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The Power of Indelible Impressions: Lean Thinking and Customer Service

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Learn how companies, especially those in the retail sector, can use the power of Lean thinking to create a workforce that is continually leaving customers with the kind of positive, indelible impressions that build sales and profitability.
More than anything else, the quality of customer service depends upon the degree to which employees are really engaged in their work. When customers encounter fully engaged employees, especially in the retail sector, the experiences they have are best characterized as being "indelible." These "indelible" impressions create extremely positive and powerful memories that stick with us as consumers and shape our future buying habits. Lean thinking drives high levels of employee engagement. What are typical levels of employee engagement? Very low. For example, a TowersPerrin study conducted in 2009 showed that only 21% of employees were fully engaged in their work and, further, that fully 38% were partially to fully disengaged. The cost of disengagement is very high. And in today's hyper-competitive economy no company can possibly prosper, or even survive, without high levels of employee engagement. As many employees as possible need to be fully "on the job." Lean thinking drives high levels of employee engagement and, as a result, high levels of customer satisfaction.
Duration: 12:45 Audio MP3
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About a year ago, my wife, Dolores, and I drove up to a local grocery store a couple minutes after seven in the evening to buy some flowers for a dinner party we were having the next day. Dolores walked up to the door, tried to open it and found it locked. The store manager saw her, opened the door, and asked, "What is it you want? We close at seven." Dolores replied, "Oh, we just missed. We wanted flowers for our dinner party." The manager replied, "Our registers are locked for the night. Come in and pick out the flowers you would have gotten. They're on us ... and they'll look great on your dinner table."

We were both, frankly, stunned. Wow, was this unusual behavior! This store manager's behavior was not only unusual; it was the kind of behavior that creates indelible impressions. You know, the kind of experience you just can't forget. The kind of experience that is so powerful that it colors all of your future impressions of the place at which it occurred. For Dolores and myself, this store - this organization - remains imbedded in our minds as the epitome of great customer service ... the epitome of an organization that thinks of customers (like Dolores and myself) first and of itself second. Today, we shop in this store, even while they don't carry all the items found in a typical full service supermarket, just because we really like the way they treat customers.

And what single word best describes their treatment of customers? It's the word "focus." Yes, "focus" is the single, best descriptor of the behavior we have seen over and over again in this store's employees. In addition to the word "focus" what other words come to mind when reflecting on the way their employees act? Immediately words like "energetic," "happy," and "enthusiastic" come to mind. It's just a fun place to be in.

You get the picture. This is just a great place in which to do business. Who wouldn't want to be around folks who are energetic, enthusiastic, happy and very focused on making your shopping experience an extremely positive one. But what does this have to do with Lean work processes?

Here's the connection. The high degree of "focus" demonstrated by this grocery store manager and, especially, its spontaneity as demonstrated in the situation I just described, happens only when employees are almost totally engaged in their work. Focus happens when engagement exists. Without full engagement, no focus.
What impact does "disengagement" have on the quality of customer service experiences? It destroys "focus." For you, our listener, the best answer to this question will come from your own personal experiences. You and I as customers know when "focus" is missing. Think of the last time you asked a clerk in a store for help and felt that you were an intruder, that they found your request annoying, that they clearly didn't care if your experience in the store that paid their salary was good or not. If your experiences match mine, this happens far too often. Often there's not even the slightest attempt to disguise annoyance. Recently, I asked an employee of a large building supply store for help in finding a certain kind of light fixture. After giving me a barely disguised scowl, he told his buddy to whom he was talking on a cell phone, "Wait a second; I have to answer some guy's question."

We've all had experiences like this. And we know the kind of impressions they make. Bad impressions created by experiences like the one I've just described are, like very good impressions, indelible. They stick with us and, further, research has shown that these bad impressions are typically told by their recipients, better described as victims, to twenty other people, on the average. So this young man's dismay at having to interrupt a phone call with a buddy to serve a customer, has probably resulted in twenty other potential customers having negative, sales-killing impressions of this building supply store every time he's engaged in it. And because these victims of employee disengagement don't have to shop at this store, they won't in the future. They'll go to a competitor.

