I wrote a column at the beginning of the year and raved about the excellent customer service experience I had on a cruise to the Pacific. I talked about delayed service that we had gotten in the dining room and how the head of food services had sought us out the following evening at a different restaurant and apologized profusely, sent chocolate covered strawberries to our cabin, and invited us to a special lunch with other passengers who had been similarly inconvenienced.
Clearly the response was above and beyond what I expected. I recently took a subsequent and shorter cruise with the same line, a little smaller ship, and we also encountered a few “service” problems. This time, there was a very different response. Why would that be? It was the same company, same product and same policies, so why was one situation so positively memorable and the subsequent situation so average and disappointing?
The difference is leadership. One leader set a tone that was very different than the other. That style of leadership created a very different environment or climate for employees and passengers, and led to very different results.
Let me back up a minute to explain that I teach senior managers about leadership and organizational climate. Organizational climate is the environment a manager creates for his or her people that sets the tone for how things get done. The approach I use in my work says that climate consists of six dimensions: flexibility, responsibility, standards, rewards, clarity and team commitment. Each can be defined on a continuum from low to high, and higher is better. They can be measured, changed and directly affect employees’ performance.
Here are my definitions for each of the six dimensions:
- Flexibility: Do unnecessary rules and policies exist? How hard or easy is it for new ideas to be accepted?
- Responsibility: How well do people understand what they are supposed to do and how their work fits into the larger organization’s mission?
- Standards: How much emphasis is put on improving performance and whether mediocrity is tolerated?
- Rewards: Do employees get a balance of positive and constructive feedback? What is being rewarded?
- Clarity: Do I understand what I’m supposed to accomplish and how it fits into the bigger picture? If I have a question, do I know who to ask to get an answer?
- Team Commitment: Are employees proud to belong to this organization? Will people demonstrate discretionary effort when the situation arises?
Now back to my vacation. On the first cruise, our dinner entrée took 30 minutes to arrive after our appetizer. The cruise director set a tone that “delighting” customers was the objective of this trip. The response to the slow service was to come to meet us the next evening and apologize. Strawberries were sent to the cabin and a special lunch was arranged for those affected. Using my climate dimensions, I would say that the head of food services, who is directed by the cruise director, showed flexibility in deviating from the plan. He took responsibility for the problem. He was clear about who was responsible for what. There was a lot of team commitment when he said, “This is not how we do things around here.”
So although there was an initial problem, the leader took the opportunity to send a strong message to his employees and his guests about how the company operates.
Now on to the second cruise. There were two incidents involving breakfast – one in the middle of the cruise and the second at the end. The first time, the meal took forever to arrive. When it did arrive there was no syrup for the pancakes and no cream for the coffee. I had to get up and find a waiter to get what I needed. The second time, my wife and I were seated for breakfast and placed our orders. Two other couples were seated after us and received their meals while we waited for ours. I called our waiter over and said, “We sat down before those two couples were seated. They have their food and we don’t. Why is that?” In this situation, standards and clarity were a problem. There was no sense of urgency to fix the problem. When we left the restaurant, there was a weak attempt to apologize and blame the problem on the kitchen.
Conclusion: Same company, same product, different geography, but the big difference was the leader’s style and the environment it created for employees and passengers. The environment affected performance and whether or not a customer will come back.
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