One of the first bits of advice I received when setting out in management was to avoid original thought -  apparently it didn’t work in the automotive industry. As my mentor put it, you can always spot the pioneers, they’re the ones with the arrows in their back. His advice was to plagiarise with pride and intelligence. Look for best practice, learn about the mistakes they made on implementation and do your best to avoid repeating them. It seems cynical but it stood me and the various management teams I worked with over the years in good stead. 

Good advice abounds, it is just a matter of discerning what to use and what to discard. I often found consultants a handy source, even though I rarely used them. I had a feeling that most of them had a sound premise somewhere in their presentation, although buffed up to include lots of irrelevancies to justify their often-extortionate fees. In the early '90s we had one come along to Leyland Trucks who tried very hard to sell us an extensive package based on activity sampling. We thought this to be an excellent idea but wondered why we needed an outsider to do the measurement and the diagnosis. Instead we introduced our own version where the staff involved did their own assessment and their own analysis, after a simple in-house training package. The end result was not just a significant improvement in productivity but a whole cohort of employees who understood the concept of value-added activity and the need to maximise it. We wouldn’t have had the latter if we had engaged the consultant instead of engaging the workforce. 

However, I wouldn’t want to tarnish the whole sector with one brush. One of my most fortunate experiences was coming across Chris Daffy (Once a Customer, Always a Customer, Oak Tree Press) a couple of years before the buy-out at Leyland resulted in our original owner becoming our major customer. Daffy is passionate about customer excellence and his talks are imbued with lots of simple but hugely effective learning points as well as being humorous and memorable. Try out one of his You Tube videos and you will probably end up an instant convert like me.  

Armed with his influence I went to all the workforce and stressed that, despite any lingering animosity they may have had to our former owners, a common problem with satellite operations, the latter were now our customers and we had to treat them as such - with passion and excellence. Unfortunately, my talk was off the cuff and I, for some reason, thought saying, "In future, we put out the red carpet for our major customer all of the time.  If any one of them comes along and sneezes, we’ll be there with the handkerchief," would be motivational. Not my finest hour but you get the drift. Nevertheless, the message got home and for the five years of the buyout our relationship was truly excellent and much healthier than when we were part of the same group. The same happened when we became the European assembler for one of the biggest Japanese companies in the world. This attention to detail resulted in scores of visits from their HQ in Japan by key influencers fascinated that such diligence from the entire workforce could come out of the UK. 

So, the message that the customer is king, or perhaps royalty in these more enlightened times, is as valid then as it ever was. As Daffy teaches, customer excellence brings repeat business where price is only one part of the decision-making process, and not the major one. It also costs ten times more to find a new customer than to retain an existing one. 

However, I am worried that this approach can lead to some in management bypassing the workforce and using an unhealthy obsession with customer focus as an excuse not to manage properly. The prime example here is the NHS. They have a set of principles and I think it is number four which says something like, "The patient will be at the heart of everything we do". Now, I have every sympathy for anyone who manages in the Health Service. Their effectiveness is blunted by the constant organisational changes which makes the place feel as if it is permanently in a state of bureaucratic flux and the fact that their external masters, in all their forms, demand so much of the time. As a consequence, management spend too much time having to look outwards. I get the impression that the rest of their scarce time is dominated by the outcomes and metrics of the patient experience. All this is very laudable but the consequence can be that people management is neglected and motivation left to the joy of being part of a local team or the vocational nature of their role in society. 

There may be good excuses as to why this may be the case but it doesn’t have to be that way. I came across one remarkable turnaround led by a chief executive who firmly put his employees at the centre of the managerial universe. By fundamentally changing the management/leadership paradigm, major parts of the whole 6000-strong trust became engaged with astounding results, around patient service and every other metric. One of the most telling experiences was when he became a porter for the day and, as he recounted, putting on the brown overall rendered him invisible. His cheery greetings were generally ignored by even senior colleagues who, as he related ruefully afterwards, "simply looked through him". It was difficult not to conclude that this 24/7 obsession directly with the patient experience was neither healthy nor productive. 

This is not, unfortunately, an approach solely restricted to mega-public institutions. It is a tendency that I and others have observed in SMEs. Focusing directly on the customer may be a lot easier than trying to do it through the workforce but it is both risky and possibly counter-productive. In these situations, the sole feedback the workforce gets is often only when errors have been made and culpability is sought. Here, there is an ever-present danger that the reaction will be more akin to blame avoidance and "who shot John?" rather than swift and exceptional problem resolution where the delight experienced by the customer in rectification outweighs the initial frustration caused by the error. Engaging employees holistically in the customer experience gives them a balanced view of the world and is more likely to be motivational. 

So, following the philosophy that the customer is indeed royalty is certainly one I would advocate, but the centre of the managerial universe has always got to be the workforce. Customer delight is achieved through them, not over them. In truth, experience tells you that customer excellence and employee engagement are essential companions and not competitors. 

John J Oliver 

Professor John J Oliver OBE is a leading expert on radical employee engagement and author of best-selling book, Team Enterprise Solutions. He is one of our expert Masterclass speakers and former CEO of Leyland Truck. At Leyland Trucks, Europe’s largest truck manufacturer, he transformed the company from an unprofitable, declining truck-maker into the most cost-efficient operation of its kind in Europe through employee engagement and shares his failures and ultimate successes during his Masterclass on our LEAD™ programme.

To hear from John in person, get in touch with Jo Draper here about joining our next LEAD™ programme, starting in January 2021, also now available online. 

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