My wife is a strong, upbeat woman who rarely complains. However, one evening at dinner I could tell something was really bothering her and I pressed her until she finally revealed that she was feeling somewhat insignificant in the lives of our adult children (now aged 26 to 31).
Over the previous weeks, Lori had received news from three of the four sharing important things that had happened in their respective lives. One was a text that contained a photo of our granddaughter’s Halloween costume. Another broke the news that our son-in-law had passed the Colorado Lawyer’s bar exam. Then there was an email my son had sent stating that his 10-month period of unemployment had ended as he had accepted a great position in a new city.
Lori’s feelings of insignificance came from the fact that she was only one of many other people who had also received these important news stories at the exact same time via text and email blasts.
Don’t confuse easy with meaningful
“Would it have been so difficult to send a personal message just to me?” Lori lamented.
Our kids aren’t wired like we are. They almost always choose easy over meaningful. As products of a digital universe, their hierarchy of communication needs are completely reversed, as evidenced by the chart below.
Unarguably, technology has made it easier to communicate to the masses. Laborious tasks of yesteryear are now done with little or no effort. Consider the following:
It’s far easier to order a batch of greeting cards imprinted with Happy Holidays from ACME Industries (or the Johnson Family, etc.) than it is to write a personal handwritten note to each recipient on your list.
It’s even easier to click out an eCard to your entire database, and easier even still to post “Merry Christmas everyone!” to your Facebook page. But who finds meaning in any of these easy substitutions?
It’s dangerous to confuse easy with meaningful. No matter how clever or expensive a mass message is, even if it’s disguised as personal by merging the recipient’s name into the blast, it screams “you’re just another record in our database” and it does nothing to strengthen a relationship. It may, in fact, repel those whom we’re hoping to endear.
Easy communication is not meaningful
This extends beyond electronic communication and is revealed in the service your customers have come to expect from your brand.
It’s easy to program employees with robotic phrases like, “Would you like fries with that?” “Thank you for shopping at Big-Mart” and “Have a nice day.” But it takes time, energy, passion, and repetitive coaching to instill them with the importance of maintaining eye contact, speaking in clear audible sentences, taking a genuine interest in the person in front of them, and expressing sincere gratitude at the end of the transaction.
Meaningful communication is not easy. And easy communication is not meaningful. Ultimately, it comes down to a choice every business leader must make:
When people think of me/my brand, what word comes to mind: Easy (take a number, robotic, long hold/wait times, mass mailing, etc.) or Meaningful (genuine concern, personal attention, sincere, high quality)?
Don’t simply dismiss this strictly as a matter of dollars and cents. You spend a hundred times more for a ticket on Delta Airlines than you do for a sandwich at Chick-Fil-A, but where do you feel more appreciated?
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Business leaders who only seek to appease stockholders with an annual increase of 5 percent in same store sales growth concentrate on attracting new (albeit expendable) customers by rolling out new products and creating clever marketing promotions. They’re always on the lookout for ways to automate services, reduce labor costs, and cut training expenses.
Investing to build a highly-skilled workforce
To that end, all service personnel need only memorize a few catch phrases that feign enthusiasm and/or concern. If customers get disgruntled, there’s always another behind them and customer complaints can be reasoned away with the pat ‘you get what you pay for’ excuse. The good news for businesses taking the easy path is that as long as the economy remains flat, turnover will not be a major issue.
Conversely, business leaders who are looking to build a highly-skilled workforce that is committed to delivering exceptional service understand the investment of time and resources necessary to achieve meaningful communication. They know that the return on this investment may not be as immediate as stockholders would like, but they’ll weather the storm believing the long term return is far greater, and with knowledge that employee loyalty won’t be washed away in an economic recovery.
To achieve the meaningful, time must be spent coaching and mentoring courtesy, etiquette, and manners showing a digitally-minded workforce how to approach people, smile, introduce themselves, remember names, actively listen, and keep the conversation focused on others, not themselves. Leaders can ill afford to spend time lamenting that young people should have learned this stuff before they were hired. Most didn’t.
There isn’t a silver bullet or a three-step formula when it comes to building a highly skilled, customer-focused workforce. You’ll need a curriculum, a plan, and an integrated system of daily instruction. You’ll also need to develop systems to alert them when they veer toward the robotic and impersonal, and recognize and reward them when they make someone feel special, valued, and appreciated.
Sustained meaningful service is a byproduct of a culture that begins at the top and is encouraged and promoted at every level down to the hourly part-timer. This is not achieved through a one-and-done training program or a five-minute mandate inserted into a routine meeting agenda.
Predictably, the best way to transform your communication culture from easy to meaningful is through example. When your people see their leaders take an active interest in them and demonstrate genuine appreciation for their efforts through personal one-to-one face time, they’ll discover that a relationship is one that requires more than a smart phone.
They’ll also begin to see how going all out to make a meaningful personal connection by serving each and every customer with a heart full of gratitude is pivotal to the success of your business, and the key to making their own dreams come true.
Eric Chester’s latest book is Reviving Work Ethic: A Leader’s Guide to Ending Entitlement and Restoring Pride in the Emerging Workforce.