Solving

Flex vs Consistency - How to beat the Management Paradox

Consistency in customer service is more of an aspiration rather than a destination. Even the ultra-positive person must admit that it is physically impossible to serve every customer every day with the exacting consistent standard and experience. However, I hope we can all agree that when it comes to managing staff one of the best attributes a leader can display is consistency. If I think of the worst managers I ever worked for, it would be the ones that were happy and relaxed one day, and then riding me on every detail the next. It would become a constant worry on my mind – which version of my manager is going to rock into work today? From an inconsistent position, it can almost be impossible to have good quality dialogue with your team and progress your business with momentum and rhythm.

So, consistency in leadership is important. But then, we are also told that flexing our management style to individual needs is a positive attribute too. This is where you tailor your communication to individuals based on their experience, their personality, and their ability as well as a given situation. Some people need a good kick up the backside (figuratively of course!) on a regular basis, and some will perform at their best with a soft supportive approach. Then there are times that require urgency, or patience, or assertiveness. I have become a convert to this thinking from personal experience. I initially managed teams with a “one-method” approach because I was just being myself, and treating everyone the same. I quickly learnt that this was a big mistake as some people found me abrupt and harsh, while sometimes I was labelled as a soft touch and even slack or ineffective. To me, I was being consistent, but the reality is that I was not communicating effectively to different people, with different needs, in different situations. Learning how to flex was like switching the light on in a dark room. All of the sudden colours were more vibrant, and food tasted better… well, maybe not, but there was a marked difference in the way my team responded to my direction. Learning how to flex my management approach really was a game changer, and ever since then I have observed the benefits of managers being able to whilst coaching.

The Paradox

Definition: A paradox is a statement that is self-contradictory because it contains two elements that are both true, but cannot both be true at the same time.

Our management paradox is that we are at our best when we are as consistent as possible, but then we must flex to different team member needs and situations.

How can this be achieved? How is this even possible to deliver? Where do we start?

The answer is that it is difficult to achieve, and in trying to overcoming the paradox you will need to learn and adjust almost constantly. But with some foundation techniques in play, we can develop our own way of beating the paradox. You may have already started to implement good techniques and didn’t even realise.

  1. Start by building consistency. Be clear on your expectations from day one (or tomorrow if you haven’t done this already). Be clear on goals, be clear on behaviour expectations, time keeping, housekeeping, presentation, customer service, visual merchandising. The list can be long or short, but whatever is relevant to your business make sure it is communicated with no room for mis-interpretation. Then, live the expectations yourself and be sure to pull people up on the spot forever-more if they fall outside of the expectations set (i.e. immediate feedback). No one is exempt from these expectations, as that would be inconsistent – right!?!
  2. Build and understand your own role. A manager can become everything to everyone. It is a thankless job where you can get pulled into everything where you end up doing everyone else’s job if you are not careful. By setting your job role within your business, with key tasks built into your week and key timings when certain things get done you can once again re-enforce the concept of consistency. Having an element of regime that your staff can become familiar with sets structure. This is a framework that you and your team can work from on a weekly basis. Everyone knows “when” to expect as well as “what” to expect.
  3. One-on-one Meetings. Have a book, a file, or a digital program that holds all of your staff notes. Every time you have a sit-down with a team member it is critical to take notes. Relying on your memory can be a tenuous strategy in such a fast-paced world. Keep records, and be sure to have regular chats with your team (both formal and informal). You will have an initial one-on-one with your team members to set expectations as previously described. Here you can also start to understand an individual’s needs. What they need from you. What type of leadership they need right now. The type of communication they respond well to, and if they need high levels of attention and supervision or if they need space and delegation. Remember, note it all down!
  4. Flex using the three communication types. Once you know how humans communicate and receive messages to and from each other, you can start to sell effectively. It is the same with managing people. There are three main ways humans communicate a message of any type to each other:
    1. Body Language – we use this and notice this more than anything else. Our body language tells someone everything about what we “really mean” and what we “really want to say”. Being aware of our body language, and then using it in the right context when leading teams will help to flex a message to be more assertive, or softer depending on the need of the individual at a given time.
    2. Tone of Voice – second to body language, but still critically important. This is the use of pitch, volume, and pace of our voice as we speak. There are many great examples of leaders that do this well, but the one person that stands out to me in recent history is Barack Obama. He uses the “pause” and variation in pace-of-speech better than anyone I have ever seen. Use your tone of voice to convey urgency, or calm, or confidence, or light-heartedness – wherever is necessary.
    3. The spoken word –It may surprise you that the words we say influence the messages we convey a lot less than the two factors above, but it is true. This is down to the fact that we are all generally born as bad listeners. Listening is a skill, and most of us are quite poor at it. Having said this, the words we use are of course very important. Choosing your words carefully and using the right dialogue for different individuals will help you flex your management style without your team even noticing. Here we are talking about language – some people respond to simple short sentences, while some enjoy intricate elaborate language. Planning your wording before speaking with a team member on a subject can save you a lot of grief down the line, and will help you be effective and efficient with your communication.

