What a good preacher can teach us about accountability…

iPads, Insomnia, and Podcasts…

Sometimes, when I have trouble sleeping, I will find a good podcast or ‘sirius talk’ channel that looks interesting, and let the drone of the narrator “read me to sleep”.

I don’t know what it is about “talk radio” or short podcast subjects that do the trick for me (instead of music, for example), because some of the topics are really interesting and engaging and would keep most normal people “awake” rather then send them off to sleep. But not for me. 30 Minutes into one of these podcasts or talk shows, and I’m out like a light.

Who Knows. This phenomena probably has to do more with our childhoods, when we were “put to sleep” by our parents reading us  a good story book, than it does the level of topical ‘engagement’ of the content itself. But that’s a subject for another day, or perhaps my therapist.

Now, sometimes when you download a podcast, there is not too much background available on the host, but that usually doesn’t bother me because the vast majority of them on itunes are pretty much free. So, if it’s a bad one, so be it- it’s still usually enough to put me to sleep through the sheer value of their mindless droning. Last night could have been one of those nights.

Last night, however was about the content. I found a podcast dealing with the topic of “personal change”, something near and dear to me because so much of the consulting work I do involves cultural alignment, behavioral change and leadership skills. Invariably, all of those are in some way dependent on PERSONAL change, often of significant magnitude.

Rapture, repentance, and judgment day…

As the podcast opened,however, it was clear that I was in for a surprise. While the topic was “personal change” (which we all know can span a broad array of angles), this one had what one might call a “spiritual bent” to it, which clearly was not evident by the podcast icon and description.

Although it was not what I was expecting, I did listen on. After all, who can’t resist a little advice from a good “preacher man”!

As I am fading off to sleep amidst his messages of raptures, repentance and judgments, the word “ACCOUNTABILITY” popped out of my ear buds like a shot in the dark. And while it probably was his intention to pique my interest will all of his other words of prophetic wisdom, it was the word “accountability ” that hooked me.

Now, if God is reading this, I don’t mean to say that I didn’t internalize ALL of the other parts of the sermon. I LISTENED TO ALL OF IT!!!” It’s just that the subject of accountability is one that I have been working with many of my clients on currently, and so the mere mention of the topic grabbed my attention just A LITTLE more than the “end of days” stuff. But that was for one instant, until I returned to the rest of the sermon, at which point I paid perfect attention. (Ok- bases covered with God- check.)

What “The Preacher” says about accountability…

Good preachers have a few things in common. One, they are charismatic speakers. Two, they are usually great storytellers. And three, they have an uncanny ability to translate complex principles into very simple messages. So what was his simple message on the subject of accountability? Just tell someone!!

That’s right, tell someone. Such a simple act. Yet such powerful implications. Here was his four step process to accountability:

  • Make a decision to make a commitment
  • Set a goal
  • Write it down
  • And tell someone

Now before you conclude that it’s not that simple (and I am not suggesting it is), just think about this in various facets of your personal, spiritual and work life. Heck, think about something as simple as exercise and weight loss (yet another topic close to my heart- literally!). I know for me, the only time I take that seriously is when I do in fact ‘tell someone’. I don’t know exactly why that works, but it does. Probably, it has something to do with someone else “watching”. Or perhaps it is because you feel a commitment beyond just yourself. Whatever the reason, I find that it works.

It also works in other areas of my life. When I commit something verbally to my kids, it means more than just a superficial personal “intent”. Same with my spouse. And truth be told, as a “good Catholic” (subject to debate, I suppose), when I make a confession to a priest, I take the commitment of “doing better next time” more to heart, than if I just made that same commitment to myself in passing.

I think”writing it down” certainly helps too, since it is now part  of “recorded history”, and something you can go back to and look at. It becomes tangible.

Livin’ “The Gospel” in business!!!

Even if it’s just inside your own sandbox…

As I think about this in a business context, specifically with respect to performance improvement, it all makes sense, doesn’t it? I can’t tell you how many times those “personal change “rock-stars” (from Carnegie  to Covey) have preached these same principles in their books on ‘achieving success’, ‘positive thinking’, and the broad array of topics they wax so eloquently on. And no doubt, every consultant (including your’s truly) has developed some methodology for driving accountability and change that include these basic four steps in some way, shape, or form.

I know many of you are working on driving accountability into your business cultures, and have one point or another, been involved in that type of multi step, multi phase, “journey of change” that was no doubt complex. And for many of you, some level of reward was received from those efforts. Change management programs do work, and with good leadership commitment, can really mobilize and cement long term improvements to a results oriented and highly accountable culture across the business.

But there are other times, when a manager just wants to simply motivate an employee, change the attitude of a team member, or the shift culture within a small workgroup. But instead of moving ahead in their little “patch of turf”, they often get caught up in the narrative of “it’s all about leadership” and the inability to change things from within unless “the top dogs” are behind it. That’s unfortunate, because change can happen in small pieces if the managers of those parts of the business understand the simple behaviors required to catalyze that change.

So before you conclude that reaching an new or ambitious goal is not achievable with your current team and cultural environment, give the preacher man a chance, and try out his 4 steps. Make the commitment. Set a goal. Write it down. And tell someone.

