In 2007, while SVP of Operations for Bresnan Communications, a cable TV company with 300,000 customers in 4 Rocky Mountain states, I was searching for a solution to a problem that had been eluding me for many years – a simple way to connect the 1,100 employees I was responsible for around a higher cause that went beyond profit.
Fortunately, late that year a dedicated field technician in Grand Junction, Colorado and my faulty memory during a morning shower in Billings, Montana were the catalysts to finally lead me to the answer, and my greatest leadership discovery. Here’s the story……
Larry Does His Job
In many of my field staff meetings in 2007, I started my presentations using a famous quote by Winston Churchill:
“Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb.”
In that spirit of continuous improvement I headed to one of our cable systems in Grand Junction, Colorado, to do a “ride along” with a particular cable field technician on their daily rounds as they did installations or service calls.
I wanted to see with my own eyes the progress we had made, and the improvements we still needed to make. My philosophy was clear – there was ALWAYS room for improvement. I always wanted to raise the bar.
The tech I was going to hitch a ride with was named Larry. I had heard about Larry many times in the past several years, because the managers in Grand Junction kept citing him as a shining example of an exemplary technician.
Larry was a plain spoken, straight-shooting guy who clearly loved his job. You could tell that just by watching him talk, and interact with customers. He was short, round faced and stocky – not a matinee idol, but at the same time, he had a zen-like quality that was immediately calming, not unlike the happy Buddha statue I would see a few times a week at my local yoga studio back home in Connecticut.
I loved how he didn’t think he was doing anything extraordinary – “just paying attention”, he would say.
It didn’t take long to see how he put that attention to work when we arrived at our first house. It was a “triple play” installation – video, internet, and phone. We walked over to the side of the house where the cable entered the structure from the street. You could see the frown on his face when he examined the handiwork of previous technicians at this spot – messy, loose and obviously not done with much attention to detail.
This was substandard work, and while for some technicians it would have qualified as “good enough” and enabled them to continue on with the install, Larry wasn’t going to let it go. He was going to re-do it, even if it added to the time on the job. So I watched him do it, very deliberately, all the while having a running conversation on a wide range of topics.
“What do you think of the company in general?”
“Are our standards and policies correct?”
“Yes, but they need to be better enforced. This is a case in point.”
After 20 minutes he had fixed the outside wiring, and was now ready to complete the install.
I watched him interact with the customer, calmly explaining all the services and setting up all the added features. The customer was clearly comforted by his zen- like approach. He was careful and meticulous as he wired up the television and installed the modem for the Internet and phone. 45 minutes later, everything was finished, and the customer was quite pleased with the results.
It was, for Larry, a routine install. He was “just doing his job”. But for me, it was anything but routine. He clearly made a customer happy. Larry just made a difference.
It was a visual representation of what I had been seeing on my recent customer satisfaction reports – great interactions between employee and customer DO make a huge difference in customer satisfaction and retention.
When I pointed this out to Larry, he just gave me one of those “aw shucks” looks and said
“I just like serving customers, and take pride in my work. That’s all there is to it. No big deal”
No big deal? I begged to differ. I just got a booster shoot of fuel for the drive to find the answers I was looking for. We hadn’t set the bar too high.
It didn’t surprise me a couple of months later when I saw his name next to yet another accolade nomination. But this time, it WAS a big deal. A customer whose husband was blind had cited for Larry “above and beyond” kindness. At a cable install, he had patiently shown the husband how to use the remote control by placing his fingers over the proper buttons and describing their function.
Nobody would have known about it if it wasn’t for the customer reaching back out to us – after all, according to Larry, it was “no big deal”.
A Mantra Is Born
“The ultimate test for a mantra is if your telephone operators can tell you what it is. If they can, then you’re onto something meaningful and memorable. If they can’t, then, well, it sucks.” – Guy Kawasaki
With Larry and his customer service experience fresh on my mind, I traveled to Billings, Montana for some regional management meetings, and scheduled one of my usual 8AM chats with the local technical staff. My core topic for those chats at the time were a set of 7 Values we had rolled out a few months before, with great fanfare, during a company re-branding effort.