I acknowledge that this is the tip of a very large iceberg, and that different businesses will have either constraints or intricacies that are unique and require their own techniques and strategies. I hope that this article assists you to start tackling the paradox, and to one day beat it so that the paradox becomes your asset. A tool in your management toolbox that you can carry around with you everywhere you go.

Observations of a Frustration

In the world of industrial design the process of forming an idea for a possible new product always starts at the same place – The problem. Every new product (defined as the “solution”) must have a well-defined problem to solve, and the solution must be a unique one. In designing the new solution a designer must go through a process, and one of the key elements of the process is to observe the failings of current solutions available to the user.  It is amazing how much can be gained through the power of observation. Observing the user through a re-occurring irritation or frustration can tell us a lot about how to find the right solution.

In a customer service environment, we need the experience of our customers to be unique, memorable, and enjoyable. We spend considerable resources on analytical tools, our CRM systems, and survey mechanisms. They all have their place with many insights being given. However, I have recently been spending time with a design business and watching their process has been fascinating. They do not get straight onto their CAD System (design software), or go straight to the workshop. They get in front of the user, but they don’t start pounding them with questions. They take a comfortable seat out of the way and they observe. Then they get involved themselves – they get into the shoes of the user. Once they have done this, they once again take a seat out of sight and observe once more. They do this for as long as it takes. It could be an hour, a day, a week, a few weeks. Whatever the time, they are looking for that key area of the experience that causes the user frustration. For the retailer, this relates to the points of frustration for the customer within the customer journey – on or off-line.

Focusing on the customer, is more than asking your staff to drop tasks to approach someone when entering the store. It is to strategically take the time out to understand where your customer experience has friction. Where are the pain points in regard to servicing customers? In terms of layout, we may observe bottle necks. In terms of e-commerce, it may be the extra click that is not necessary. Whatever your form of retail, it is critical to track the customer experience visually in real time, and to experience it yourself.

Observing customer frustration can be done for busy times of the day, week, or year. It can be done for the slower times when skeleton staff are on. You could observe customer frustration at the changeroom, POS, or even within the shopping centre your business resides – the customer’s frustration may be that they are not able to find your store! There are multiple areas to observe, and there are multiple experiences to understand. Once there is a clear understanding of the problem to be solved, it is only then that we are in a position to work on a solution. Like a good designer be sure to start by being present and seeing things for yourself, and understand the customer frustration before hitting the workshop! When I was the manager of a large flagship, I would often set my team up during busy periods and float through the store. On occasion, I would take a seat next to the plant boxes out of the way. I became invisible for ten minutes, and would watch the whole process as customers entered all the way through to checking out. It was some of the best time I ever spent as it gave me insight into customer frustrations, as well as frustrations my team were suffering from, and where our internal processes may be falling down. In our world of retail, utilising such time wisely will save huge sums of resource. The retail industry is moving at such a high speed, so spending critical time on the wrong solution can be catastrophic.

Invest in being present and observing customer frustrations with your own eyes. By feeling it yourself the motivation for improvements will be stronger and the results for your customers will be ultra-focused and effective.