Then come back in a few weeks and see if anything has changed. You might surprise yourself!


Author: Bob Champagne is Managing Partner of onVector Consulting Group, a privately held international management consulting organization specializing in the design and deployment of Performance Management tools, systems, and solutions. Bob has over 25 years of Performance Management experience and has consulted with hundreds of companies across numerous industries and geographies. Bob can be contacted at bob.champagne@onvectorconsulting.com

SM Metrics- Getting beyond followers, klout, and social butterflies!

More Metrics Insights- Really? Haven’t we had enough?

I’ve been following all the “buzz” over the past week from #SXSW and now #eMetrics regarding the development, reporting and use of “metrics” in Social Media (SM) space. Quite interesting dialogue to say the least.

For some of you, particularly those who don’t live and breath Social Media, all of this may have turned into “white noise”, as this weekend appears to have exhausted just about every angle on the subject of SM metrics that we could possibly explore. But  fear not! As another week kicks into gear, there will no doubt emerge a new wave of posts and blogs on the very same topic.

But I must admit, that all of this “metrics talk” does strike a chord with me. After all, having spent nearly two decades in helping company leaders and managers get their arms around business metrics, and the broader discipline of performance management, you would expect my ears to jump up at the word “metrics”! (I know…sad but true). And while SM is not an area I have spent an enormous amount of time studying or participating in from “the inside”, I am finding that many of the same principles I use with my “corporate clients” and  very much “in play” for this new and ever evolving market.

Stepping outside my “sandbox” …

While my life does not revolve around advances in SM, I have become what one might call a “steady  user” of it. From my evening “blogging” hour, to ongoing “check-ins” via Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn; I would confess to spending at least 10-15% of my ‘awake time’ interacting with online friends and colleagues.

Of course, like many of you, Social Media (which for me includes my morning time with my Pulse reader scanning news and blogs that I monitor) has replaced the time I spend reading newspapers, magazines and “industry rags” (in fact it’s become much a more efficient medium saving me lots of time and energy). And those ongoing “check ins” that I initiate, usually occur when I am either ” restricted” (cabs, airports, etc.), between tasks, or otherwise indisposed (I won’t elaborate on the latter- you get the idea).But the “blogging hour”… that is something separate for me, and while I do enjoy it and it helps me unwind, I also recognize it for what it is- a personal and professional investment in my own development.  So yes, you could say that SM should be important simply because of the 15% percent of my day that I rely on it for.

But for me, it goes a little beyond that, especially now that the conversation has turned to metrics, and the broader issue of managing SM performance and results. Ever since I got into the Performance Management discipline years ago, I’ve been a strong believer and proponent of finding ideas and insights, wherever they occur (different companies, different industries, different geographies, etc.), and applying insights to current challenges within our own environments. Some would call this “benchmarking”. Others may call it good learning practices. For me, it’s not only common business sense, but a core set of principles that I live and manage by. And for many like me, it is the basis of any good Performance Management system.

So it’s only natural for me to observe what’s going on in this space and try to open some good “cross dialogue” on how we can lift the overall cause that I know we all are pursuing: More effective measurement, better management of performance, and stronger results.

Exploring “Best Practices” In SM Performance Measurement…

A few weeks back I published a post on what businesses outside of SM space could learn from what is happening within SM. Many of you found that useful, although I must admit that it was the first time that I really began experimenting with what was available out there in terms of thinking andtools. But rather than focusing on the tools, I tried to explore some of the bigger themes that were emerging in terms of practices and approaches, and attempted to determine which aspects of that thinking in SM might be be “import-able” by other sectors as “lessons learned”.

Today, I want to ‘flip the tables’ a bit, and talk about what other industries can teach Social Media about the art of measuring, improving, and delivering on our individual goals and aspirations.

I was inspired to go this direction by a number of posts over the weekend that appeared to delve into the same question (here’s an example regarding the measurement issues with Klout) When I read that, it sounded like some good stuff, I realized that this was really  the tip of the iceberg on a really important issue. So expanding on this seemed to be the next logical step.

So what Can SM Learn From Others?

The below observations are based on merely a snapshot of what I see taking place now, and fully realize that dialogue is occurring at this very minute in certain hotel bars and restaurants on this very topic. My goal is not to suggest an exhaustive list of “fix it now’s”, but rather to open an ongoing dialogue on what we can learn and apply in our individual areas of expertise.

  • Is what we’re measuring today meaningful?

OK, let’s get some basics out of the way, at the risk of boring (or offending) some of the social media pundits and ‘real experts’ out there. For most users (consumers of Social Media)- the everyday user of Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, for example- the answer to ‘whether or not SM measures are meaningful ?’ is “probably not”. Save for ego and vanity, measurement of things like the number of “digital friends” (Facebook friend counts and Twitter followers for example) mean very little to the nature of managing meaningful relationships- whether it is in maintaining existing ones, or growing new ones. Meaningful relationships go way beyond these surface level statistics.

Of course, there are those individuals and businesses who do use, and rely heavily on, more in depth statistics for tracking their progress. So I believe at least some of them would say “yes- meaningful…but with a lot left to be desired”. The stats and measures are there. Are they meaningful and value adding to the business? Subject to debate.

