ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - March 2002


Issue Highlight — Restoration
Peter Block's musing about a home restoration project serves as an excellent metaphor for issues in the cellar of our mind: “In our larger communities, we treat the inner city as a cellar that we do not want to enter....To enter this world, we would have the conversations that we have been avoiding.”

Your Employees Know More Than You—So Listen!

Bob Patterson, America’s no. 3 self-help guru, and title character in the new ABC sitcom, claims to be the author of the fictitious books, I Know More Than You and its sequel I Still Know More Than You.

He’s not the only one. In many ways, your employees know a lot more than you do about at least three things:

  • What it’s really like to work for your organization
  • What they need to do their jobs better
  • What your customers are saying about your company, its products and services

Every week (if not every day) we are asked via our Web site, “What can my company do to become an Employer of Choice?” We’re sure the questions are well intended, and that the questioners (mainly HR professionals and small business owners) are sincere. Well, we’ve got an answer for you.


That’s it. Listen. Really listen! Listen to what goes on in your place of work. You may be surprised at what you learn about what it’s like to work where you do, what your people need, and what your customers think of you.

1. What’s it really like here?

Recently, I had to call my HMO to change doctors because the one I had was anxious to get back to practicing medicine rather than put up with the absurd and medically questionable practices of so many HMOs. Click on to hear what happened. If you have the patience to listen to all two and half minutes of it, I promise you one of the best laughs you’ll get today. Be sure not to miss the punch line. But after you reflect on what you hear, you’ll probably agree it’s not all that funny.

Listen to the audio file! The whole thing. I mean it! Because in all likelihood, your employees hear the same kind of nonsense from their (make that your) carrier, and I want you to remember it well, and worry about it just a little.

My bet is that when you advertise open positions via the newspaper, Internet, or simple word of mouth, you make some reference to having “excellent benefits.” But do you really know how “excellent” your benefits are?

You probably don’t suggest to job prospects that they will have to wade through three to five minutes of automated telephone attendant nonsense, manually enter all their personal information at least twice, pray to get a half-way intelligent human on the phone, then arm wrestle an eight-ton paper-eating gorilla to resolve a simple medical coverage issue on a policy they’re paying for!

You certainly don’t suggest it if you’ve never called the number yourself, or never listened to employees who have.

2. What do you need to do your work?

The New York City Fire Department wouldn’t have dreamed of sending its people into the rubble of the collapsed World Trade Center without being absolutely sure they were as prepared as they could be for what they were about to encounter.

What army would send soldiers to the front lines to do battle without knowing they had had the training to do the job? The answer—the army that’s about to lose.

So why do some employers think it’s OK to put people in contact with paying customers without providing the training necessary to do the job?

I called Sprint recently to take care of a billing problem, and spoke to no fewer than 10 (that’s right—10!) different people on their payroll during a two-hour desperate attempt to pay my bill. Nine of them were utterly incompetent, unprepared, unmotivated, untrained, and completely unable to do what was required of them.

One young man had such an inadequate command of the English language that, by his own admission, he was sometimes “scared to talk English with my customers.”

But wait before you accuse me of xenophobia. My frustration isn’t directed at this poor guy trying to earn a living. I don’t care where he was born. Here’s what I want to know. Who’s the uncaring bozo at Sprint who placed this man in the path of angry customers, in a telephone support role, without so much as making sure he has fluency in the language spoken by almost all of his customers?

3. Your customers are talking. Are you listening?

Some people do listen to their customers. And this one may surprise you. As we told you in our interim article after September 11 (, we wrote a number of lawmakers to express our views on the impending bailout of the airline industry.

I never actually heard from my representative, but I did hear from the member who represents some of my neighbors (does the word “gerrymander” mean anything to you?). The same day I sent my form e-mail, Florida Representative Ander Crenshaw sent a personal reply. (He doesn’t know me from you.) It was fairly lengthy, substantive, thoughtful, and get this—it was not a form letter. It couldn’t have been. The guy quoted parts of my message and referred to specific items no one could have known without actually reading it.

I’m not naive. Maybe it wasn’t Crenshaw himself who penned the reply (or maybe it was), but it was far more personal and responsive than anything I’ve ever seen come from an elected official.


We have high-speed cable Internet access in our Florida office. I won’t mention the name of our provider, but its initials are AT&T. If you know anyone who works in “customer service” for the Broadband division of this company, stop reading this, right now, go find them, and give them a hug. They need it. Because all day, every day, their employer puts them on a collision course with some really unhappy campers.

I won’t bore you with my sad tale of woe regarding the endless array of technical problems we’ve had over the last couple of months, which, by the way, have nothing whatsoever to do with the tragedies of September 11.

Suffice it to say that I, or others in our office, have had to make more than a dozen calls to technical “support” since the beginning of August.

On the first such call, I was “welcomed” and asked by the disembodied voice on the other end to enter my phone number—twice. If you listened to the audio file mentioned above (like you were supposed to), this will have a familiar ring.

When I finally reached a “technician,” he again asked me my phone number. Hello???!!! Have you ever heard of caller ID? Before telling him the primary reason for my call, I asked him to pass along to his manager how annoying it was to punch in my number twice only to be asked for it again.

Because the company has been unable to attract and retain a stable of qualified and motivated technicians to their broadband business, it took many calls to finally resolve (temporarily) our problems. Without exception, every call proceeded as follows:

  • Call
  • Enter phone number—twice
  • Wait a long time
  • Tell my phone number to the person who finally answers
  • Tell them how annoying this is
  • Receive a promise to tell their manager that I feel this is annoying

On my umpteenth call, after going through the previous six steps, there was a pause. The woman on the phone lowered her voice. “If I’m being recorded, I’ll probably get fired, but maybe that would be good. We’ve all told management about this problem, and a bunch of other ones. The trouble is that there isn’t a manager in this building who cares enough about anything we say to make a difference. So we’ve stopped telling them. And that’s the truth. There, I said it,” she said, and breathed what sounded like a sigh of relief.

For her sake, I hope she finds a more worthy employer, and soon.

Please, for the sake of your business, listen to what your customers and employees are saying. And more important, listen to what they’re not saying.

If you do, you’ll know even more than Bob Patterson.

Reprinted from www.ContentedCows Web site with permission of Richard Hadden (far left) and Bill Catlette, co-authors, Contented Cows Give Better Milk. Hadden and Catlette speak to audiences worldwide about the bottom-line value of being an Employer of Choice. They may be reached at” (c) 2001 Contented Cow Partners, LLC.





Links for more of the story

For a list of “10 Ways Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden are NOT like Bob Patterson,” click on this link: .

If you’ll click on this link, you’ll hear an actual recording of what took place when I phoned my health insurance carrier recently to change the “primary care physician” on my HMO policy.

March 2002 News for a Change Homepage

 In This Issue...
Making Change Stick
AQP “Quest for Quality” Chapter Keeps on Going and Going and …
Denta +: A Case Study in Exceptional Customer Experience Your Employees Know More Than You–So Listen!
Contact Center Employee Satisfaction and the Bottom Line
Funky Business and Taming Talent
Upcoming AQP Courses at a Glance...
What’s Up?

Peter Block Column


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