Monday, May 31, 2010

Beyond "The Customer is Always Right"

Last week I had an errand day where I had the opportunity to check out six counter services and two phone desks. As I walked the blocks between two of them (I had gone to the wrong counter) I pondered again the customer experience. I did not mind being redirected so much, as if I had been given no option at all. Papers in hand, time and energy marshalled for my day, I did not want to hit a wall.

At the City Hall counter (the wrong counter), I was impressed again by the angular architecture, the zebra terazzo floors, the imposing ranks of stairs reaching two stories, all intended to impress and hush. The counter is tucked in behind and to the left. There was just one gentleman ahead of me, shifting gently from foot to foot. As I have become more aware of mobility, I realized he is likely nursing some pains as he waits. He was gently advised that they no longer accept utility payments at that location, and was told where he can go to pay. I imagine his disappointment as he decides his next action. I realized that barriers become critical as mobility becomes an issue.

At my turn, I too find out that I am at the wrong location. The counter clerk helpfully supplies me with a map and describes how to get there. As I make my way out of City Hall, I wonder if administration has reduced counter service there in order to preserve the atmosphere. There's nothing like a long line of sweaty, noisy, impatient petitioners to ruin the classic lines of a building.

So there I am, walking between the buildings, and I ponder again the core needs of the customer. Like I said before, I did not want to hit a wall. I wanted to get my errands done in the time and energy I had. I thought of unreasonable customers I'd seen, who wanted full refunds without a receipt, or other demands outside of what the counter staff could do. They also had come with plans, and were frustrated when they were not met. The counter staff used what skills they had to calm the customer while standing their ground. So is the "customer always right"? Not quite so. If a worker has no recourse to stand their ground in the face of unreasonableness, how can they maintain their dignity and self-respect?

The answer, I believe, is to build a better relationship between petitioner and receiver. Seek to build win-win opportunities (Covey's fourth habit). Foremost on the customer's mind, is if their request is going to be met. They don't want barriers. If there will be one, they at least need to know that they have been heard, and what options are left open to them (where do I go now?). In the face of disappointment, the petitioner may resort to aggression or emotion in order to push their way through (Dinosaur Brains). Bernstein helpfully provides tips to calm the dinosaur and bring the conversation back on a cognitive level. Those tips just happen to be the same as those Covey describes. Which makes me think we are dealing with some fundamentals in human interaction.

The person first needs to be heard, acknowledged. They need a new course of action. But then, once calm has been achieved and the petitioner's core needs are met, follow up on how they can better meet the needs of the service provider, such as bringing the necessary documents. If the encounter is too short, take the lessons learned to improve the next experience.

I believe if counter staff are trained and empowered to create winning opportunities, they can stay strong and confident while providing great service.

P.S. The service counters I visited that day included Alberta Health Services, City Hall, City Planning Department, Scotiabank, Future Shop, and the YMCA. I also spent some time on the phone with the ever energetic Shaw desk service and my Internet Service Provider (ISP).

Christophe Serdakowski graciously gave permission to show off his interior shot of City Hall.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Selling the Hole

First Ethernet Cable

Starting my own consulting business had led me to view my services in a different light, as a marketer. On one of my business courses I was asked, “are you selling drill bits or the hole?”
After spending some time in deep thought about my profession, I believe businesses want to find what they need, quickly. If my profession fails them on this critical need, the rest is moot.

I admit to some reservations about the Generally Accepted Recordkeeping Principles (GARP) ©. I worry we are missing the boat (or the hole) by focusing on documentation. I continue to worry that we will not engage our customers enough in its design. If we only consult with ourselves, we will end up with a beautiful product, elegant, complete and only valued within our own community.

One of my strengths is a habit of “jumping the fence” and talking to people in other disciplines. I have my Information Technology (IT) buddies, my librarian friends, purchasers, facility managers, dentists, and entrepreneurs. They broaden my perspective on what information should be doing for them. I feel the pain of their unexpressed guilt if they are behind in their filing. Not that they can hide it. Just as a dentist reads the roadmap of inattention in a person’s mouth, I can gauge the state of a records program with a quick glance around the office and on the shared drives.