What we can be certain of, is that things like Follower counts, Klout scores, Retweets, and Click-through’s are measures that are becoming less and less valuable, and that there is a deep yearning for more. Whether this takes the form of refining what’s in the algorithms and “black boxes” , or a major rethinking of the metrics themselves (which would be my vote), still appears to be a subject of great debate.

  • For the sake of what?

When you walk into a large company that “manages by the numbers” (and trust me, many don’t), you see that there are literally hundreds, if not thousands of things they are tracking. Some are real meaningful, and some are as useless as an “asshole on your elbow” (I heard that one from a old (and wise) plant manager in Texas, and have been waiting months to use it- hope I didn’t offend :)

When I see that level of measurement/ quantity of metrics, a little “warning sound” goes off in my head and I start exploring the question: “For the sake of what?” are you measuring this or that? I use a variety of techniques to get them to tell me how they are going to use a certain metric (most often the question of “why?” asked repetitively works best), but often the question is rhetorical because there is no answer. I once heard someone say, “If you want to see if information is valuable, just stop sending out the report and see if anyone screams!”.

Fact is, if a measure doesn’t have a causal link to some major result area, or worse, if the person managing it cannot see that link, the metric serves no purpose other than to consume cost. Most of the tools I see in SM space for tracking metrics simply  report stats with no obvious linkage to any real outcome. Even if something like # followers was important (and we all know that most often it ranks pretty low), there is no clear path evident in the reports on how the stats actually impact an outcome that is important to the user (other than loose descriptions and definitions at best).

Yet, we all know that the tools and models for establishing those linkages exist everywhere. Just look at some of the basic tools used by stock traders. While they are not perfect by a long shot, “technicals” like Stochastics, Bollinger Bands, and simple breakout patterns, have clear paths to a high probability event or outcome, yet are available to even the most amateur  investor. Even “stogy” old Utility companies can draw connections between things like permit rates, new connection activity and downstream staffing requirements. I’m not suggesting it’s easy, just that it’s important and that the tools are there to execute and simplify.

  • Who really cares?

For me, this is the MOST IMPORTANT item on the list. Most of us have seen the Klout site, Twitalyzer, and the myriad of other tools out there to support the development of personal networks. These tools are extremely useful, and possess a wealth of information if you have the time and stamina to think about what it all means. I mean, come on… to have 25 metrics on one page with trends only one click away is something that a real metrics guy can only look at and say “WAY COOL”. Seriously, very cool! That’s the good news.

The bad news is that it’s the same news for everyone. But we all know the dangers of “one size fits all”. I’m not diminishing the value these tools provide. SM would be lost without them. And in their defense, certain sites like Twitalyzer and Klout have gone beyond the simple dashboards and have incorporated categories that many aspire to, and have begun to draw some connection between these aspirations and those broad categories.

But it’s just a start (I mean come on…Are  any Twitter users actually aspiring to be “social butterflies”? (ok, don’t answer that, because they’re probably some who do!) Perhaps a better question is whether a “social butterfly ” would ever aspire to be a “thought leader” ? My point is that it’s probably not a linear sequence of development, and while these categories get us one step closer to aligning measures with goals, they are still missing 2 things:

1) Better understanding of the goals of users (its probably more than 4 and less than 100) and

2) a guidance system that helps one use the metrics to achieve those goals.

So here’s a thought…What about a simple interface that allows you to pick a goal, and then tells you which metrics you should care about and what the target should be to accelerate within that goal class? You’d be building a model that would clearly feed on itself. I’d be surprised if the BI guru’s out there don’t already have this built into their corporate BI suites and Web Analytics tools, but it would seem to me to be a great draw for the myriad of other users with goals that extend beyond butterflies and mindless follower counts.

Find out what’s important, at as customized a level as you can (and is practical), and tell us how to get there. That’s the “holy grail” in every business, and what every CEO is and Executive is craving from its performance management process – “I’ll tell you what my strategic goal/ ambition is,…and you tell me what the metrics AND targets are  that will help me get there,… and then help me  track my progress!”

  • Can tools help? (and how?)

Absolutely and without question, the answer is yes. But just as other businesses and industries have jumped too quickly, often placing ‘technology before process’, so has SM in my view. Part of this is because of how the industry is “wired”, and how it has evolved. Born through technology, and managed and staffed with a heavy technology bent, it’s not surprising that we’ve reached a point where the data has become king, UI’s have a lot to be desired.

I’m not talking about the ease of navigation, the placement of charts, or the rendering of drill down information. I’m talking about how the user (the customer) thinks…starting with their goals, and accessing the relevant metrics to show progress and critical actions they need to take to improve. I suspect the developer who can “visualize” (to use an overused term in today’s SM environment) that kind of “line of sight” will ultimately win the hearts of its users.

The other role technology can play is enabling the algorithms and models that are required to deploy the kind of “mass customized”/ goals oriented solution I described above. Without these tools, the likelihood of being able to normalize, analyze and model these relationships would be impossible. So in my view, the tools are critical, but the effort first needs to be on the process (getting the line of sight understood) and then working the raw data in a way that renders it in a context-specific visualization. That’s in a perfect world- but it’s still a good aspiration.

