A friend of mine walked into his son’s room to leave a piece of mail on his desk when he noticed an open thank-you note. Though my friend’s son is a great kid, it surprised him because it’s not very often that 15-year-olds receive thank-you notes. When my friend looked at the note, he saw that it was signed by his English teacher. It read:
Thank you for working so hard in class and quietly kicking butt! Good luck with all your cool activities outside of school. I have no doubt you will be successful in whatever you do!
When my friend relayed the story and the note, two thoughts immediately went through my head. First, what a thoughtful teacher to end the year on a high note by thanking each student for the hard work they put into the class. Second, this teacher has her priorities in the right place.
Though she may not have been thinking of her notes in business terms, she was putting her customers first. So often as leaders we get pulled in a variety of directions from employees, board members, vendors, and shareholders. Yet by putting our customers first, we end up serving these other audiences in the process: this idea reminds me of a great conversation with former CEO of Home Depot, Frank Blake.
Blake turned Home Depot around on the heels of the 2007 recession. One of the tools he used to spur change was a symbolic one where he showed everyone in the company an inverted management pyramid and stressed the importance of front-line employees and their connection with the customer. Notice the important nuance to his approach. He put his front-line employees in a place of prominence.
Blake’s strategy revolved around reinvigorating the stores’ service culture by putting the customers at the top of the pyramid, employees immediately below and management at the bottom. He viewed his role as an aggressive listener so he could institute changes that benefited the customer and honored employee feedback.
Blake’s approach highlights a growing trend that many customer-focused leaders talk about: If you listen to your staff and take care of them, they’ll take care of your customers. In other words, putting customers first is a one-two punch that incorporates your employees’ role in the fight to give them great customer service.
Ask yourself if your decisions are guided by relationships with the direct customer and if you have employees like Ben’s teacher who can provide the most immediate feedback. Then consider an approach like Frank Blake’s and create an environment where people feel free to say what they think. Then get ready to listen.
*The names in this thank-you note are pseudonyms.