We had posters up with the values listed all over the place, and handed out wallet-sized fold-outs to every employee so everyone could carry them to work every morning.
In the early morning before this particular chat I got into the shower at my hotel and started to gather my thoughts.
“OK, I want to cover our new process initiatives. Check.”
“Let’s talk about a few of the product upgrades too. Check”
“Finally, let’s review the 7 Values – OK, let’s run them down. Honest, Reliable………now what are the rest of them?”
I couldn’t remember them all, even after over 4 months of talking about them.
That was a problem. If I couldn’t recite them from memory, than who else would be able to?
I had put a lot of time and effort into those 7 words, and used a lot of my internal capital to make it part of our rebranding.
My heart sank – was it going to be all for naught? Did we create something that just made us feel good at the time it was created, but then would be stashed in our wallets forever?
Then, I got angry. It was just too darn complicated. It wasn’t going to work the way I wanted it to.
But what was I supposed to do, just abandon the whole thing, right then and there? Or press on, dutifully reading the values off of the wallet card to stand behind something that I now knew wasn’t the answer?
I remembered what I had said at my original pitch to the executives as to the “why” behind the value set:
“A unified team rallying around a common set of values, and leadership that shares AND lives them, every day, will be a happier and more productive one”
I still wanted that. I KNEW we needed it.
“C’mon Terry, what’s this all about!” I coached myself, hoping that an answer would appear before the hot water ran out.
Suddenly, it hit me. “Summarize” them. Create a shorthand version of the 7 Values. That way they could still exist, but not out in front as the rally point.
“What does this company do –it’s a service – it’s about service. Great customer service. we provide a service to customers”
My ride-along with Larry flashed in my mind. I remembered what he said.
“I just like serving customers”
“Serve the customers”. I said that out loud and tried it on for size.
“Nope, not right.”
“Serve OUR customers”. I loved how that pronoun worked – a collective ownership.
That was good, but there had to be something to promote the “unified team”.
“Be a team”. Nah, nothing inspirational about that.
“Think team”. Better. But not it.
I took a deep breath, and focused. What does a great team do? They work well with each other. They help each other.
I thought about Larry again. He selflessly “covered” someone else’s error on that install, and thought nothing of it. And, he supported me with his call for more enforcement of proper processes.
“Supported – like that word”, I thought.
They support each other. I really did like “support” better than help.
“Support each other” Mmmmm…..
“Serve our customers and support each other”
“That’s it!!!” I said it so loud I’m sure the folks in the next room heard it clear as a bell. I had my shorthand, but as I toweled off and thought about what I would do with it, I had another, more deeper realization. I had finally found what I was looking for – a great leadership discovery.
There’s such an utter simplicity at the heart of any business.
We can get so caught up in all the nuts and bolts, the campaigns and brands, the product and technology, and the processes and policy that we forget the essence of what we’re doing. Larry’s experience with his customer got at that essence and brought things into focus for me.
We need to pay attention to the things that really MATTER. Those precious customers, and our human selves.
If we’re not serving one and supporting the other, we’re doomed, regardless of the state-or-the-art technology and the fancy ads.
It was so simple!
I also figured out that “Serve Our Customers and Support Each Other” was the mantra I had been looking for – it could be on the lips of every employee. And I could easily repeat it over, and over, and over again.
Earlier in my career I figured out that repetition was a great leadership tool – in fact, through too many experiences where I thought someone had understood something but in fact did not (or just tuned me out), I had developed what I called “Terry’s Rule”:
If you want someone to remember something you have to say it at least 15 times.
15 times? For this one, it was going to be thousands.
Our mantra did end up being our biggest rally cry for success, spoken in every office, every conference room, and at every team meeting, and present on all the walls and in all of our email signatures. It indeed served as our connection to a higher purpose – and better still, higher profit, and many of the best operating metrics in the industry. We got to that point where we were sharing and living our values every day. And yep, I said it myself way, way more than 15 times.
It was a discovery that lives and breathes in my heart every single day as a fundamental way to conduct a business – we serve our customers, and support each other.