Like I said, these are just the things that are ‘top of mind’ for me at the moment, and only informed by the lens through which “Bob” is looking. I’m sure some of these issues are top of mind for you too, and you may actually be unveiling (right now) that new “holy grail” subscription site  that has the answers. If so, great…I may be your perfect customer. But if the last two decades have taught me anything, it is that different perspectives and different lenses often pose new questions and spark new crystal balling that lifts the entire game.

Of course I welcome any comments and expansion on the above list. As I said earlier, this is just the beginning of my own thinking, inspired in part by some of yours. I look forward to more of yours!

PS- For anyone who is interested in Performance Management and Metrics topics outside of the world of SM, feel free to bookmark http://EPMEdge.com

Links to some of my more recent posts on these subjects are provided below

Incorporating the principle of “line of sight” into your performance measurement and management program

Managing through the “rear view mirror”- a dangerous path for any business

Data, information and metrics: Are we better off than we were 4 years ago?


Author: Bob Champagne is Managing Partner of onVector Consulting Group, a privately held international management consulting organization specializing in the design and deployment of Performance Management tools, systems, and solutions. Bob has over 25 years of Performance Management experience and has consulted with hundreds of companies across numerous industries and geographies. Bob can be contacted at bob.champagne@onvectorconsulting.com

Data, Metrics, and Information- Are we better off than we were 4 years ago?

Data, data…all around us…

Most of the projects I work on day in and day out involve data to varying degrees. I use data quite extensively in all of the assessments I do on organizational and operational performance. I use it heavily whenever I benchmark a company’s processes versus a comparable peer group. Data is at the very core of any target setting process. And, of course, data is (or at least should be) the beginning, and a continuous part of any gap analysis and any subsequent improvements that follows.

Today, the hunger that organizations have for good data has reached such unprecedented levels, that whole industries have developed in and around the domain of  what we now call “Business Intelligence” or BI. Having consulted to organizations over the last three decades, I’ve seen this hunger level increase steadily throughout the entire period. But no more so than in the past few years.

However, despite all the gyrations that we’ve gone through over the years, one of the first things I hear from C-Suite Executives is that they still feel  “Data rich and information poor”. So I’ll start this post off in the words of late President Ronald Regan by asking, “Are we better off or worse off than we were 4 years ago (in terms of translating data into useful and actionable information)?”

So are we better off than we were 4 years ago?

As any good politician, I would have to hedge a bit, and say yes, and no. And appropriately so I think.

We are most certainly better in our ability to “access” the data. If you’ve lived through the same decades as I have , you will remember the painstaking efforts we all made to extract data out of those proverbial “source systems” (when “SAS routines” had nothing to do with the SaaS of today). Everything from the data inside of our source systems, to the tools we use to access the data, to the ways in which we report and visualize the results has moved forward at lightening speed. And so, from that standpoint, we are, in fact, better off.

But on the other side of the coin, our tools have, in most cases, outpaced the abilities of our organizations and their leadership to truly leverage them. At a basic level, and in part because of the technology itself, we often have more data than we know what to do with (the proverbial “data overload”). Some would say that this is just a byproduct of  how wide the “data pipe” has become. And at some level, that’s hard to argue.

But I think the answer goes well beyond that.

“Data rich, information poor”…still?

In large measure, yes. The bigger issue in my view is the degree to which the organization’s skills and cultural abilities enable (or better said, disable) them to effectively utilize data in the right ways. Most companies have put such a large premium on data quality and the ability to extract it through their huge investments in IT infrastructure and financial reporting, that it has in some ways forced leadership to “take it’s eye off the ball” with respect to the way in which that data is operationalized.

So from the perspective of using the data to effect smarter operational decisions, I’d say the successes are few and far between.

Of course, you can google any of the “big 3″ IT vendors and find a myriad of testimonials about how much better their decision making processes have gotten. But look at who’s doing the speaking in the majority of cases. It is largely from the Financial and IT communities, where  the changes have been most visible. But it’s in many of these same companies where operating executives and managers still clamor for better data and deeper insights.

So while at certain levels, and in certain vertical slices of the business, the organization is becoming more satisfied with its reporting capabilities, translating that information into rich insights and good fodder for problem solving still poses a great challenge. And unfortunately, better systems, more data, and more tools will not begin to bridge that gap until we get to the heart of some deeper cultural dynamics.

Needed: A new culture of “problem solvers”

Early in my career, I was asked to follow and accept what appeared to me at the time to be a strange “mantra”: “If it ain’t broke, ASK WHY?” That sounded a little crazy to me having grown up around the similar sounding but distinctly different phrase: “If it aint’t broke, DONT fix it”.

That shift in thinking took a little getting used to, and began to work some “muscles” I hadn’t worked before. For things that were actually working well, began asking ourselves “why?”. At first, we began to see areas where best practices and lessons learned could be “exported to other areas. But over time, we quickly learned that what appeared to be well functioning processes, wasn’t so well functioning after all. We saw processes, issues, and trends that pointed to potential downstream failures. In essence, we were viewing processes that were actually broken, but appeared to be A-ok because of inefficient (albeit effective) workarounds.

