Starting a New Conversation

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In reading and listening to Peter Block’s brilliant book — “The Answer to How is Yes” — I was struck by a rather obvious statement.

He spoke about the need for change to start in companies through the creation of a new conversation.

A new conversation.

That means going past stuff that has already been said, opinions that have already been shared, histories that have already been explored, facts that are already known, responsibility that has already been taken, roles that have already been defined, steps that have already been taken.

While the content of these existing conversations may be correct, they are not new.

A new conversation results in new actions that come from new degrees of personal responsibility.

This is why increases in praying and fasting and supplication have done nothing to reduce the crime rate across the region (which has been increasing).

At least, not through the prayers we have been praying!

Maybe a new prayer would be “Lord, show me where I am contributing to the crime.” That would certainly be the start of a new conversation between the Lord and the supplicant.

What kinds of conversations can we Jamaicans create around us to generate new dimensions of personal responsibility? He has mentioned a few in his book that I am eager to share in this forum, in some shape or form. His ideas are quite challenging, and quite applicable to us here in the Caribbean.

For example, he raises the notion that change starts with new conversations for personal responsibility, rather than ending with blame being assigned.

So… I ask myself… where have I contributed to the crime we have?

P.S. A recent study showed that prayer had no effect on heart patients, and in fact resulted in complications for some heart patients who knew they were being prayed for: Click here

Delivering a Custom Experience

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I’m staying at my favourite hotel in Barbados, the Accra Beach Hotel. What makes it my solid first choice is the very warm welcome I receive after 30 visits, and the high level of service delivered relative to other Bajan hotels. The service is on par with a Jamaican hotel such as the Pegasus and a Trinidadian hotel like The Kapok.

On the other hand, it comes on the heels of my visit to the Marriott in Miami’s Dadeland area (my third or fourth overall).

There is just no comparison between the standards of the two hotels – the Marriot operates at a level that is clearly higher.

For example, I am sitting at my computer in my room at the Accra, and as I scan the room I can enumerate the service defects in my line of sight:

  • the balcony door has putty spots on it
  • there is a black mark on the wall
  • the light fixture needs to be painted
  • the light is blown
  • I had to move my desk to the other side of the room, where the hi-speed access Ethernet port is located
  • the baseboard is dirty
  • there are marks on the ceiling

The overall furnishings are clearly of much lesser quality than the Marriott (or even the Hilton here in Barbados for that matter).

But that is not what got my attention initially. As a runner, I often enter a hotel after a morning run by walking through the lobby, looking like someone who just ran 6 miles or so in 80 degree weather. As I entered the Marriott’s lobby yesterday, the bellman literally ran to his desk, and pulled out a bottle of water for me to drink. This is perhaps the third time he has done so.

In my 5 or so years of staying at the Accra Beach Hotel, that has never happened; nor has anything close to it happened.

I use this example to illustrate the example of a bellman who operates to extremely high standards, although his actions are typical of the staff at the hotel.

The question I have been asking myself is, “What would it take for the staff at The Accra to meet that kind of standard?”

Incidentally, I ask myself the same question. In my career, I have had the fortune to work with and for McKinsey & Co., which is seen by many as the premier management consulting firm in the world. Working alongside some of the brightest people in the world hired from the best schools in the world was an eye-opener.

What remains is a personal goal to operate my company at the standard I witnessed at that firm. This has proven to be challenging!

It seems that the first obstacle that The Accra would have to face is how to very quickly create the standard in the first place. The average Caribbean employee in the service industry is not surrounded by the high standards of service that their colleagues in the First World are privy to. There is no mass-market company in the region that is known for excellent, world-class service (except, perhaps, in their own minds). By mass-market, I mean companies that serve the general public, therefore excluding hotels like the Ritz Carlton or Sandy Lane.

Therefore, it is impossible to tell an employee of The Accra that the service they deliver should be “world-class” like Sandy Lane’s. The truth is that the average employee would have no idea what that experience is like.

Instead, The Accra would have to start by defining the precise experience they wanted customers to have, and allow employees to create it for themselves for the customers. In other words, instead of delivering “world-class service” they would have to deliver an experience equivalent to that delivered to “my best friend” or “my favourite teacher” or “my team-mate.”

Once the desired experience is defined, then the hotel could move on to defining standards of new behaviour that match the experience.

However, there is a limit to what standards can do. The bellman who runs to give me water after a long run is obviously not following a written standard.

