Sunday, July 27, 2008

Do Your Metrics Manage Meaning?

Hello from Arizona! I’m here for two weeks, the guest of the marvelous Kathie Lingle, executive director of the Alliance for Work-Life Progress. It’s a sort of cowgirl’s holiday. While I’m thoroughly enjoying the change of scenery, I am here to work. My mission: to research a speech I’m giving to the Arizona SHRM state council's annual convention in September (you are coming, aren’t you?). My topic is one of my favorites -- Sustain Your Flame! Keep Alive the Mission and Meaning of Your HR Career. And I’m here to interview HR folks who love their work in Arizona. I hope to post their interviews and photos on a specially created website.

My plan has been to fill my days with interviews and between interviews take photos of typical Arizona scenes, like sunset vistas, dusty cowboy boots, bucking broncos and saguaro cacti. But you know what? At the risk of overstating the obvious, it’s just too darn hot to get out of the car. (At 111 degrees, it just stops being a novelty and starts getting really annoying, know what I mean?)

Okay, so this is the real reason why I’m writing today: On my cell phone’s call log this morning there are four entries of the same phone number that I tried calling just seconds apart from each other. No I’m not a stalker. This is the phone number to a way schmancy new cardiac hospital where one of my dearest friends had open-heart surgery late this past week. Why did I call this hospital four times this morning to find out how she’s doing? Well, actually, that’s exactly what I’d like to know. More specifically, what I’d like to know is why did I have to call this hospital four times?

Call #1:
After dutifully pressing 3 for patient update, and then dutifully waiting for my call to be taken in the order in which it was received, I heard the receiver pick up on their end and then get hung up.

Call #2:
I got through to an operator who heard that I wanted a patient update (that was Press 3 after all), transferred me with no fanfare to the cardiac unit, which rapidly launched an outgoing message saying that their office is closed for the weekend.

Call #3:
See call Call #1.

Call #4:
I got a different operator, explained to her that I wanted to get a patient update but when I was transferred to the cardiac unit, well, finish reading Call #2.

Operator: “Their office is closed on the weekends.” I could practically see her drowsily reaching for the transfer button so I responded quickly.

Me: “I just want to get a patient update. Isn’t this the right number for that information?”

Me in my head:
“Oh, I’m sorry, am I keeping you awake?”

(after hearing the patient’s name, my name, and my relationship with her): “She’s in ICU right now.”

Which is, actually, great news. That means things are going as they should be. (Whoever thought that hearing that a friend is in ICU would be good news? Well, it is.)

I thanked her for her information and she seemed oddly surprised and pleased that I would take that extra second to thank her. Which surprised but didn’t please me.

I get that working at anything based on repetition and anonymity can be a real drag. Throw in the fact that you’re timed for the average amount of time you take to push the customer along (which might account for the deliberate hang-ups), and the probability of joy in the workplace sinks even lower. And I suppose that it’s no picnic talking to callers who are on the verge of freaking out, worrying about their beloved. But I’m sure that holding in our hearts and minds the meaning behind the work we do has got to be inspiring at least a little bit.

You probably know the story of the bricklayer who knows the difference between building a wall and building a cathedral (if you don’t, Google it, it’s as common as the sand dollar story). So I won’t slow this blog down by retelling it.

But I would like to invite managers to take a fresh look at how they talk about the job expectations of their direct reports. If you’re measuring performance by accuracy, by speed, by completion of the encounter with the customer, you’re missing a huge piece of the story.

Are you also talking about the meaning behind every job that you’re in charge of? Do your people know how their job soothes the human condition? (Unless we’re talking paid assassins and drug dealers, there’s an essential human meaning behind every job – at least there can be.)

Do you even know what the meaning is behind the jobs that you’re responsible for?

This isn’t rocket science or calculus. There only three reasons why people enter into a transaction with each other:
  • To relieve pain
  • To restore hope
  • To bring beauty into the world
In my particular case, my need to transact with the call center this morning was to relieve pain – to be reassured that my dear friend what resting comfortably right where she should be. The pain was minor, to be sure, especially when compared with the anxious needs of other people calling that number this morning. I can only imagine what it must have been like to call inquiring about a loved one who had suffered a coronary, for instance, and have to call back three more times just to get basic information. That would be enough to turn me into Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment.

But these people treated my call as though I was asking for data about my Social Security account on a Sunday morning.

Every job has its tedium, to be sure. But it’s never tedious for the customer – no matter whether we’re talking ICU status of a dear friend or calling our credit card company about frequent flier miles. There’s meaning in every transaction that we do.

If you have a cadre of sleepy looking customer service folks, it’s time to revisit with them the meaning behind the work they do. The ones who wake up and take personal responsibility for their customers are the ones you want to hang on to.

The ones who don’t? Well. Maybe it’s naptime.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great blog entry -- and not just because I'm in it, Cowgirl. You are spot on about caring and connecting. Isn't that what we all want when you distill away all the noise and distraction in life? -KL