“Asking why?” is a hard thing to do for processes that appears to be working well. It goes against our conventional thinking and instincts, and forces us to ask questions…LOTS of questions. And to answer those questions requires data…GOOD data. Doing this in what appeared initially to be a healthy process was at first difficult. You had to dig deeper to find the flaws and breakdowns. But by learning how to explore and diagnose an apparently strong processes, doing that in an environment of process


failure became second nature. In the end, we not only learned how to explore and diagnose both: The apparent “good processes”, and those that were inherently broken. And for the first time in that organization, a culture of problem solving began to take root.

Prior to that point, the organization looked at problems in a very different way. Performance areas were highlighted, and instinctively management proceeded to solve them. Symptoms were mitigated, while root causes were ignored. Instead of process breakdowns being resolved, they were merely transferred to other areas where those processes became less efficient. And what appeared to be the functioning parts of the business, were largely overlooked, even though many of them were headed for a” failure cliff”.

Indication, Analysis, and Insight

Few organizations invest in a “culture of problem solving” like the one I describe above. Even the one I reference above, deployed these techniques in a selected area where leadership was committed to creating that type of environment. But throughout industry, the investment in generating these skills, abilities and behaviors across the enterprise, pales in comparison to what is invested annually in our IT environment. And without bringing that into balance, the real value of our data universe will go largely unharvested.

There are a myriad of ways a company can address this. And some have. We can point to the icons of the quality movement for one, where cultures were shaped holistically across whole enterprises. More recently, we’ve seen both quality and efficiency (more critical to eliminating waste and driving ROI) get addressed universally within companies through their investments in the Six Sigma, and more recent Lean movements.

But if I had to define a place to start (like the business unit example I described above), I would focus on three parts of the problem solving equation, that are essential to building the bridge toward a more effective Enterprise Performance Management process.

  • Indication– We need to extend our scorecards and dashboards to begin covering more operational areas of our business. While most of us have “results oriented” scorecards that convey a good sense of how the “company” or “business unit” is doing, most have not gone past that to the degree we need to. And if we have, we’ve done it in the easier, more tangible areas (sales, production, etc). Even there however, we focus largely on result or lagging indicators versus predictive or leading metrics. And in cases where we have decent data on the latter, it is rarely ever connected and correlated with the result oriented data and metrics. How many companies have truly integrated their asset registers and failure databases with outage and plant level availability? How many have integrated call patterns and behavioral demographics with downstream sales and churn data? All of this is needed to get a real handle on where problems exist, or where they may likely arise in the future.
  • Analysis– When many companies hear the word “analysis”, they go straight to thinking about how they can better “work the data” they have. They begin by taking their scorecard down a few layers. The word “drill down” becomes synonymous with “analysis”. However, while they each are critical activities, they play very separate roles in the process. The act of “drilling down” (slicing data between plants, operating regions, time periods, etc.) will give you some good indication where problems exist. But  it is not  “real analysis” that will get you very far down the path of defining root causes and ultimately bettersolutions. And often, it’s  why we get stuck at this level. Continuous spinning of the “cube” gets you no closer to the solution unless you get there by accident. And that is certainly the long way home. Good analysis starts with good questions. It takes you into the generation of a hypothesis which you may test, change and retest several times. It more often than not takes you into collecting data that may not (and perhaps should not) reside in your scorecard and dashboard. It requires sampling events and testing your hypotheses. And it often involves modeling of causal factors and drivers. But it all starts with good questions. When we refer to “spending more time in the problem”, this is what we’re talking about. Not merely spinning the scorecard around its multiple dimensions to see what solutions “emerge”.
  • Insight– I’d like to say when you do the above two things right, insights emerge. And sometimes they do. But more often than not, insights of the type and magnitude we are looking for are usually not attainable without the third leg of this problem solving stool. Insight requires its own set of skills which revolve around creativity, innovation, and “out of the box” thinking. And while some of us think of these skills as innate, they are very much learnable. But rather than “textbook learning” (although there are some great resources on the art of innovation that can be applied here), these abilities are best learned by being facilitated through the process, watching and learning how this thought process occurs, and then working those skills yourself on real life problems.

Dont forget “line of sight”

A few days ago I wrote a post on the concept of “line of sight” integration of your performance management content and infrastructure. It’s important here to reinforce the importance of tracking all of this back to that underlying construct.

The process of operationalizing information, is but one of many in the “line of sight” chain from your company’s vision, to the operational solutions that manifest here. And this process of operationalizing change is only a beginning of the journey you will make to translating these gains into ROI for the business (what I’ve referred to before as “value capture” or “value release”).

So as you navigate your path through the above activities, its useful to keep it in context and remember that the desired end state is to enable your business to see that clear “line of sight” from the very top of the organization right down to the work-face.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

There’s not enough space in a post like this to elaborate as much as we could on each of these. And creating real cultural change clearly involves more than a few quick bullet points. But as has been my tradition in this blog, my intent is to introduce you to principles and techniques that can get you started on this journey, or increase the ability for you to navigate the road your on.


