We still encounter many agents to whom employees are tools with which to process work on behalf of the customers. There is nothing wrong with that concept – except that the agents often treat their tools with much more care and consideration than they do their employees.
One such agent acquaintance of ours called us because he was having serious trouble with his employees. His turnover rate was high and he considered the employees who were staying with him as liabilities rather than as assets. He confided that he would have preferred to keep some of the more capable employees who had departed, but they had no loyalty and left him whenever better offers were encountered. His current employees weren’t motivated, had low morale, couldn’t make independent decisions but couldn’t even follow his specific directions. They tried hard and worked long hours but he felt that they didn’t work efficiently or intelligently, causing them to have to repeat many efforts when he found the mistakes that they had made originally. He suggested that he would have gotten rid of most of them if he could find better people who would stay with him.
This agent was a skilled woodworker as a hobby. When we visited his house, he proudly showed us a table saw that he had recently purchased for a considerable investment. Whenever he used it, he spent time cleaning and maintaining it, leaving it in immaculate condition for its next use. When we asked why he took such good care of this saw, he told us that it was a piece of fine equipment and a substantial investment for him. In order to keep it in top condition for a long time, he needed to keep it clean, oiled and well-maintained. I asked him why he would treat this mechanical tool so well and so carefully while ignoring his human “tools” at the office.
The agency’s employees are its greatest asset and its greatest expense. The success of the agency, like the success of the woodworking project are directly related to the performance of the tools, as well as that of the agent or the artisan. The employees far surpass any mechanical tool, however, because they have the ability to think independently and make decisions about their conduct. As opposed to the treatment of his saw, the agent did not “maintain” his staff at all. He would never have expected a mechanical tool to perform day after day and year after year without all of the care and maintenance he could give it. But that’s exactly what he did with his staff. He expected them to perform with no care, changing directions, ‘floating’ management — and to perform in an exemplary manner. He was shocked, surprised and hurt when they either performed poorly or decided that they, unlike a piece of machinery, did not have to continue to take abuse in the performance of their jobs.
After the analysis of his agency was complete, we suggested that he follow a number of rules to properly manage his employees:
1. Don’t ever ‘tell’ them what to do. If you would like them to perform a task, outline the task and ask them how they intend to accomplish it. You may even offer suggestions, but always ask if they concur or have other ideas. Remember, you haven’t (or shouldn’t have) hired your staff for their typing ability. If so, you’ve short-changed them and yourself. Most agents know that their staff has expertise in their field of endeavor and use them for what they know, not the speed of their processing.
2. Always ask the employee if they understand what’s been asked. Have them restate it back to you in their own words so you are sure they understood what you needed.
3. Always act with integrity. Don’t ask your employees to do something that even appears to be wrong or tainted. At best, they will object and question your request. At worst, they will simply do it in a robotic manner, knowing that they (and you) have done something dishonorable. There is no redemption for an incorrect act in the name of customer service. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong under any circumstances. No, the ends do not justify the means.
4. Be honest and consistent – Actions truly speak louder than words. All of the management and quality concepts that we spout are worthless if we don’t pursue those concepts through our own actions. And, believe me, your employees are watching you all of the time to determine if the philosophies you present are just words, or are concepts by which you live.
5. Catch your employees doing something right – Everyone makes mistakes and should be corrected at times. However, I trust that your employees perform admirably most of the time. If you find yourself critical of them, ask yourself how often you have praised them? Unless they deserve to be dismissed, they probably do at least nine praiseworthy efforts for every potential mistake that they make. Praise publicly and criticize privately. Praise graciously for good performance and guard yourself against criticizing the person. Most of the time a criticism is warranted for an action that has been taken or omitted, not because the intent of the employee was to perform poorly.
6. Be human and treat your employees similarly. You may own the agency but you all work together. They work with you, not for you. You count on their efforts to support you much more than they do yours to support them.
Morale and employee loyalty is a matter of perceptions. If the employees feel that you care about them and value their efforts, they will be loyal to you far longer than otherwise. If you share your victories with them instead of only your defeats, their morale will soar. If you don’t bring them down with ‘gloom and doom’ issues that can neither help them or you, they will be more consistent in their efforts. Remember to care for and maintain your most important business assets, your employees, as carefully as you would your most important personal assets.