In today's economy, especially, no company can afford to have these kind of profit-killing experiences happening over and over again to its customers. Not if they intend to stay in business.

Driving high degrees of employee engagement should be the number one goal of any company that sells its products to the public. Lean thinking and the work processes, work habits that grow out of Lean thinking will drive high degrees of sustained employee engagement.

I'd like to make an audacious claim. Here it is. Driving a high degree of employee engagement is simple. But there's a catch. It takes hard work on the part of managers and supervisors. It takes managers and supervisors who understand what Lean thinking is and who accept in its core beliefs. It takes managers and supervisors with patience; managers and supervisors who understand that changing human behavior is never easy, nor is it quick. It also takes managers and supervisors who believe that change can happen and that employees who are offended by having to interrupt a phone call with a buddy can be transformed into employees who act like a person whose behavior Dolores and I experienced at our favorite grocery store ... you know, the one that gave us free roses. Here's another great example of the look of engagement, the look of focus.

Here's what happened. We were going through the checkout lane and when the clerk checking us out picked up a package of blueberries to scan, he stopped, looked at it, and said, "This one looks like it doesn't have quite enough blueberries in it. I don't want you to get short-changed. With that, he rang a bell, an associate came up almost immediately, he handed the box of blueberries to the associate and said, ‘this one looks like it's short on berries. Get another that's fuller. A minute or so later the box with more berries in it appeared and our checkout continued.

So at this grocery story, this island of incredible customer service, as the old Sonny and Cher song has it, "the beat goes on." Dolores and I continue to see, over and over again, the power of focus and the creation of absolutely indelible impressions.

Back to the audacious claim I made earlier. Developing a workforce that leaves customers with indelible impressions is simple ... and it takes hard work. But it definitely can happen. There's no mystery about what it takes to make it happen. It just takes believing in the power of Lean thinking, knowing how to transform Lean thinking into the creation of indelible impressions, and the tenacity to make this kind of thinking and behaving stick.

Employees whose thinking processes have become "Lean" are continually looking for ways to improve work processes. They are very definitely 100% present, body and mind, when they're on the job. They have high degrees of confidence in the value of their individual intelligence and creativity and they know that the organization for whom they work values their intelligence and creativity. They have also learned on-the-job that nothing is quite as enjoyable, as energizing, as knowing, through experience, not just words, that your company really values your creativity and intelligence. There's nothing as enjoyable and energizing as knowing that that your future job security is something that you can impact directly; that you have made a direct contribution to the profitability of the company that pays the salary of you and your colleagues. And, yes, by the way, to increasing the job security of both yourself and your team mates. In a word, there's nothing quite so ego-building as being recognized by your peers and managers as an active contributor to the future success of the organization.

How typical are high degrees of employee engagement? Very atypical. How many employees are active contributors? Not many. A study conducted by TowersPerrin in 2009 showed that only 21% of employees were fully engaged in their work and, further, that 38% were partially to fully disengaged. What are the implications of numbers of this sort? That's simple. No company with a 38% rate of employee disengagement is going to be successful in today's economy. Not unless they have an absolute lock on their marketplace, serving customers who have no alternative places at which to shop. Very, very few organizations have a lock on the marketplace like, say, the US Postal Service and even its grip is getting weak with the growth of competitors like e-mail, FedEx and UPS.

I look forward to continuing this discussion next week. Next week, I'll be reviewing some very specific actions your company can take that will build focus, engagement, and, as a results, sales and profitability. The third of this series of podcasts will highlight some of the outstanding results that high focus, high engagement performance improvement programs can deliver, based on my experience in working on teams with a major performance improvement company as well as the personal experiences of other professionals like yourselves. I can't think of any topic more directly related to creating the kind of workforce needed to succeed in a down economy than using the power of Lean thinking and acting to transform a workforce of customer service employees so they consistently provide your customers with indelible impressions.

If you'd like to get some information now about training and consulting services available through St. Louis Community College's Center for Business, Industry & Labor, to build Lean thinking and driving Lean acting, please call me, George Friesen, at 314-303-0612. Have a good week!