Author: Bob Champagne is Managing Partner of onVector Consulting Group, a privately held international management consulting organization specializing in the design and deployment of Performance Management tools, systems, and solutions. Bob has over 25 years of Performance Management experience and has consulted with hundreds of companies across numerous industries and geographies. Bob can be contacted at bob.champagne@onvectorconsulting.com

Apology Not Accepted! Beyond the empty words of a typical customer apology…

Sorry seems to be the hardest word…

Almost everyone, at least from my era, remembers that old song by Sir Elton John. While you may or not like his “style” of late, you’ve got to agree, the guy does make some good tunes!

But no, this is not a blog about music, or any other topic that could emanate from a reference to Sir Elton.This is actually a post about a serious condition that is infecting the culture of many businesses today. For lack of a better term, I’ll just call it “the propensity to apologize”.

We are all taught at a very early age to say “I’m sorry” any time we harmed another person. And throughout our lives, we say it often. We say it when we offend someone we like (or sometimes even those we don’t like!). We say it when we bump into someone accidentally on the street. We say it when we interrupt or treat someone inappropriately. Initially, the words “I’m sorry” had a quite literal meaning, often used after injuring or harming someone. But over time, they began to take on broader meanings, from expressing sympathy for someone’s loss to more general feelings of regret.

Real regret or “empty words”?

But like so many words that once had quite a literal meaning, the words “I’m sorry” are now used  for a wide array of purposes, and are heard repeatedly in conversations all around us. Just listen closely, and count how many times those words are spoken throughout a normal day. And while those words were once meant to “comfort” someone, they sometimes now have the opposite effect.

If you’ve ever spent time around someone in a 12 step recovery program, you know that the process of “making amends” are a big part of their journey. There is a whole body of literature on that very topic, but suffice it to say that anyone who really understands the concept of “amends”, will tell you that it goes way beyond the words “I’m sorry”. And while the spectrum of interpretation for the word “amends” can even vary widely; from the most literal definitions found in webster (“reparation or compensation for a wrong inflicted”), to a more fundamental willingness to do your part in ‘righting a wrong’, the principle remains the same. For those who take the words “I’m sorry” seriously, and who truly use them in the spirit that I believe they were intended, the words are more about ‘doing what you can to make the situation (or relationship) better’, than are about simply expressing regret or disappointment.

But today, those words seem to take on a much more shallow meaning and, more often than not, can actually have the opposite effect from “creating comfort” or “a commitment to repairing something that is broken”.

I was reminded of this when a family member told me of a recent trip he took. When sharing the details of his trip he said this to me:

“From the time I left my home until I got to my final destination, the words “I’m sorry ” were used 22 times…What the hell does that mean?”

In not one of those interactions did he feel that the words were sincere. He felt this mostly because they were expressed in such a casual manner that the “apology” appeared to him as simply a tactic used to get the customer to ‘move on’ in the process as it was designed. In other words, to him,  the expression ONLY meant that the agent (or whatever provider was saying the words) was telling him (the customer) something like this: ‘Look, I’m as inconvenienced by this as you are, but let’s face it, nothing is going to change the outcome, so lets both just move on’. Perhaps they were intended to be listened that way, or perhaps they weren’t; but they created that impression nonetheless.

There is a whole body of knowledge out there on how linguistics can generate a wide array of emotions, perceptions, and even somatic reactions in people. I won’t get into all that here, because we all know that we can be better speakers AND better listeners, and that doing so can often prevent these kind of interactions from ruining our day. So for the purposes of this post, I’m going only to focus on the “speaking” side of the equation, and perhaps a little on the culture of the organization behind the expression of the apology.

Ok, “you’re sorry”, now what?

In a business transaction,  the words “I’m sorry” are usually used after something in the transaction has gone awry- and a point at which the customer’s state of mind is, shall we say, “altered”. At this point, the customer often doesn’t give ‘one hill of beans’ about the words spoken, but instead just want the problem resolved. Sometimes that’s possible (often in more cases than not), and sometimes it isn’t. But when those words are spoken, there is often renewed “hope” (no matter how small)  that they will leave the exchange in “better shape” than when it was initiated. And when we look at it like this, that changes the game a bit.

So what would have to happen for the words “I’m sorry” to truly have a meaningful impact, and an outcome that both customer and provider felt better about?

Solving this problem is not an easy one. And it needs to involve things at the front line level in terms of the words, tone, and behavior of the person delivering them. But more importantly, it has to involve changes to the culture within which that person operates, and the way in which that culture views commitments. More specifically, the way in which commitments are made, managed, and delivered upon. After all, most if not all business transactions revolve around commitments.

There is a great body of knowledge written on the subject of “commitment management”, and I encourage you to spend some time exploring it. There are many practices that can help in this arena, all of which can be learned, shared, and embedded within the culture of your business. Some of them are referenced in my previous blogs, and I’ll make an attempt to consolidate those for you in the future.

Toward a “commitment based” culture…

But for our purposes here, let’s look at what those practices would look like in this specific example:

1. The tone and perspective from which the words were said, would come from a standpoint of “resolution” rather than that of a simple transaction. That is, there would be an intent to change something in the future, and yes, the front line rep would feel some accountability for making that happen, even if it’s simple escalation of the matter after the immediate transaction has concluded. While all of us want problems resolved in the ‘here and now’, we are certainly more “comforted” when we feel that there is an increased likelihood of a process fix, than we are when we are just serving as a ‘stopping point’ in a broken one.