One of my IT buddies tells me that we (as Information Management professionals) need to de-mystify the process. Business managers do not have the time to absorb our terminology and methodologies. They need quick, one-page guides to get them to where they need to go. So I set about drafting some tip sheets. I quickly realized that it takes ten times as long to write something simply as it does to go the long way around. I also acknowledged that before there can be a simple process there needs to be some fundamental principles on how the whole system works. Like documenting who is responsible. Which led me back to GARP©

Now that I’ve come full circle, I figure the trick might be to treat GARP© as a necessary means to an end – secure management and fast finding of information for the business user. If the ultimate goal is kept in sight, this could be a valuable tool for the Information Manager and business.

I’ve included a picture of the world’s first Ethernet cable to show how demand forces simplicity. The first cable was engineered (over-engineered) to protect signals from all interference. However, the cable was nearly an inch thick! It could not be run for long distances, and it did not take corners very well. The new standard (Cat 5) compromises shielding to take care of these other factors. When building the fundamental principles that information management stands on, let’s be sure we engineer it for what is fundamentally needed and no more.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Launching Plato's Gnat Ltd.

That's it; I've done it. I've created my own corporation, "Plato's Gnat Ltd." If I can say the name without blushing, I might just have myself a winner.

The focus of my Plato's Gnat Ltd. will be to help businesses develop lean information systems. I am an expert on the content and management of the information, rather than the technology that supports it. This is the chief difference between Information Management (IM) and Information Technology (IT). I love working alongside my IT buddies and the work they do to keep businesses running. They typically want to work with the tools of the business, rather than retooling the businesses themselves. This is where I step in.

Why Plato's Gnat Ltd? I had help with the name from Wordlab, a wonderful - and free - naming group. If you want to be entertained by words, check them out some time. You might see my friend sigi wandering about the place. The talents at Wordlab made a very convincing argument that my company's name should be unique to stand above the crowd.

So what does Plato's gnat stand for? There was an ancient greek philosopher who was nicknamed the "Gnat of Athens" for his persistent questioning of the heads of state.

"I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state, and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you."[Apology (Plato)]

I also believe that persistent - and kind - questioning can help businesses and organizations challenge their routines. Is there a better way to get the job done that empowers the worker, humanizes the experience, and offers a better result?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Not Knowing Where's the Next Paycheque

It's been about two months since I left the public service, and I've barely taken the time to record what it has been like. It's been a very interesting time. As uncertainty has grown, so has my confidence. It took a while to figure out why.

What have I been up to? It turns out I am task driven, and that has followed me right in to my new life. I'm incorporating the principles of Getting Things Done (C) (GTD), and making myself a model office. My first job was to send out feelers to every employer and company I've wanted to work for. Then I took a week's break in Banff with hubby, not knowing if I would have any calls waiting for me when I got back. I became a member of ARMA, after I realized that my work relationships just won't "happen" any more. The local records folk have been unfailingly welcoming and supportive.

I signed up for classes I've always wanted to take. You are now looking at a certified instructor for NAIT. I've taken a series of workshops at BusinessLink. I'm following wherever my nose leads, and I am writing.

AND I've become more active in my community, on the boards for the Clareview Crime Council and Clareview Youth, and volunteering to instruct art to a gaggle of lively children through ArtStart. I am also more physically active, signing up for Live Better Every Day (Stanford) and the local health club.

As for job prospects, there have been very few. Mine is a specialty field with a defined industry. This can be both good and bad. My expertise can be afforded in large companies such as government, petroleum, educational, health, and financial institutions. I've concluded that I may have to sell myself as a consultant. The prospect of short-term projects, with no certainty where the next job comes from, is more and more attractive. It affords me the flexibility and variety I've craved. When presenting myself to prospects, their positive reactions confirms that I am an established expert in my field, with real solutions to offer.

I am reminded of the reflections of a farmer's wife, whose husband grew Timothy for the Japanese market. The quality of the grain and their consequent prosperity was utterly dependent on the weather. They needed rain to make it grow, and then they needed the rain to stop for the crop to mature. My friend the wife talked about faith, and how her prayers used to tumble from hope through despair depending on the depth of cloud in the sky (reminds me of the despair of lottery and bingo players). Then she had a revelation that faith is the confidence that all would work out, regardless of the weather. She found a new calm.