Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
A few years back, I took a consulting job that landed me in a backwater hotel in the Midwest for several weeks a month. The service was simply horrendous. The room service was so sporadic I dubbed it “the food lottery.” Wake-up calls rarely came on time—if at all. And this was also the only hotel where I repeatedly held the following conversation.
Clerk: I’m sorry Mr. Patterson, but we don’t have a room for you tonight.
Me: But I opted for a “guaranteed” room. I guaranteed to pay for the room no matter what and you guaranteed to hold the room for me no matter what.
Clerk: Yes, Mr. Patterson, I see here on your record that your room is guaranteed.
Me: So, how do you define the word “guaranteed” in this part of the country?
Of course, my snarky remark never did any good. “Guaranteed” meant that the chagrinned clerk sent me to a cheap facility twenty miles away. To make up for my “inconvenience,” the hotel picked up my bill—which meant that my client (who was paying my expenses) got a free room. I got a long trip and a lumpy mattress.
Since the nearest other decent facility was more than a half an hour away, I eventually decided to talk with the hotel manager about my concerns. He politely scheduled a dinner with me and listened patiently as I told him of the place’s many failings. At this point, he politely excused himself from our dinner for a couple of minutes. Two minutes later, the eager manager was back with me sharing a plate of chicken wings.
When I asked the manager where he had gone, he explained that he had to work out the final security arrangements for tomorrow.
“Security arrangements?” I asked.
“Yes,” he explained. “The President of the United States is staying here tomorrow night so I had to touch base with the secret service.”
“You’re having dinner with me the night before the President is coming? Shouldn’t you be spending your time preparing for him?”
“No,” the manager assured me. “The President will be gone after tomorrow, but you’ll continue to be one of our valued guests for months to come.”
It struck me as odd that this manager could be so dead-on when it came to how he treated me over dinner and yet this very same fellow managed a facility that was so amazingly customer unfriendly. Nevertheless, after having dinner with a complaining client, I sensed the manager would ensure that things were about to change.
But then doubts set in. What if the manager verbally abused his staff for how poorly they had treated me, and as a result, I became a target for a whole crew of disgruntled employees? Envisioning a crowd of employees taking turns spitting on my food, I finished with the following request.
“Now, sir I ask that you not mention me by name to others. I’d appreciate changes that improve experiences for everyone—changes that affect policies and systems. In short, work on procedures, not on me.”
“Not to worry,” said the eager hotelier as he left the table. “I’ll be the picture of discretion.”
The next morning my 7:00 A.M. wake-up call came at 6:00 A.M. “Could this be revenge?” I wondered as I lay there rubbing my eyes. Then, removing any doubt, the phone jangled at 6:15, 6:30, 6:45, and 6:50—but not at 7:00. Oh yes, it was revenge.
However, once staff members recovered from the initial onslaught from their manager, I was given the royal treatment. Chicken wings that came in a stack of ten for everyone else came in a bundle of fifteen for me. A member of the kitchen staff always called me to see if the room service was to my satisfaction. All of my meals were accompanied by a free dessert. (I refuse to think about what they did with my food.) And here’s where it gets really weird. Housekeeping personnel—not just the front desk clerks who read my name on my credit card—greeted me by name. To create such a widespread reaction, the manager must have posted my photo in the employee break room.
Unfortunately, there was no improvement for anyone else. Instead of a system wide program for improving the overall customer experience, the manager had instituted a program for improving Kerry Patterson’s customer experience. He essentially created “Mr. Patterson’s Customer-Service Program.”
I was recently reminded of this experience while watching a perky consumer advocate on the nightly news. The advocate heard about Eleanor—a little old lady who had been charged three times for her cable installation. Despite several complaints, the evil company had refused to correct her bill until the spunky advocate (and his TV crew) showed up at their front desk. They immediately fixed the bill and even threw in a year’s worth of expensive subscription channels for free!
Of course, all the advocate really did was shame the cable company into creating “Eleanor’s Customer Service Program.” They didn’t fix the system or the culture or anything that would avert the problem for others.
As the week rolled on, the same consumer advocate struck a blow against poor customer treatment of all kinds—forcing a local gas station to create “Tim’s Safety Program,” a restaurant to create “Maria’s Food-Quality Program,” and a car rental company to invent “Bertha’s Cost-Assurance Program.” All of these one-off solutions were touted as great successes by the news team while (I’m willing to bet) the affected companies continued to supply the rest of their customers with six chicken wings and nary a wake-up call. Why? Because, as near as I could tell, nobody ever fixed the systems that allowed, and often encouraged, the problems to arise in the first place.
Now, I realize my musings are nit-picky when it comes to chicken wings, but when these types of one-off solutions are applied to grave circumstances, it can lead to grave results. Consider the time I interviewed a group of healthcare specialists who complained about a physician who rarely followed medical protocol, putting his surgery patients at risk. They referred to him as “Dr. Death.” The rather cynical medical team went so far as to ensure that friends and family never checked into surgery when “Dr. Death” was on duty. In short, they designed a safety program for each of their acquaintances and let the chips fall where they may with strangers. As was the case with the hotel manager and the consumer advocate, they dealt with the instance, not with the systems.
Now don’t get me wrong. When you face problems, you need to fix them. But here’s my point. You also need to ask if the steps you’re taking do nothing more than fix the incident while allowing similar problems to continue unfettered.
The solution to these idiosyncratic and highly myopic reactions is actually rather simple. When you see a chronic problem, deal with all the potential sources that are leading to the wrong behaviors. Note the plural. Look not for the root cause, but for the root causes. With large problems, you can bet several forces are leading to the inappropriate behavior. This requires you to turn to systems, methods, equipment, and policies—as well as the effect of opinion leaders and the formal reward system.
So there you have it. Do us all a favor. The next time you become aware of a problem, don’t merely fix it for Eleanor or Tim or Maria. Instead, make changes in your underlying systems and methods. Fix the problem for the rest of us.