2. The company and its leadership would have an effective process for seeking out (and acting on) feedback. At a minimum that means not punishing feedback, which unfortunately is what happens all too often (look to airline pilot protocols for some great practices here). But it also involves actually encouraging it, and acting on it when it comes to light. While feedback is often withheld out of fear of punishment (which there really is no excuse for in leadership these days), feedback is often withheld because the individual simply feels it will not be acted upon.

3. Acting on the feedback, and the results of fixes would become evident. Within short order, the employee would begin to see small changes in both the process and result, and would openly talk about what they were seeing. And ultimately, it would become visible to customers, little by little. And how would this happen, you ask?

4. It’s a little thing called measurement. In problem solving terms, we would call this the “M” in the DMAIC model (Define-MEASURE-analyze improve-control). It would involve an early action by leadership (perhaps initiated by front line management if necessary) to establish a baseline of the broken process, and a commitment to measuring and reporting future changes in performance. Only then will those changes have a chance of being noticed, and further improved upon.

It’s a big job, but start now!

Today, unfortunately,  the words of apology don’t even begin to scratch the surface of connoting real change. When they are spoken, they are simply an attempt by a provider to “get absolution” (in the form of a customer proceeding to the next step of the process) without having to do anything differently.

As I said in my last post, fixing a problem should start with solid leadership, as the basis for building a true “commitment based culture”. And the steps outlined above are only a glimpse of what is necessary to get there. But we can initiate change by recognizing what success looks like, and beginning to demonstrate these practices, even of they are only in the pockets of the business in which we reside and/or lead.

Next time you hear, or say the words “I’m sorry”...think bigger. Think less about it being a regretful end to a transaction, and more about it as a renewed commitment to excellence in delivery.


Author: Bob Champagne is Managing Partner of onVector Consulting Group, a privately held international management consulting organization specializing in the design and deployment of Performance Management tools, systems, and solutions. Bob has over 25 years of Performance Management experience and has consulted with hundreds of companies across numerous industries and geographies. Bob can be contacted at bob.champagne@onvectorconsulting.com

When Did “Common Sense” Go Extinct from the workplace?

When a Customer Service problem becomes an organizational one…

This evening, as I sat down to write this post, I originally envisioned that it would simply extend on some previous posts about Performance Improvement in the Customer Service and CRM arena. But as I thought through the examples I would use to illustrate my points, I realized just how much this issue touches the entire organization and its culture. So while my examples do revolve mainly around CS, I encourage you to reflect on the broader organizational implications, and by all means, feel free to offer your observations and experiences regardless of the process or function they relate to.

In reading articles, blogs and daily posts on Twitter, etc., you’re likely to find that most discussions focus on the newer channels of CRM. And while I agree that these mediums, largely Social Media and IT/ systems driven, I would venture to say that most of today’s frustrations from customers, are more heavily driven by the more traditional channels (via Call Center, or Face to face) for servicing customers. These more basic delivery channels still occupy the majority of interaction, and while I agree that over time we will see a sea change in that trend, we cannot afford to overlook the damage that is still being caused in the most basic forms of customer interaction.

An “all to common” scenario…

Within that context, let’s fast forward to a recent experience that one of my colleagues had with a CSR in an Insurance Company call center. The interaction went something like this:

  • Customer calls, responds to the voice prompts and spends about a minutes in the hold queue
  • CSR- “Thank you for calling xyz company, would you mind if I placed you on hold?”
  • Customer- “Well actually (click- customer is now speaking into dead silence), I am in my car and I really can’t hold because I may lose a signal and I don’t want to lose my place in the queue”
  • CSR (returns after about 3 minutes into the dead space)- “Thank you for calling xyz company, can I have your account number please?”
  • Customer- “Well let’s back up. You asked me a question of whether I could hold or not, but didn’t give me the opportunity to answer…Did you really want an answer because I was about to say that I could’t hold”
  • CSR- (dead silence/ implies some level of frustration)…followed by “Sir, can you please just give me your account number”
  • Customer- “Like I tried to say, when you clicked off the line, I’m in my car and don’t have it handy. Can you look it up by my phone number or some other way?”
  • CSR (exhales audibly as if inconvenienced)- “Fine, give me your phone number”
  • Customer: “xxx-xxx-xxxx”
  • Rep: (after proceeding through 3 steps of a verification process consuming another 30-45 seconds)- “OK, How may I help you?”
  • Customer: (Explains a bit about his recent storm loss, a roof leak in his kitchen caused by severe “ice damming”- about 2 minutes…)
  • Rep: (asks a few more questions)- what state/county are you located in?,When did the loss occur?, etc.
  • Rep- “Oh wait a second, are you calling about a home loss or an auto loss?”
  • Customer: (with slight sarcasm) “Well, last time I checked, “Ice damming in the kitchen, and roof leaks” don’t usually happen in cars and boats…”
  • Rep: “Well you’re in the auto claims area”
  • Customer: “Maybe I am, and I’m sorry about that, but the system didn’t give me an option to make that distinction”
  • Rep: “Yes, I know, its the same number for both”
  • Customer: Ok
  • Rep: “…so I am going to have to transfer you and will be a bit of a hold since they are quite busy today”
  • Customer: “Well, ok then, please transfer me”
  • Rep: “No problem, but before I do, I have a few questions…”
  • Customer: “Ok, but I’m in a hurry, because I said I’m in my car and I may lose my signal, and I don’t want to through all this again. In fact, Is there a direct number to the homeowners area if we get disconnected?”
  • Rep: “No, you’ll have to go through the same process; …but this will only take a few more seconds”
  • Customer: “…ok, but…”
  • Rep: “Is this your first time calling our claims center?
  • Customer: “yes”
  • Rep: “Were you happy with the serviceI provided you?”
  • Customer: “Ummmm…No, not yet” (again with a little more sarcasm)
  • Rep: “Sir I’m just trying to do my job”
  • Customer: “I know, but…”
  • Rep: “On a scale of 1-5, how would you…”
  • Customer (connection lost. Reason unclear.)

