"The more things change,
the more things remain the same."
As e-mail, voice mail,
and technology allow people to conduct business without ever seeing each other,
the competitive edge can very well be the re-creation of conversation -- specifically
conversation that allows people to feel a "family" connection. It's a connection
that recalls the fact that commerce was traditionally an intimate affair.
My great-grandfather started
a shoe store, the first account Florsheim shoes ever had. Farmers would hook
up their horses and trot into York, PA. By learning about the customers from
his father, my grandfather knew their type of farm, their family members, what
kind of shoes they needed. In short, business knew its customers and customers
TRUSTED that a product or service would be delivered "as promised". Reineberg's
Shoe Store was known for "fitting feet" not just selling shoes. Business was
conducted on a family-like connection.
The same was true of employees.
Employees TRUSTED that the company would listen to them as if they were members
of an extended family. Employees knew that my grandfather would value their
individuality, understand that personal and business life were connected, and
pay a fair wage for a day's work. He also never asked more of others than he
asked of himself.
Times have changed. But
it's not too late to develop family "trust". However it's not easy.
Customers abandon companies
they do not trust and so do employees. Trust develops over time and can be dashed
in an instant. But improving organizational trust is more difficult and subtler
than installing new software. Research conducted by Leonard Berry, author of
Discovering the Soul of Service, and professor at Texas A&M concluded that
successful companies tend to act like extended families. They display these
"family traits" in five ways:
Family Gatherings: These
are events designed to share, console, help, celebrate and communicate. Enterprise
Rent-a-Car and Midwest Express Airlines routinely hold all-hands meetings to
answer employee questions, give awards, and keep everyone up to date. It's rather
like the long forgotten family councils, the circle of the tribal elders. Information
is freely given and encouraged. Sessions like "Stump the CEO" are held with
prizes given to employees who ask the most difficult questions. One advertising
agency holds "HELP!" sessions that can be called whenever a team member needs
advice and ideas. The stand-up-and-talk gathering is spur-of-the-moment, brings
all hands around, and is over in less than 15 minutes. And the family member
who asked for HELP! walks away with new ideas and insights.
Leaders are accessible, approachable, and caring. First name-basis becomes the
order of the day. Amazon.com mirrors this on their web site that literally calls
a customer by name and outlines suggested purchases based upon the customer's
buying history. How might you move beyond a web connection to create a higher
form of conversation?
Family Honor: Management
trusts employees. Time clocks are rare; remote work common. At Miller SQA, a
division of Herman Miller, factory employees keep their own hours on the honor
system. At AES, a utility organization, cross-training is so prevalent that
employees trust each other to perform a task when called upon.
Pay for performance, evenhandedness, promotions from within and merit-based
rewards. An example is Custom Research. This company won a Malcolm Baldridge
Award. Only 50 employees could attend a celebration in Florida. The organization-from
the president down to the clerical-drew names to see who could attend.
Family Fun: Humor
is the shortest distance between people. Families play together. At SW Airlines,
they have ice cream parties on the spur of the moment. Malaysian Airlines offers
dance and music concerts staffed by employees' talent. The options are endless.
Customers are also included in "the fun".
The trust test is passed
or failed on a daily basis. Retaining employees and customers are more likely
if retention becomes a family affair.