Instead, it strikes me that there are two requirements for service to be delivered at this level.

The first requirement is that there must be an inner motivation to deliver the experience. The easiest way to ensure that the right staff is in place is to hire people with a predisposition to serve from the very beginning. For the majority of existing and operational hotels, this is not an option as the staff would be very difficult to change wholesale.

The Accra would have to find a way to directly address and transform the culture of the existing organization.

The second requirement is that the staff would have to be trained to recognize the customer’s experience, and how to produce the desired experience at will. These are tall orders, but they are required capacities that may take a significant investment to perfect.

Interventions to produce these capacities must be developed with an understanding of the region’s peculiar realities, both historical and sociological.

With these ingredients, The Accra could improve its standards, and maybe even deliver a distinct experience that the Marriott could not duplicate.

Why EVERY Serious Business Should Blog

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Now this is just an excellent article written by Robert Scoble on Tom Peter’s website that I think every business owner should read.

The only objection I can think of that a Caribbean executive might have to blogging is that relatively few people in our region are computer-literate. My response is, “if you build it, one day they will come.” In other words, it is only a matter of time until people become computer-literate, and start reading blogs, and by the time a company decides to jump in, the space will be too crowded to be heard.

Also, it is a good idea to create an online dialogue about your company, before someone who could very well be disgruntled, creates one about you… As the article explains, what blogging is doing is taking underground conversations and making them visible. It is a good idea to assume that whatever people are whispering about you behind closed doors, will one day turn up as part of an online conversation (better give up that mistress now!).

Plus, there is a tremendous learning curve to blogging. Only a year ago, I was still puzzled at what the term really meant. Beating the learning curve is just a good idea!

Let me know if you find the article useful, and if you are thinking of blogging also.

Waiting and the Customer Experience

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One of our recent clients is a financial institution serving Caribbean customers. Their interest is in boosting customer service levels, and hopefully gaining a competitive advantage that will result in greater market-share, margins and profits.

This shouldn’t be too hard.

The service rendered by the financial houses in the region is seen by most as mediocre at best, and no company stands out in either the research or in anecdotes in the level of service provided. Our job is to find clues that will assist the client in gaining all that it can to break out of the pack.

One clue that we have found has to do with waiting.

Waiting times, according to the research conducted by De Man, Vandaele and Gemmel of the University of Gent, can be seen to be made up of two parts that seem to be approximately equal in weight: the actual wait, as measured in minutes and hours, and the perceived wait as determined by the experience of the customer. It is becoming clear from the research that if a company is committed to providing better service in this area, then it must become skillful in reducing both kinds of waiting time simultaneously.

To put it simply, at the end of the day it is the customer’s experience that counts, and little else, in defining the level of service delivered.

As a formally trained Operations Researcher, I learned a multiplicity of of tools that can be used to tackle the problem of reducing measured waiting times, ranging from queuing theory to digital simulation, to stochastic modeling. Fortunately for me, I have completely forgotten how to use them!

These tools are helpful, but when used in isolation they are less than useful. Millions of dollars can be spent on process changes that end up making no difference to the customer’s perception.

On the other hand, a company that systematically addresses not just measured times but psychological waiting time is marching more in time to Einstein’s tune, in which time (and space) are relative phenomena. His theories were proven decades after he developed them when empirical evidence was gathered that showed that he was correct in his thinking.

The University of Gent researchers conducted the first empirical study to prove what many researcher have been saying since the early 1990’s — there are specific techniques that can be used to improve customer satisfaction. Some of the techniques include:

  • telling the customer how long a wait is likely to be
  • explaining why the wait will be as long as it will be
  • advising and updating the customer on the progress of the activities on which they are waiting
  • providing effective distractions for the customer that occupy their attention during the wait

Each of these techniques has been found to be useful in changing the customer’s perception of the length of the wait, and their overall perception of the quality of service being received.

Here in the Caribbean, banking is seen as one of those exceedingly time-wasting activities, moreso than many other activities that take less measured time. People carry books, radios and family members to their lines at financial institutions — anything to alter what for many is often a mind-numbing experience.

Most banks provide little more than an extremely sterile and secure environment, free of amenities such as bathrooms, and distractions of any kind. Many are quite proud of this fact. Some are even intent on making it hard for customers to stay in the establishment for too long a time, and are quick to usher them out the door, or encourage them to go elsewhere.

The first financial insitution in the region that is able to change this important aspect of the customer’s experience would win my business, and probably that of many others.