Now, while there were many areas of breakdown here, I would say there were three key ones in this specific exchange. Can you determine what they were?

Breakdowns abound…

First, the rep asked a question, for which she really had no desire to accept an answer to. No doubt, this is a process breakdown that starts with the company and the script it provides the rep with. But after the sarcastic response, and the fact that the customer was on his mobile (a scenario which is very common these days), she should have concluded that forging ahead with the “process” was going to have a bad result. I’d have to give the company an “F” for design of the process/ script, but I’d also flunk the rep for not recognizing the situation and course correcting as appropriate. (By the way, if this type of question is on your script, then either design your process to accept an answer, or change the words to, “sir I have to put you on hold for about x minutes”).

Second, was the verification process being deployed before finding out the right queue the customer needed to be in. Another clear “moment of truth”, if you will, that really failed the customer in this instance, mostly because there was no way for the customer to prevent it. The customer was now “hostage” inside of a “black hole” with no way out, and a cell signal that could very well crap out and leave him with having to replay this ugly scenario. Again, an “F” for the designers of the process, with little if anything the rep could have done to change it at that instance. So my grade for the rep would really have to be an “incomplete”, until I could see whether or not the rep actually communicated the process flaw to the company’s higher ups, and the nature and urgency with which she did so.

But the third breakdown was the main failure point in my view. If their were such thing as an “F-“, I’d hand it out to both the company and the rep. Sadly though, proceeding to a “survey” before the process is even started, is actually something that I experience very frequently. And every time I experience it, I have the same reaction: Anger, followed by amazement, followed by pure resignation to the fact that, for some companies, this is “as good as its going to get” under their current leadership.

Think about this for a second. We have actually allowed an objective of performance improvement  and the tools that enable it (which is really the basis for gathering customer feedback) become its most debilitating barrier to improvement. By asking (sometimes begging) for feedback as the process is playing out, it becomes very visibly all about YOU and not the CUSTOMER. And this goes well beyond “survey madness”. How many times is the customer simply trying  to get transferred to the right person, but instead has to withstand a 5-10 second “expression of gratitude” that often feels like 5 minutes? If we had better vehicles for tapping into the real needs and emotions of the customer (like those “dials” they ask people to use during presidential debates and speeches to detect emotional swings), we’d quickly learn that this stupid “exit interview” we put our customers through before a call transfer, or  upon completion, does NOTHING more than serve the company’s ego.

Organizational and Cultural implications…

Now while most of blame for all of this lies on the leadership of the company, the processes that are behind this madness, and perhaps even the CS community in general (we can’t let the vendors who design call centers, those who write the scripts, and the “survey happy” researchers off the hook here, can we?); I believe the employee carries at least some burden for the mess this continues to create. At some point, common sense needs to take over and put a stop to this. And as unfortunate as it may sound, in these types of cultures, that catalyst sometimes needs to start at the transaction/ front line level.

Ultimately, yes, this is a leadership problem. And its leadership that must create a culture of autonomy that will allow a front line worker to essentially do the manufacturing equivalent of “pushing the stop button on the assembly line”. And, yes, for it to become an embedded organizational value, that will take a lot of work in everything from skills and training, to processes and systems, to fundamental leadership values and behaviors.

But to the front line worker and lower levels of management, I think it is incumbent on you to take a risk, step out of the comfort zone, and apply some common sense to our everyday transactions. Often, management needs you to take their blinders off, and see the problems in clear daylight. And front line employees can be a catalyst in making that happen. But in the end, it will no doubt require stepping out of the  comfort zone.

And while it may be a bit naive to expect employees to take that kind of risk in this economy ( the risk that management will “punish that kind of speaking up” and /or continue to deploy a process as fundamentally broken as the one above), I think survival of the business might very well depend on it.


Author: Bob Champagne is Managing Partner of onVector Consulting Group, a privately held international management consulting organization specializing in the design and deployment of Performance Management tools, systems, and solutions. Bob has over 25 years of Performance Management experience and has consulted with hundreds of companies across numerous industries and geographies. Bob can be contacted at bob.champagne@onvectorconsulting.com