Walk 1.6km in my shoes
24 years ago I worked for an insurance company. I needed a new pair of basic men’s black business shoes. There was a shoe shop directly opposite my office. (It was one of a chain of shoe stores. More precisely, there were two stores in the chain which is, by definition, the shortest chain you can have.) I had a half hour lunchbreak so I zipped across the street. It was a typical shoe store – women’s shoes, women’s shoes, women’s shoes, men’s shoes! Almost instantly I spotted the style I was after but there wasn’t a pair of size elevens on the shelf. So, I went to Tanya the young woman behind the counter, “Hi, these are exactly the shoes I’m after. Do you have them in an eleven, you know, out the back?” Of course, there wasn’t an out-the-back. It was just a curtain across a brick wall. She did her tappity-tap-tap-tap on her keyboard and informed me, “We don’t have them here sir but our other branch, about 800 metres away, has them.”
I guess it took her two seconds to make that statement to me. While she was speaking, the portion of my brain responsible for consumer decision-making started assessing my options, “Well, I could scoot there now but I don’t really want to get back to work late. I could ask her to ring the other store to reserve them for me and I could get them after work or on the weekend, or maybe they could send them round and I could pick them up here tomorrow lunchtime…” Before I had a chance to verbalise any of these thoughts, it was at about this point that Tanya leapt over the counter and ran out of the store…
I did a double-take and stared blankly for a moment. Then I did a quick check of my armpits to see if it was me she was escaping from but that seemed OK. The other shop assistant led me across to the men’s crèche section in the corner with the fishing magazines and sat me down. Five or six minutes had passed when, as dramatically as she’d departed and with her forehead slightly aglow for her experience, Tanya reappeared in the doorway, replete with a shoebox on the side of which was a reassuring “11.”
If she had told me 1.6 kilometres ago that she would simply order in the shoes or ring and reserve them for me to go and pick up myself that would’ve ‘satisfied’ me as a customer. I’d tick that box in my head. There’s an often tossed around figure of sixty eight percent of customers who will shop elsewhere for other reasons such as price or location, even though they were perfectly ‘satisfied.’ Satisfaction will get you a tick a box in the brain of your customer. Mere satisfaction will not drive the loyalty or future behaviour of customers. Engaged people will.
That was 24 years ago and I have told that story hundreds of times in presentations and training programmes. I’m not on commission for the store but they’d turned me into an evangelical advocate. They’d created a story for me to retell on their behalf. I haven’t lived in that city for sixteen years but for quite a few years after that while I travelled with my work, I would make a point of buying my shoes from that store. It’s changed owners and management since then so I won’t say which store it was. Stores, companies, Government departments change and restructure all the time. Very few of them can be relied upon for consistency. People, individual people, on the other hand are strikingly consistent – for good or for bad. These days, any organisation having a history of transactions with a customer wants to call that a ‘relationship’. For all their investment in software and systems, organisations need to realise that people don’t have relationships with organisations – people have relationships with people.
Now, not everyone is designed physically or psychologically to hurdle 800-millimetre high counters but for that one sales assistant in that moment, it was right for her to do. Her management hadn’t implemented a policy that decreed to staff from on high, “THOU SHALT LEAP OVER COUNTERS AND RUN AT PACE…” What it did provide was a freedom for her to make that choice in that moment with me. She “only worked there” but she didn’t act like she only worked there. Her behaviour was a classic symptom of an all-too-rare phenomenon called Engagement.
Contrast this story with any number of experiences you‘ve had. Don’t just think about it in terms of you as a customer in a traditional retail store. Think about your interactions with people in workplaces – ringing a call centre, dealing with a colleague from another department, receiving goods from a supplier. How often do you deal with a Tanya? How often do you deal with a genuinely engaged person in a workplace? How much more often do you deal with people whose main goal at work is to consume oxygen?
My whole career I’ve been waiting to meet that old and wise ‘Obi Wan Kenobi’ boss who would take me aside, open up a desk drawer, pull out a manila folder and hand it to me. In that manila folder would be all the answers that every aspiring leader needed to know. But I know now, there is no one set of ‘answers’ for everyone and every situation. (And I’ve never met that ‘Obi Wan Kenobi’ boss although I’ve met way too many ‘Darth Vaders.’) The most likely answer to any question to any leader asking someone else they assume to be wiser should start with, “It depends.”
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